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A Man of Science and of Faith, Remote Yet Contemporary

Updated on May 14, 2016
John Paul Quester profile image

Paul is a mostly retired academic; he holds advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) | Source
The Pascaline
The Pascaline | Source

Scientist and Inventor

I often marvel at the variance of individual abilities and achievements that characterizes our species. I was reminded of it as I revisited a corner of my library which sheltered a slim volume that I had not perused in a long time. It bore the simple title 'Pensées' [Thoughts], and was composed by an illustrious Frenchman: Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).

Pascal was described as "a man of slight build with a loud voice and somewhat overbearing manner”[1]. His body did not serve him well. His health was very fragile, and he was in pain most of his life, not least because of severe migraines which afflicted him since his younger years. As for his personality, he was " stubbornly persevering, a perfectionist, pugnacious to the point of bullying ruthlessness yet seeking to be meek and humble."[1]. A man of the world during a short phase of his life, he mingled with members of the French aristocracy, and disdained neither the allures of fame nor material largesse: it is said that at one point he kept a coach and six horses!

What this physically and spiritually tormented man managed to achieve in a life that spanned less than four decades is remarkable. Most of his accomplishments, individually considered, would place him among the noteworthy contributors to our culture. Let me briefly list them.

Spurred by a desire to help his father's work, which involved long and tedious computations, he invented, at age 18, the Pascaline, a mechanical calculator. In 1972, Nicklaus Wirth chose to name after the Frenchman a computer language he had developed, to pay homage to the inventor of a device regarded as one of the earliest forms of the modern computer.

He invented the hydraulic press.

He invented the syringe.

He invented an early version of the roulette.

He designed and implemented, in Paris, one of the first public transportation systems in Europe.

He made significant contributions to projective geometry, beginning in his teens.

He is one of the founding fathers of the mathematical theory of probability and of the theory of combinatorial analysis.

He made decisive contributions to the understanding of hydrodynamics, hydrostatics, and atmospheric pressure; indeed, the unit of pressure designated by the International System bears his name.

The above accomplishments belong mostly to the domain of the physical and mathematical sciences, and of its applications.

But Pascal's abiding fame rests to a possibly greater extent upon an altogether different order of contributions, ranging from literature to psychological and existential analysis, to religion.

Humanist and Religious Thinker

Pascal has been hailed as one of the outstanding prose writers in the French language of any era.

He exerted his skills mostly in religious writings, including the famous 'Provincial Letters' and his 'Pensées'.

In the 'Letters' he launched a sustained, devastating attack against casuistry, a method used by some Catholic thinkers of the time to justify, in his view, all kinds of morally questionable attitudes by resorting to convoluted reasoning. In his Letters, Pascal deployed a dazzling array of satirical and polemical skills that lastingly influenced French culture, including the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. Incidentally, the Letters raised the ire of the guardians of both Church and State. King Louis XIV had them publicly shredded and burned.

Whereas the Letters are renowned for their wit and brilliance, the full measure of Pascal's literary prowess, analytic powers, and depth of thought is fully revealed in the Pensées. This work consists of a series of reflections that in the intention of his author were to provide an unassailable defense of the Christian faith against the skeptics of his time: by showing the wretchedness of the human condition, and by demonstrating that a deeply felt and lived faith in God was the only remedy to it. The planned book was never completed, but these thoughts, committed to separate scraps of papers haphazardly arranged, were variously assembled and published after their author's death, and have remained in print ever since.

It is not necessary to be a Christian to appreciate the sharpness and depth of Pascal's analysis of the human condition. Such an analysis stands by itself, whether or not one accepts Pascal's answer to the challenge it poses it: that only by finding God can our predicament be assuaged. Indeed, his more specific arguments for the truthfulness of the Christian faith, often based on an all too literal reading of the stories reported in the Testaments, and on perplexing interpretations of the biblical prophecies, are far from resulting persuasive to the lay reader, and I suspect to many of today's Christians as well.

Pascal's 'man' is a bundle of contradictions, a paradoxical being: 'What a chimera then is man! How strange and monstrous! A chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy. Judge of all things, yet a weak earth-worm; depository of truth, yet a cesspool of uncertainty and error; the glory and offscouring of the universe. Who will unravel such a tangle?... Man is incomprehensible by man.'[2]

Man 'would fain be great, and sees that he is little, would fain be happy, and sees that he is miserable, would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections, would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt'. As a result of this, 'he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.'

Man's condition is characterized by boredom and by anxiety. And by an inability to live fully in the moment: 'We care nothing for the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if we could make it move it faster; or we call back the past, to stop its flight. So imprudent are we that we wonder through the times in which we have no part, unthinking of that which alone is ours; so frivolous are we that we dream of the days that are not, and pass without reflection those which alone exist. For the present generally gives us pain. And if it be pleasant we regret to see it vanish away. We endeavor to sustain the present from the future, and think of arranging things not in our power...Thus we never live, but hope to live, and while we always lay ourselves out to be happy, it is inevitable that we can never be so.'

And in the end, 'the last act is tragic... at the end a little earth is flung on our head, and is all over for ever'. Arrestingly, he compels us to 'imagine a number of men in chains, all condemned to death, of whom some are strangled every day in the sight of the others; those who remain see their own condition in that of their fellow, and wait their turn looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. This is an image of the lot of man.'

Man is therefore a wretched creature. Yet, paradoxically, the intellectual awareness of his condition, however hard he tries to avoid facing it, is the very reason for whatever greatness, dignity, and worth reside in him: 'Man is only a reed, weakest in nature, but a reed which thinks. It needs not that the whole universe should arm to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But were the universe to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which has slain him, because he knows that he dies, and that the universe has the better of him. The Universe knows nothing of this.'

What can possibly rescue man from the despair that the awareness of his condition entails, which he unsuccessfully seeks to avoid through mindless activities?

As noted, Pascal's answer is unequivocal: religious faith. The God who created the universe far exceeds human understanding, to be sure. But God becomes comprehensible in his human form, through the life of Christ, the model for all of us to follow. Our misery derives from centering our lives upon our own self. Any happiness that we can aspire to rests instead upon making God the center of our lives and adjusting our thoughts and behavior accordingly.

Pascal was brought up in a religious household, and always declared himself for the Christian faith. But the decisive event of his religious life occurred in 1654, its telling entrusted to a scrap of paper referred to as the 'Memorial'. Pascal copied its words onto a parchment that he always carried on his person, and that was found sewn into his clothing on the day of his death.

It is a touching document:

'This year of grace 1654

'Monday, 23 November, day of Saint Clement.....

'from about half past ten at night to about half after midnight,

' Fire

'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,

Not of the philosophers and the wise

'Security, security. Feeling, joy, peace.

'God of Jesus Christ....

'Forgetfulness of the world and of all save God.

'Greatness of the human soul.....

'O righteous father, the world has not known thee,

but I have known thee......

'Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy...

'May I never be separated from Him'

Concluding Remarks

As we all know, it is ever more difficult for many people in the West to find in the Christian religion the spiritual victuals that nourished Pascal's faith along with so many others' over the centuries. The quest to find the resources – be they spiritual, philosophic, artistic, social - that may enable people to meet Pascal's challenge is taking an increasingly individualistic turn, which makes it yet more difficult. And the need to find one's way through an all pervading coarse and mindless mass culture renders this task more formidable still: for it is becoming all too easy to succumb to its diversions.

This hub originated from a sense of wonder at the possibly unmatched depth and diversity of Pascal's talents and achievements. In this troubled man who died when barely on the cusp of midlife coexisted the outstanding mathematician and empirical scientist, the ground breaking innovator (he is even believed to be the first man to wear a watch on his wrist!), the brilliant polemicist, the superb prose writer, the penetrating analyst of the human condition, the man of deep religious faith, and the recipient of a fiery mystical experience.

The fact that these diverse forms of self actualization managed to coexist within the same individual without undue strain suggests that they may all be constitutive dimensions of human nature (of course, many other lines of evidence must, and can, be gathered in support of this view). If so, the somewhat arrogant expectation that the triumphal advance of scientific and technological thought will forever consign to the dustbin of history all the supposedly outmoded forms of human discourse and experience may not come to pass.

It was Pascal himself who wrote that the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about. Yet by 'heart' he did not mean vacuous sentimentalism or the glorification of feelings and unreason. For him, the heart is the organon of knowledge through which we intuit the supra-rational foundations of reality that pure reason and empirical knowledge cannot by themselves arrive at. [see also 2, Introduction]

For Pascal, the empirical knowledge gathered through our senses; the theoretical elaboration of such knowledge based upon the use of our rational faculties; and the heart as the basis of intuitive knowing: all three are necessary to glimpse however dimly some aspects of the transcendent mystery hidden at the core of the universe and of our own lives.

Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), one of the major poets of the century just past, noted that no writer in the Christian mould can be commended more than Pascal 'to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being'.[3]

References and Notes

1. D. Adamson Blaise Pascal: Mathematician, Physicists and Thinker About God. Basingstoke: Palgrave & MacMillan, 1995.

2. All the quotations from Pascal's Pensées are taken from the translation by Paul C. Kegan: The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal. London: Trench & Co., 1885. See also: A. J. Krailsheimer, Blaise Pascal, Pensées. London: Penguin Books, 1995 for an excellent recent translation and an insightful introduction to this seminal thinker.

3. T. S. Eliot, Essays Ancient and Modern. Faber and Faber, 1949


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