BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662)


"Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of this.
All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endavour then, to think well; this is the principle of morality."

--Pascal Pensees 347


Pascal was a child prodigy, who was educated by his father. He was a mathematician of the first order. At 16 he wrote the Essai pour les coniques which was published in 1640. In 1642 he invented a calculating machine to help his father, who served as Royal Tax Commissioner at Rouen. Pascal is often credited with the discovery of the mathematical theory of probability, and he also made serious contributions to number theory and geometry.

In 1646 Pascal learned of Toricelli's experiments with the barometer and the theory of air preassure. These experiments involved placing a tube of mercury upside down in a bowl of mercury. Pascal repeated Toricelli's experiments and did more work which led to the publication of Experiences nouvelles touchant le vide in 1647. Aristotle had argued against the atomists that nature abhors a vacume. This was a view still strongly held in the seventeenth century, even by such anti-Aristotelians as Descartes and Hobbes. In the Experiences Pascal explains the reasons why a genuine vacume could and did exist above the mercury in the barometer. In defending these conclusions against Father Noel, rector of the College de Clermont in Paris, Pascal gave one of the clearest statements of scientific method in the seventeenth century.

Pascal became involved with a religious movement in France know as Jansenism after its founder Cornelis Jansen (1585-1636) in 1646 when Pascal's father had an accident and was cared for by Jansenists. After Pascal's father died in 1651, his sister became a nun at a Port Royal convent run by the Jansenists. From 1652 to 1654 Pascal turned away from religious interests spending his time with gamblers, womanizers and free thinkers. However, on the night of Nov. 23, 1654 Pascal had a conversion experience. In 1655 Pascal met Antoine Arnauld who was the leading Jansenist philosopher and theologian. In the Provincal Letters Pascal defended Arnauld and Jansenism against the Jesuits.

Pascal was enormously influenced by the writings of Michel de Montaigne, the great French Renaissance skeptic. Pascal, like Montaigne, is a fideistic skeptic. On Pascal's view, reason can only work from first principles, deducing propositions from them, it cannot establish the truth of those first principles. First principles come from natural feelings, but these provide no guarantee of their truth. Science and mathematics both rest on uncertain foundations. Only through submission to God can we gain certain knowledge. On the other hand, Pascal like other Jansenists, rejects Montaigne's egoism and other aspects of his thought as well. Pascal goes on to propose his famous wager to show that it is reasonable to believe in God. Either God exists or he does not, and we cannot use reason to determine which alternative is true. However, both our present and our future lives may be affected by the alternative we choose. Since choosing to believe that God exists may lead to eternal life and happiness, and nothing is lost if we are wrong about the other choice, it is better to accept the theistic alternative.


Pascal Time Line

1623 June 19, born in Claremont the son of Etienne Pascal a minor noble and government official.
1626 Mother dies.
1631 Etienne moves to Paris and directs his children's education based on the pedagogy of Montaigne. Blaise proves to be exceptional at mathematics.
1638 Etienne goes into hiding after opposing a fiscal measure of Richelieu but leaves the children in Paris.
1639 Blaise's sister, Jacqueline, appears in a play before Richelieu after which he not only pardons Etienne but appoints him tax collector at Rouen.
1642 Blaise begins to work on his calculating machine to assist his father in the computation of taxes.
1646 Etienne is injured and is cared for by two Jansenists who convert the family to this strict form of Christianity.
1647 Visits by Descartes and discussion on atmospheric pressure and the function of the barometer.
1648 Pascal returns to Claremont. Writes treatise on conic sections.
1650 Returns to Paris.
1651 Etienne dies and Jacqueline joins the convent at Port-Royal.
1654 November 23, a two-hour ecstatic vision leads to his conversion. The account of this vision is kept in the lining of his coat at all times.
1655 January 7, takes a retreat to Port-Royal where he defends Arnauld against the Jesuits who sought to expell him.
1656 Appearance of the first of the Provicial Letters.
1658 Lectures on his apologetics to the leaders of Port-Royal.
1659 Comes down with the illness that will lead to his death. Works in brief periods of relief from suffering.
1661 Jacqueline dies. Port-Royal closed after official condemnation of Jansenism.
1662 August 17, Blaise Pascal dies in the house of one of his sisters.
1670 Publication of his Thoughts which he had worked on sporadically the last four years of his life.

Pascal Time Line Sources

Bibliography