Blaise Pascal

1623-1662. Mathematical prodigy, physicist, religious thinker, inventor, and literary stylist. One of the great minds of Western intellectual history, he was born in Claremont in central France, where his father, a man of upper- class status, was a lawyer, magistrate, and tax commissioner of the area. When Pascal was three his mother died, and five years later the father moved with his three children to Paris, drawn there by the intellectual atmosphere which he cherished.

Instead of providing a tutor for his children, Êtienne Pascal chose to educate them himself at home. History and science were taught through games, religion through reading the Bible. Geometry was to be the crowning study, withheld until Blaise was old enough to fully relish its beauty. But at age eleven he worked out on his own some of the basic Euclidian propositions. Building later on his mathematical knowledge, he was to create the theory of probability.

When the Pascal family moved to Rouen in 1640, where Êtienne was to become tax collector, young Blaise observed the burdensome calculations which often kept his father up until two in the morning. Putting his remarkable mind to work to solve a practical problem, the son devised the first calculating machine, based on a series of rotating discs, a system that has been the basis of arithmetical machines up to modern times. In physics a notable discovery, known as Pascal's Law, states that pressure exerted on any part of an enclosed liquid is distributed equally to all parts of the liquid. This principle makes possible all modern hydraulic operations.

After his conversion in 1654 following a miraculous vision, Pascal set about preparing an Apology for the Christian Religion. The work was never finished, for Pascal died at the age of thirty-nine, leaving only a set of remarkable notes, later published as Pensées. The work is a classic of apologetics as well as literature. It undertakes to put the case for Christianity as against the rationalism of Descartes and the skepticism of Montaigne. For Pascal, God is to be known through Jesus Christ by an act of faith, itself given by God. Faith is not of reason; it is of the heart. Man's need for God becomes evident when he recognizes his misery apart from God. God is to be known by faith, but the evidences for validating Christianity are great: the prophecies, the miracles, the witness of history, the self- authentication of Scripture.

In 1657 Pascal's Provincial Letters appeared. This masterpiece of irony was directed against the Jesuits in defense of Jansenism,* a conservative reform movement within the Catholic Church which urged a return to the Augustinian emphasis upon grace alone as the basis of salvation.

E. Boutroux, Pascal (ET 1902); H.F. Stewart, The Holiness of Pascal (1915) and The Secret of Pascal (1941); D.M. Eastwood, The Revival of Pascal (1936); E. Cailliet, The Clue to Pascal (1944); J. Mesnard, Pascal, l'homme et l'oeuvre (ET 1953).