Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

Born: 1623. Died: 1662.

Ideas

- The weakness of human reason leads to ultimate, complete skepticism.

- The misery of man without God is the ordinary human condition.

- Scientific knowledge cannot provide haappiness.

- There is the need for grace to be moral and happy.

- It is the nature of science that it is at best only hypothetical.

- Mathematics is true only as an axiom system.

- Ultimate knowledge is based on faith.

- Man has no choice but to seek God or reject him.

- With faith, one can provide 'proofs' of the Christian religion.

Biography

Blaise Pascal, mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher, inventor of the first digital calculator, was born at Clermont on June 19, 1623, and died at Paris on August 19, 1662.

His father, a local judge at Clermont, and himself of some scientific reputation, moved to Paris in 1631, partly to prosecute his own scientific studies, partly to carry on the education of his only son, who had already displayed exceptional ability. Pascal was kept at home in order to ensure his not being overworked, and with the same object it was directed that his education should be at first confined to the study of languages, and should not include any mathematics.

This naturally excited the boy's curiosity, and one day, being then twelve years old, he asked in what geometry consisted. His tutor replied that it was the science of constructing exact figures and of determining the proportions between their different parts. Pascal, stimulated no doubt by the injunction against reading it, gave up his play-time to this new study, and in a few weeks had discovered for himself many properties of figures, and in particular the proposition that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father, struck by this display of ability, gave him a copy of Euclid's Elements, a book which Pascal read with avidity and soon mastered.

At the age of fourteen he was admitted to the weekly meetings of Roberval, Mersenne, Mydorge, and other French geometricians; from which, ultimately, the French Academy sprung. At sixteen Pascal wrote an essay on conic sections; and in 1641, at the age of eighteen, he constructed the first arithmetical machine, an instrument which, eight years later, he further improved. His correspondence with Fermat about this time shews that he was then turning his attention to analytical geometry and physics. He repeated Torricelli's experiments, by which the pressure of the atmosphere could be estimated as a weight, and he confirmed his theory of the cause of barometrical variations by obtaining at the same instant readings at different altitudes on the hill of Puy-de-Dôme.

In 1650, when in the midst of these researches, Pascal suddenly abandoned his favorite pursuits to study religion, or, as he says in his Pensées, "contemplate the greatness and the misery of man''; and about the same time he persuaded the younger of his two sisters to enter the Port Royal society.

In 1653 he had to administer his father's estate. He now took up his old life again, and made several experiments on the pressure exerted by gases and liquids; it was also about this period that he invented the arithmetical triangle, and together with Fermat created the calculus of probabilities. He was meditating marriage when an accident again turned the current of his thoughts to a religious life. He was driving a four-in-hand on November 23, 1654, when the horses ran away; the two leaders dashed over the parapet of the bridge at Neuilly, and Pascal was saved only by the traces breaking. He considered this a special summons to abandon the world. He wrote an account of the accident on a small piece of parchment, which for the rest of his life he wore next to his heart, to perpetually remind him of his covenant; and shortly moved to Port Royal, where he continued to live until his death in 1662. Constitutionally delicate, he had injured his health by his incessant study; from the age of seventeen or eighteen he suffered from insomnia and acute dyspepsia, and at the time of his death was physically worn out.

His famous Provincial Letters directed against the Jesuits, and his Pensées, were written towards the close of his life, and are the first example of that finished form which is characteristic of the best French literature. The only mathematical work that he produced after retiring to Port Royal was the essay on the cycloid in 1658. He was suffering from sleeplessness and toothache when the idea occurred to him, and to his surprise his teeth immediately ceased to ache. Regarding this as a divine intimation to proceed with the problem, he worked incessantly for eight days at it, and completed a tolerably full account of the geometry of the cycloid.

In 'Pensées' Pascal wrote: "Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is."

Pascal's studies deeply influenced the development of modern essay writing. The idea of intuition as presented in Pensées had an impact on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Also the popularity of Provincial Letters has remained undiminished.

Pascal was among the first noteworthy philosophers who seriously questioned the existence of God. When he imagined himself arguing with somebody who was constitutionally unable to believe, Pascal could find no arguments to convince him. He concluded that belief in God could only be a matter of personal choice. This basically revolutionary approach to the problem of God's existence has never been officially accepted by any church.

Pascal died at the age of 39 in the house of one of his sisters in intense pain after a malignant growth in his stomach spread to the brain.

Major Books of Blaise Pascal

- Conversations with M. de Saci, 1655
- Écrit sur la Signature du Formulaire, 1661
- Essai Pour Les Coniques, 1639
- Experiences Nouvelles Touchant le Vide, 1647
- On the Geometrical Mind and on the Art of Persuasion (De l'Esprit Geometrique), 1657-1658
- Pensees, 1662
- The Provincial Letters (Lettres Provinciales), 1656-1657
- Traité du triangle arithmétique, 1653

Quotes from Blaise Pascal

- "I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short." (from "Lettres Provinciale", 1656-1657)

- "All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "All these same miseries prove man's greatness. They are the miseries of a great lord, of a deposed king." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Compare not thyself with others, but with Me." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Continuous eloquence wearies." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Faith ... tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "If magistrates had true justice, and if physicians had the true art of healing, they would have no occasion for square caps." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "If thou knewest thy sins, thou wouldst lose heart." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "It is natural for the mind to believe, and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "The last proceeding of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "To prophesy is to speak of God, not from outward proofs, but from an inward and immediate feeling." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Man by grace is made like unto God, and a partaker in His divinity, and ... without grace he is like unto the brute beasts." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "The most powerful cause of error is the war existing between the senses and reason." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Must we kill to prevent there being any wicked? This is to make both parties wicked instead of one." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Nature acts by progress. ... It goes and returns, then advances further, then twice as much backwards, then more forward than ever, etc." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Nature has some perfections to show that she is the image of God, and some defects to show that she is only His image." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Nature often deceives us and does not subject herself to her own rules." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Nothing is good but mediocrity. The majority has settled that, and finds fault with him who escapes it at whichever end. ... To leave the mean is to abandon humanity." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us whither we desire to go." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "This twofold nature of man is so evident that some have thought that we have two souls." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! ... The pride and refuse of the universe!." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "What is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an all in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything." (from "Pensees", 1670)

- "When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man." (from "Pensees", 1670)

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