The French mathematician, philosopher, and apologist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was born 400 years ago. The anniversary of his birth was recently celebrated by Pope Francis in an apostolic letter titled Sublimitas et Miseria Hominis (“The Grandeur and Misery of Man”)—reflecting one of the themes in Pascal’s writing.
Recent popes, such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have expressed appreciation for Pascal, and in 2017, Pope Francis reportedly said that he “deserves beatification.”
The pope’s 5,400-word apostolic letter makes for interesting reading. Papal documents like this are commonly ghostwritten, and the pope then makes the words his own when he signs and issues the document. The same is presumably true of this letter, and it is clear that whoever drafted it knows Pascal’s life and thought very well. It’s a quality read!
At least in Catholic circles, Pascal is best known today for two things: his Provincial Letters, which are a defense of the Jansenists against their Jesuit opponents, and his Pensées (French, “Thoughts”), which consists of notes that he took in preparation for an apology defending the Christian faith that he wanted to write.
However, these writings come from the later period of Pascal’s life, and he is remembered outside Catholic circles for other contributions. As the letter notes, “in 1642, at the age of nineteen, he invented an arithmetic machine, the ancestor of our modern computers.”
Pascal also made contributions in other areas, including physics (specifically, fluid dynamics, where he proposed what is now known as Pascal’s law) and mathematics (where he made numerous contributions, including being one of the founders of probability theory).
Pope Francis’s apostolic letter touches briefly on such contributions, but it focuses on the development of Pascal’s life and his Christian faith, which became more prominent as he got older.
A turning point in this regard occurred on the night of Monday, November 23, 1654, when Pascal was thirty-one years old. For two hours—between 10:30 P.M. and 12:30 A.M.—he had a profound mystical experience that led to a religious conversion.
Afterward, he wrote an intimate series of thoughts about this experience on a sheet of paper. How meaningful the experience was to him is illustrated by the fact that he thereafter carried the paper with him, keeping it in the lining of his coat, where it was discovered after his death.
What we know about this powerful mystical experience comes from the brief, tantalizing statements he made on the paper. It is now known as Pascal’s Memorial, and an English translation is available here.
Pope Francis’s letter discusses the Provincial Letters and the Jansenist controversy that occasioned them. Since the Jesuits were the target of the Provincial Letters, it is interesting to see what Francis—the first Jesuit pope—has to say. He writes,
Before concluding, I must mention Pascal’s relationship to Jansenism. . . . The controversy [between the Jesuits and the Jansenists] dealt chiefly with the question of God’s grace and the relationship between grace and human nature, specifically our free will. Pascal . . . was charged by the Jansenists to defend them, given his outstanding rhetorical skill. He did so in 1656 and 1657, publishing a series of eighteen writings known as The Provincial Letters. . . .
We should realize . . . that, just as Saint Augustine sought in the fifth century to combat the Pelagians, who claimed that man can, by his own powers and without God’s grace, do good and be saved, so Pascal, for his part, sincerely believed that he was battling an implicit pelagianism or semipelagianism in the teachings of the “Molinist” Jesuits. . . . Let us credit Pascal with the candor and sincerity of his intentions.
Pope Francis also touches on Pascal’s apologetics and his famous work, the Pensées. Interestingly, he does not mention the most famous part of the Pensées, which is a passage in which Pascal seeks to help those who feel unable to choose between skepticism and Christianity based on evidence.
He proposes what has become known as Pascal’s Wager, in which he offers a way to use practical reason to decide between the options when an evidential solution seems unavailable. In essence, Pascal argues that if we adopt or “bet” on skepticism and it turns out that skepticism is true, then we will at most reap a finite benefit. However, if we “bet” on Christianity and it turns out that Christianity is true, then we will receive an infinite benefit. It is thus in our interest to wager that Christianity is true if we feel unable to decide based on the evidence.
It should be noted that the Wager is designed only to decide between Christianity and skepticism. However, Wager-like reasoning can be applied to other religious options. (For example, if we are deciding between reincarnation and the view that we have only one life, it is better to wager that we have only one life, so we need to make this one count.)
Pascal experienced his final illness in 1662. Shortly before his death, he said that if the doctors were correct, and he would recover, he would devote the rest of his life to serving the poor. However, he did not recover, and he passed on to his reward at the age of thirty-nine. It is not clear what he died of, but tuberculosis and stomach cancer have been proposed.
It is good to see Pascal being recognized for his contributions. He was, indeed, a genius, as well as a man of profound faith and insight. He is well worth studying by contemporary apologists.