Blaise Pascal, Scientist, Religious Writer
21 August 1662
Blaise Pascal died 19 August 1662. He is remembered on 21 August.

Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand (45:47 N 3:05 E), France, on 19 June 1623. His mother died when he was three, and he was home-schooled by his father, who had connections with Mersenne, Fermat, and Descartes. In his late teens (or possibly early twenties) Pascal invented a mechanical calculator, the first of its kind.

Pascal As Physicist

Pascal as a physicist was concerned chiefly with the pressures of liquids and gasses. In 1644 (aged 21) he first read the work of Torricelli (pupil of Galileo) on the barometer. He devoted the next seven years to experiments showing that the reason why water (or other fluid) rises in a tube closed at the upper end and with the air excluded from it is not (as Aristotle had supposed) because "nature abhors a vacuum," but because the atmospheric pressure pushes the fluid into the tube at the bottom. He showed that in a closed vessel, the pressure in pounds per square inch is uniform in all directions on all surfaces (allowing for greater pressure at greater depths added by the weight of the liquid). This is known today as Pascal's Principle. By applying it, he invented the modern syringe and the hydraulic press. He showed that barometric pressure varied with altitude by carefully and repeatedly reading the pressure off his instruments at various known altitudes under many climatic conditions. In presenting his results, he taunts his enemies the Jesuits with getting their methods backward, accusing them of relying on ancient authority (Aristotle) in physics, while ignoring ancient authority (the Scriptures and the Fathers, especially Augustine) in religion.

Pascal and Mathematics

When he was about 30, Pascal got into discussions with Fermat about the mathematics of gambling. As a result, he devised what is called Pascal's Triangle, an array of numbers which begins as shown here.


1 1

1 2 1

1 3 3 1

1 4 6 4 1

1 5 10 10 5 1

                     1   6  15  20  15   6   1

                   1   7  21  35  35  21   7   1
Each number is the sum of the two numbers immediately above it. In the row with n+1 numbers in it, the numbers add up to 2 to the power n, and represent the number of ways of getting various numbers of heads out of n coin tosses. Thus, with four coin tosses, we see from the numbers 1 4 6 4 1 (which add up to 16) that when four coins are tossed there are 16 possible outcomes, 1 producing no head, 4 producing 1 head, 6 producing 2 heads, 4 producing 3 heads and 1 producing 4 heads. Lest this seem to be of interest only to gamblers, we note that many events in nature are the result of a number of causes whose presence or absence has the apparent randomness of a coin toss. Thus the formulas derived from Pascal's insights are important not only to gamblers but to insurance companies and statisticians.

Pascal and the Jansenists

In the 1600's the Jesuits in France were involved in a prolonged struggle with the Jansenists. Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres (50:51 N 2:53 E, pronounced EE-per, spelled Ieper in Flemish, located in Belgium), wrote a book Augustinus in which he spoke of salvation as the free gift of God in language that had Protestant overtones. His views attracted many devout Roman Catholics (most conspicuously, the nuns of the convent of Port Royal near Paris, 48:52 N 2:20 E), and were opposed by the Jesuits. Pascal (whose sister was a nun at Port Royal) was a zealous writer on behalf of the Jansenists. His Provincial Letters, printed by the underground press, reached perhaps a million readers. One of them (number 16) contains the oft-quoted remark: "This letter is longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short."

Their style alone would make them remarkable. Most French prose before Pascal (or so I am told by those who I assume have a better ear than mine for French) is heavy and dull, written in the manner of a government directive. Pascal's writing sparkles. He taught his countrymen how to write work that would be read with pleasure. He is accounted the father of modern French prose.

But we are here chiefly concerned with the content of his Letters. They are a defence of the Jansenists, and an attack on the Jesuits. He quoted (selectively but accurately) from Jesuit manuals on ethics, canon law, and the sort of instruction and advice to be given to those making their confessions. He then commented on the quotations, with devastating effect. Pascal regarded the court of Louis XIV as hopelessly corrupt and irreligious, and regarded the Jesuits' willingness to form what amounted to an alliance with that court as little short of a pact with Satan. Ultimately, the Jansenists were formally condemned by the Pope, but not without complications. The Jesuits listed five propositions which they said were found in Augustinus, and were heretical. They got the Pope to agree. The Jansenists replied that the five propositions were indeed heretical, but were not found in Augustinus. They were willing to sign letters denouncing the five propositions, but not willing to say that they had ever held them, or that Jansen had ever held them, or that they were found in Augustinus. The Jesuits never did produce copies of the Augustinus with the Five Propositions underlined, from which we may infer that finding them there was a matter of interpretation on which reasonable men might differ.

Pascal's Pensees

Pascal's great work was to be his Apology For the Christian Religion ("Apology," of course, in the classic meaning of "Defence"). He worked on it diligently in the closing years of his life, but at his death he left only a sheaf of papers with no particular organization--fragments of writing, most consisting of one or two paragraphs. Editors differ as to what order they ought to be printed in. They have been published under the title Pensees ("Thoughts"). They contain, not an argument to persuade a non-Christian to accept Christ as Lord, but scribbled notes in preparation for the formulation of such an argument. How Pascal would have organized it, and how filled in the gaps, must remain a matter of conjecture. A few of the better-known lines may suggest the flavor.

I lay it down as a fact that if all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends left in the world.

    The state of man: inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.

Cleopatra's nose--had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would be changed.

Man is but a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.

What a chimera then is man!

What a novelty!

What a monster!

What a chaos!

What a contradiction!
What a prodigy!
Judge of all things, feeble earthworm,
depository of truth, sink of uncertainty and error,
the glory and the shame of the universe.
   Men never do evil so completely or cheerfully
As when they do it from religious conviction.

"Be of good cheer--you would not seek Me if you had not found Me."

It seems clear that Pascal intended the completed work to comprise two parts: Part One examines the condition of man without God, and shows it to be utterly intolerable--to be, not merely hopeless, but also incoherent and paradoxical--to be, in some sense, unnatural. Man needs a Saviour if the world is to make sense. Part Two argues that we have sound reasons for believing that a Saviour is in fact to be had for the asking.

Both the Provincial Letters and the Pensees are available in English in Penguin Paperback.

Pascal's Wager

One argument used by Pascal has been much ridiculed and (in my judgement) much misunderstood. It has come to be called Pascal's Wager, and may be stated thus: "If Christianity is true, then you stand to gain infinitely by accepting it. If it is false, then you stand to lose only a finite amount of well-being by accepting it. Therefore the odds make deciding to become a Christian the sensible move."

This has been attacked with great bitterness and vigour. First, it is said, this argument makes the Christian a cynical
Opportunist, who accepts Christ, not out of love or gratitude, but Out of a calculation of which side his bread is likely to be buttered on. Second, it is said, it supposes that the world is ruled by a Power who rewards those who are lucky (or opportunistic, or sycophantic), while punishing the others. Third, it is said, the proposed argument is logically as well as morally defective, in that it simply assumes that Christianity and secular humanism are the only possibilities to be considered. Let us introduce the theory that the universe is ruled by a Power who detests Christians, so that if you die a Christian you will boil in oil forever, but otherwise you will party forever. Now the choice is not so simple as Pascal would make it.

On a Lollipop theory of heaven, these objections make sense. By a Lollipop theory, I mean one that views heaven and hell simply as arbitrary rewards and punishments handed out, like giving toys and sweetmeats to some children, "because they have been nice," while giving switches or lumps of coal to other children, "because they have been naughty." Those who understand Heaven and Hell in a Lollipop sense are (on my view) quite right to find the Wager argument wanting. But suppose that by heaven we mean an eternal union with Christ. When persons seek to understand (by a study of the Scriptures or by participation in the life of the Christian community, or by seeing what is perhaps Christ at work in the lives of Christian friends) what Christ is like, or what it would mean to be in a right relationship with Him, some of them (not all) conclude that to be in such a relationship is such a glorious prospect that it is indeed worth making the central goal of one's life.

They are in a position rather like that of an athlete who has made winning the Boston Marathon his top priority. If you want to win the Marathon, then you train for it. You eat a healthy diet, and all that. Perhaps this is a waste of time and effort. Perhaps there is someone in Germany who is so much faster than you that you will never beat him no matter how well you prepare. Perhaps the Boston Marathon will be called off because of a Third World War or an invasion from outer space. All you know is that you have a better chance of winning if you train than if you don't. And if the Boston Marathon is all you care about, then that is all you need to know. Suppose that I have made the goal of union with Christ all that I care about, or more probably, have decided that it is a great enough good so that it Ought to be all that I care about. Then every course of action is to be judged by the single criterion, "Will it move me closer to my goal of union with Christ?" Obviously, if Christ is an illusion, then nothing will move me closer to him, and it does not matter what I do. But if He is not an illusion, then obviously seeking to love Him, trust Him, and obey Him is more likely to get me into a right relation with Him than the opposite strategy. And so it will be the one I take.

Pascal's Vision

When he was 31 years old, less than eight years before his death, Pascal had an overwhelming experience of the presence of God. He apparently made hasty notes, during the vision or immediately afterwards, so that he might always have at hand a reminder of what had happened to him. He transcribed these onto a piece of parchment and sewed it into the lining of his coat, where his servant found it after his death. There is no evidence of his having mentioned the experience to anyone while he lived. The parchment reads as follows (Bible references added; translation by Emile Caillet and John C. Blankenagel, Great Shorter Works of Pascal, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1948):

In the year of grace, 1654,
On Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr,

And others in the Martyrology,

Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others,
From about half past ten in the evening until about half past


God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (Ex 3:6; Mt 22:32)
Not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
"Thy God and my God." (Jn 20:17)
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
    He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.
    Greatness of the Human Soul.
    "Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee,
But I have known Thee." (Jn 17:25)
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have separated myself from Him.
"They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters." (Jn 2:13)
"My God, wilt Thou leave me?" (Mt 27:46)
Let me not be separated from Him eternally.
"This is eternal life,

That they might know Thee, the only true God,

And Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (Jn 17:3)

Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ
I have separated myself from Him:
    I have fled from Him,
    denied Him,
    crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.
We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day's training on earth.
"I will not forget thy words." (Ps 119:16) Amen.

PRAYER (traditional language):

Almighty God, who didst grant to thy servant Blaise Pascal a Great intellect, that he might explore the mysteries of thy creation, and didst kindle in his heart a love for thee and a devotion to thy service: Mercifully grant to us thy servants, according to our several callings, gifts of excellence in body, mind, and will, and the grace to use them diligently and to thy glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

Almighty God, who gave your servant Blaise Pascal a great Intellect, that he might explore the mysteries of your creation, and who kindled in his heart a love for you and a devotion to your service: Mercifully give us your servants, according to our various callings, gifts of excellence in body, mind, and will, and the grace to use them diligently and to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.