The Calculation of Divinity
By Gabriel Blanchard
In a career of just over twenty years, Pascal changed the direction of European thought.
Born in central France in 1623, Blaise Pascal displayed mathematical brilliance from an early age. After a number of abrupt reversals in the family’s fortunes, his father went from being a judge to a tax commissioner for the city of Rouen in Normandy, northwest of Paris; having already written a significant essay on conics at just sixteen years of age, Pascal set to work aiding his father, and at eighteen invented the Pascaline, an early form of mechanical calculator. By this time he was corresponding with a number of prominent mathematicians of his day, and in his letters with Pierre de Fermat, an official in the south of the country, the two men laid out some of the first formulations of probability theory by analyzing a gambling problem, as well as the rudiments of what would later become calculus.
Pascal also took a lively interest in the sciences, especially fluid dynamics. It was through his work in this field that he was able to demonstrate the existence of vacuums (which was contrary to the general scientific opinion of the time, inherited from Aristotle and defended by René Descartes). With the help of his brother-in-law, Pascal proved that air pressure was lower at high altitudes—pressure is measured in pascals to this day—and, in his controversies on the subject, enunciated the principle of falsifiability, one of the basic axioms of modern science: “In order to show that a hypothesis is evident, it does not suffice that all the [observed] phenomena follow from it; instead, if it leads to something contrary to a single one of the phenomena, that suffices to establish its falsity.”
Besides his scientific and mathematical genius, Pascal was also involved in the religious controversies of his day. Protestantism had been largely eradicated from France during the religious and dynastic wars of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; however, disputes raged within the Catholic Church about the precise operations of grace and the quality of human sinfulness, and France was at the heart of the conflict. As a young man, Pascal was not conspicuously devout, but after meeting two doctors who were involved with the rigorist Jansenist movement, he began writing about theology. His younger sister became a nun at the Jansenist community of Port-Royal in 1653; the next year, he experienced a profound conversion of his own.
After this, he threw himself into the controversy between the Jansenists and Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. The Jesuits were well-known for being particularly gentle confessors and moral theologians—according to the Jansenists, so gentle as to effectively excuse sin. Pascal took the Jansenist side, attacking the Jesuits in a series of pamphlets, the Lettres Provinciales. Using wit and satire, he mocked the practice of casuistry, which allowed people to adopt courses of action that most moral theologians condemned, so long as there were at least some theologians who considered the act in question defensible. Pascal wrote sarcastically of the doctrine: “Oh yes, we answer just as we please; or rather, I should say, just as it may please those who ask our advice. … A doctor, on being consulted, may give an advice, not only probable according to his own opinion, but contrary to his own opinion, provided this judgment happens to be more favorable or agreeable to the person that consults him.” The Lettres Provinciales were a mixed success; although popular and influential (even Voltaire, a confirmed enemy of the Catholic Church, considered them one of the finest examples of French literature), they were condemned by Pope Alexander VII and proscribed by King Louis XIV in 1660, prompting Pascal to go into hiding.
A different work of his, the Pensées (“Thoughts”), may have been composed around this time. He originally intended it to be a complete apologetic for Christianity. The Pensées contains many of his most famous remarks, and is especially celebrated for its expression of Pascal’s wager—which is not exactly an argument for faith, but more of an invitation to it. All of us, inevitably, bet with how we lead our lives either that God exists or that he does not; Pascal argues that “betting for” God’s existence is the only really rational course of action, because the believer, if wrong, has only lost a few transitory pleasures, while if the unbeliever is wrong, he has lost a blessed eternity.
However, Pascal left this work unfinished. He suffered from poor health throughout his life, and ultimately died at only thirty-nine years old in 1662. A note was found sewn into the inside of his coat, dated to November 23, 1654, which began: “From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight, FIRE. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the wise.”
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other author profiles here at the Journal, like this one on St. Augustine, this one on Benjamin Franklin, or this one on Harper Lee. And don’t miss our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT’s founder, Jeremy Tate.