THE relatively short life of Blaise Pascal, born in France on 19 June 1623, chimes well with the sensibilities of our secular age. In part, it reflects the contemporary narrative of an individual’s achieving great things in the face of personal adversity before succumbing to an early death. Applause is often loudest for the brave and resolute who, against the odds and the unforgiving minutes, live out their truth tenaciously, before leaving a legacy for others to emulate or praise.
Pascal was a sickly child, who lost his mother at the age of three, and suffered physical and mental pain for long periods throughout his life. By his early twenties, his food had to be liquefied to enable him to digest it. In later years, his ailments grew worse: opinions on their causes included stomach cancer, tuberculosis, or a brain lesion. He died, aged 39, on 19 August 1662, in relative poverty, and was buried in the parish church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris, close by the Panthéon.
From childhood, and thanks largely to the home tuition provided by his father, Étienne, Pascal demonstrated an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics and science. Visitors to the family home marvelled at his precocity. Years later, his peers would laud him as “the Aristotle of his age”, immersed in experiments and inventions (including a calculating machine), an early exponent of probability theory. In the last year of his life, he designed a transport system in Paris which, uniquely, assigned its profits to the needs of the poor.
Some years before, with friends, he had initiated a scheme for reclaiming marshland in the Poitou region for the material benefit of residents. His genius and benevolence overcame formidable personal obstacles, inspired others, and improved the world.
There is, however, another narrative to explain why Pascal remains influential and read today when his inventions have been superseded and his good works have been largely forgotten. As a result of what he recorded as his two “conversions”, the Christianity that he — like his father before him — had observed respectfully, gradually became a cause and a passion. Without fully abandoning his scientific pursuits, he became involved in a religious revival in the Roman Catholic Church which became known as Jansenism.
Jansenism had its roots in earlier Reformers and in the thought of St Augustine. It emphasised the centrality of practical works of charity over pious exercises, the necessity of a deeper personal prayer life, and an accompanying awareness of man’s wretchedness and dependence on divine grace. The movement was declared heretical, and faced an increasingly violent campaign of opposition.
Pascal took sides, and responded with 18 polemical letters — Letters to a Provincial — that brought him both notoriety and acclaim. Admired for their literary style, they revealed a moralist with an intellectual passion for truth, and a readiness to confront the moral laxity and sophistry of the Jesuits, who were fuelling a bitter controversy that continued into the 18th century.
PASCAL’s second “conversion” took place on the night of 23 November 1654. Between 10.30 p.m. and 12.30 a.m., he underwent a mystical experience, a record of which survived in his own hand. The experience shaped decisively the course of his remaining years. After his death, the note that he always kept on his person was found sewn into the coat which he was wearing. It began: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, not of the philosophers and scholars”, and concluded with Psalm 119.16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.”
So it proved. From that night, he resolved to give himself wholeheartedly to the service of God and others. This new calling included a defence of the Christian religion against its detractors — in particular, the free-thinkers and agnostics of fashionable society who, Pascal believed, went through the motions of religion but had no serious interest in truth, or in the proper moral strenuousness that such practices required.
His intended Apology for the Christian Religion began to take shape in about 1660, but his demise prevented its completion. What remained, and was subsequently published by his friends, came to be known as the Pensées — the notes, scattered papers, and various fragments that represented the recurring religious themes of Pascal’s final years: the human predicament; the absolute centrality of Christ to the life of faith; the truth of scripture; and the hiddenness of God.
The adequacy or fallacies of conflicting philosophical points of view also engaged him, especially those of his contemporary René Descartes and, earlier, Michel de Montaigne.
For Pascal, true faith is inconceivable without virtue and the unending practice of charity. Civility and the refinement of personal manners and feeling will not suffice. Left to himself, “man is a monster, a chaos, a contradiction and a prodigy.” Both fallen and wretched without God, he constitutes “the pride and refuse of the universe”.
On the one hand, capable of thought, reason, and reflection, and, ultimately — by the assistance of divine grace — a potential inheritor of eternal happiness; on the other, susceptible to meaninglessness, and for ever captive to pride and desire. Salvation and ultimate happiness rest on rational human beings’ wagering their lives on what, Pascal insisted, is the most important question of all: that God exists, or does not.
A PALE, sometimes icy tone is evident in the Pensées and reflects the much earlier and darker ruminations of Augustine concerning the attested deceits, evasions, and cruelties of the human heart. But, as a spiritual classic, it represents much more than an accusatory wayside pulpit. Despite its fragmentary nature — and quite apart from the elegance and wisdom of its prose, and the memorable quotations that now form part of intellectual discourse — it discloses an original mind and, in a personal and moving way, the power and truth of the divine love that Pascal felt throughout his tribulations. It was a love that he wished others to share.
The final words, fittingly, are his: “So I hold out my arms to my Redeemer, who . . . has come to suffer and die for me on earth. By his grace, I await death in peace, in the hope of being eternally united to him. Yet I live with joy, whether in the prosperity which it pleases him to bestow upon me, or in the adversity which he sends for my good, and which he has taught me to bear by his example.”
Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.