Blaise Pascal died 19 August 1662. He is remembered on 21 August.
Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand (45:47 N 3:05 E), France, on 19 June 1623. His mother died when he was three, and he was home-schooled by his father, who had connections with Mersenne, Fermat, and Descartes. In his late teens (or possibly early twenties) Pascal invented a mechanical calculator, the first of its kind.
1 1 1 1 2 1 1 3 3 1 1 4 6 4 1 1 5 10 10 5 1 1 6 15 20 15 6 1 1 7 21 35 35 21 7 1Each number is the sum of the two numbers immediately above it. In the row with n+1 numbers in it, the numbers add up to 2 to the power n, and represent the number of ways of getting various numbers of heads out of n coin tosses. Thus, with four coin tosses, we see from the numbers 1 4 6 4 1 (which add up to 16) that when four coins are tossed there are 16 possible outcomes, 1 producing no head, 4 producing 1 head, 6 producing 2 heads, 4 producing 3 heads and 1 producing 4 heads. Lest this seem to be of interest only to gamblers, we note that many events in nature are the result of a number of causes whose presence or absence has the apparent randomness of a coin toss. Thus the formulas derived from Pascal's insights are important not only to gamblers but to insurance companies and statisticians.
Their style alone would make them remarkable. Most French prose before Pascal (or so I am told by those who I assume have a better ear than mine for French) is heavy and dull, written in the manner of a government directive. Pascal's writing sparkles. He taught his countrymen how to write work that would be read with pleasure. He is accounted the father of modern French prose.
But we are here chiefly concerned with the content of his Letters. They are a defence of the Jansenists, and an attack on the Jesuits. He quoted (selectively but accurately) from Jesuit manuals on ethics, canon law, and the sort of instruction and advice to be given to those making their confessions. He then commented on the quotations, with devastating effect. Pascal regarded the court of Louis XIV as hopelessly corrupt and irreligious, and regarded the Jesuits' willingness to form what amounted to an alliance with that court as little short of a pact with Satan. Ultimately, the Jansenists were formally condemned by the Pope, but not without complications. The Jesuits listed five propositions which they said were found in Augustinus, and were heretical. They got the Pope to agree. The Jansenists replied that the five propositions were indeed heretical, but were not found in Augustinus. They were willing to sign letters denouncing the five propositions, but not willing to say that they had ever held them, or that Jansen had ever held them, or that they were found in Augustinus. The Jesuits never did produce copies of the Augustinus with the Five Propositions underlined, from which we may infer that finding them there was a matter of interpretation on which reasonable men might differ.
I lay it down as a fact that if all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends left in the world.
The state of man: inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.
Cleopatra's nose--had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would be changed.
Man is but a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.
What a chimera then is man!
What a novelty!
What a monster!
What a chaos!
What a contradiction!
What a prodigy!
Judge of all things, feeble earthworm,
depository of truth, sink of uncertainty and error,
the glory and the shame of the universe.
Men never do evil so completely or cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
"Be of good cheer--you would not seek Me if you had not found Me."
It seems clear that Pascal intended the completed work to comprise two parts:
Part One examines the condition of man without God, and shows it to be utterly intolerable--to be, not merely hopeless, but also incoherent and paradoxical--to be, in some sense, unnatural. Man needs a Saviour if the world is to make sense.
Part Two argues that we have sound reasons for believing that a Saviour is in fact to be had for the asking.
Both the Provincial Letters and the Pensees are available in English in Penguin Paperback.
This has been attacked with great bitterness and vigour.
First, it is said, this argument makes the Christian a cynical opportunist, who accepts Christ, not out of love or gratitude, but out of a calculation of which side his bread is likely to be buttered on.
Second, it is said, it supposes that the world is ruled by a Power who rewards those who are lucky (or opportunistic, or sycophantic), while punishing the others.
Third, it is said, the proposed argument is logically as well as morally defective, in that it simply assumes that Christianity and secular humanism are the only possibilities to be considered. Let us introduce the theory that the universe is ruled by a Power who detests Christians, so that if you die a Christian you will boil in oil forever, but otherwise you will party forever. Now the choice is not so simple as Pascal would make it.
On a Lollipop theory of heaven, these objections make sense. By a Lollipop theory, I mean one that views heaven and hell simply as arbitrary rewards and punishments handed out, like giving toys and sweetmeats to some children, "because they have been nice," while giving switches or lumps of coal to other children, "because they have been naughty." Those who understand Heaven and Hell in a Lollipop sense are (on my view) quite right to find the Wager argument wanting. But suppose that by heaven we mean an eternal union with Christ. When persons seek to understand (by a study of the Scriptures or by participation in the life of the Christian community, or by seeing what is perhaps Christ at work in the lives of Christian friends) what Christ is like, or what it would mean to be in a right relationship with Him, some of them (not all) conclude that to be in such a relationship is such a glorious prospect that it is indeed worth making the central goal of one's life.
They are in a position rather like that of an athlete who has made winning the Boston Marathon his top priority. If you want to win the Marathon, then you train for it. You eat a healthy diet, and all that. Perhaps this is a waste of time and effort. Perhaps there is someone in Germany who is so much faster than you that you will never beat him no matter how well you prepare. Perhaps the Boston Marathon will be called off because of a Third World War or an invasion from outer space. All you know is that you have a better chance of winning if you train than if you don't. And if the Boston Marathon is all you care about, then that is all you need to know.
Suppose that I have made the goal of union with Christ all that I care about, or more probably, have decided that it is a great enough good so that it ought to be all that I care about. Then every course of action is to be judged by the single criterion, "Will it move me closer to my goal of union with Christ?" Obviously, if Christ is an illusion, then nothing will move me closer to him, and it does not matter what I do. But if He is not an illusion, then obviously seeking to love Him, trust Him, and obey Him is more likely to get me into a right relation with Him than the opposite strategy. And so it will be the one I take.
MEMORIAL In the year of grace, 1654, On Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr, and others in the Martyrology, Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others, From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve, FIRE! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (Ex 3:6; Mt 22:32) not of the philosophers and scholars. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. "Thy God and my God." (Jn 20:17) Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God. He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel. Greatness of the Human Soul. "Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee, but I have known Thee." (Jn 17:25) Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have separated myself from Him. "They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters." (Jn 2:13) "My God, wilt Thou leave me?" (Mt 27:46) Let me not be separated from Him eternally. "This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (Jn 17:3) Jesus Christ. JESUS CHRIST I have separated myself from Him: I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified Him. Let me never be separated from Him. We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel. Renunciation, total and sweet. Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day's training on earth. "I will not forget thy words." (Ps 119:16) Amen.
Prayer (traditional language)
Almighty God, who didst grant to thy servant Blaise Pascal a great intellect, that he might explore the mysteries of thy creation, and didst kindle in his heart a love for thee and a devotion to thy service: Mercifully grant to us thy servants, according to our several callings, gifts of excellence in body, mind, and will, and the grace to use them diligently and to thy glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.Prayer (contemporary language)
Almighty God, who gave your servant Blaise Pascal a great intellect, that he might explore the mysteries of your creation, and who kindled in his heart a love for you and a devotion to your service: Mercifully give us your servants, according to our various callings, gifts of excellence in body, mind, and will, and the grace to use them diligently and to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.