Blaise Pascal


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Brief overview of Pascal's place in history, and a presentation of key concepts given in his Pensees.

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Blaise Pascal

  1. 1. Blaise Pascal Christian apologist,mathematician and scientist
  2. 2. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 – only 39 years):• The issue of faith and reason• An Augustinian who appreciated Montaigne and rejected Deism – He associated with the Jansenists (Augustinian Catholics) – Personally had his own Night of Fire and made a religious commitment (1654): “Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace” (“Memorial,” Pensée 913); sewn into his coat. – Counted among his correspondents and friends Descartes, Wren and Christina of Sweden – Suffered illness and physical pain all his adult life• Important work on conic sections (written when he was about 17 years old); envied by Descartes; involved mathematics; the ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola• Affirmed through experimentation the existence of a vacuum and atmospheric pressure (Descartes said a vacuum could not exist); Nature has no “horror of a vacuum”; built on the work of Torricelli and the new barometer (c. 1643) – Pascal went on to invent the syringe – “It is not too much to say that modern physics dates from the conclusions of Pascal come to by 1648” (Hastings, et al., 9:653)• Invented the first digital calculator: Pascal is a forerunner of the computer age.• Wrote on probability (basically unthinkable at the time): Pascal furnishes (along with Fermat) the groundwork for Leibniz’s calculus.• Public transportation (omnibus service)
  3. 3. The Provincial Letters (1656-1657)• A secret and dangerous undertaking• A genius mind was unleashed in the defense of a Jansenist friend, Arnauld, against the casuistry of the Jesuits• “Though in the utmost physical agonies, Pascal yet stood boldly as the champion of freedom of conscience, of truth, and justice against the all-powerful Jesuits without fear of the Bastille or galleys. But the letters are also, in spite of their occasional character, a literary masterpiece possessing a high dramatic unity” (New Schaff-Herzog 8:363).• The letters earned the condemnation of Louis XIV and the approval of the public• His literary style marks the beginning of modern French prose
  4. 4. Pascal’s epistemology• His philosophical position: Montaigne’s skepticism (in Pascal’s case due to an emphasis on original sin).• He emphasized that knowledge is not merely through reason: “The heart has reasons that reason does not know,” which points toward Romanticism (the passions).• Reason is important because of “infinite chaos” due to the difference between our minds and God’s (finite vs. infinite) and because of sin (sinfulness vs. holiness.). God has bridged this “chaos” through the Incarnation and the Atonement.• Wrote the Pensées (“Thoughts”), which was meant to be an apology of the Christian faith.• Pascal dealt with existence in light of eternity, directing people to make decision concerning Jesus Christ.
  5. 5. Pascal and Descartes• “I cannot forgive Descartes: in his whole philosophy he would like to do without God; but he could not help allowing him a flick of the fingers to set the world in motion; after that he had no more use for God.”• “When the late M. Pascal wanted to give an example of a fantasy for which obstinacy could win approval, he usually put forward Descartes’ opinions on matter and space.”• “The late M. Pascal called Cartesianism ‘the Romance of Nature, something like the story of Don Quixote.’” From Blaise Pascal, Pensées (tr. A. J. Krailsheimer; London: Penguin, 1966), 355-6.
  6. 6. Pascal’s Christian ApologeticOrder. Men despise religion. They hate it and areafraid it may be true. The cure for this is first toshow that religion is not contrary to reason, butworthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish itwere true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it reallyunderstands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.Pensée no. 12 (187)
  7. 7. The HeartThe heart has its reasons of which reason knowsnothing: we know this in countless ways.Pensée 423 (277)The heart has its order, the mind has its own, whichuses principles and demonstrations.Pensée 298 (283)Pascal anticipates the Romantics
  8. 8. The Heart as IntuitionWe know truth not only through our reason but alsothrough our heart. It is through the latter that weknow first principles, and reason, which has nothingto do with it, tries in vain to refute them. Thesceptics have no other object than that, and theywork at it to no purpose. We know that we are notdreaming, but, however unable we may be to proveit rationally, our inability proves nothing but theweakness of our reason, and not the uncertainty ofall our knowledge, as they maintain. For knowledgeof first principles, like space, time, motion, number,is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is onsuch knowledge, coming from the heart and instinct,that reason has to depend and base all its argument.Pensée 110
  9. 9. His apologetic strategyIf he exalts himself, I humble him.If he humbles himself, I exalt him.And I go on contradicting himUntil he understandsThat he is a monster that passes all understanding.Pensée 130 (420; cf. Rom 7:24)Cf. “The Weight of Glory” by C. S. Lewis
  10. 10. The Human Condition: WretchednessWe desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty.We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death.We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable ofeither certainty or happiness. Pensée 401 (437; cf. La Rouchefoucauld)Wretchedness. Solomon and Job have known and spoken best aboutman’s wretchedness, one the happiest, the other the unhappiest of men;one knowing by experience the vanity of pleasure, and the other thereality of afflictions. Pensée 403 (174)Greatness, wretchedness. The more enlightened we are the moregreatness and vileness we discover in man. . . . Philosophers: they surprise the ordinary run of men. Christians: they surprise the philosophers. Pensée 613 (443) [cf. Rom 7:14]
  11. 11. Existence and AlienationThe eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills mewith dread.Pensée 201 (206)Pascal is a forerunner of Existentialism
  12. 12. Existence and AlienationWhen I consider the brief span of my life absorbedinto the eternity which comes before and after – asthe remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day[Wis 5:15]– the small space I occupy and which I seeswallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces ofwhich I know nothing and which know nothing ofme, I take fright and am amazed to see myself hererather than there: there is no reason for me to behere rather than there, now rather than then. Whoput me here? By whose command and act were thistime and place allotted to me?Pensée 68 (205)
  13. 13. DeathThe last act is bloody, however fine the rest of theplay. They throw earth over your head and it isfinished for ever.Pensée 165 (210)
  14. 14.  Humanity’s Band-Aid: Diversion If our condition were truly happy we should notneed to divert ourselves from thinking about it.Pensée 70 (165b)Diversion. Being unable to cure death, wretchednessand ignorance, men have decided, in order to behappy, not to think about such things.Pensée 133-4 (169, 168)
  15. 15. Diversion from ThinkingDespite these afflictions man wants to be happy, only wantsto be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be tomake himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he hasdecided to stop himself thinking about it. . . . The only good thing for men therefore is to bediverted from thinking of what they are, either by someoccupation which takes their mind off it, or by some noveland agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling,hunting, some absorbing show, in shot by what is calleddiversion.Pensées 134 & excerpt from 136 (168 &139)
  16. 16. BoredomBoredom. Man finds nothing so intolerable as to bein a state of complete rest, without passions,without occupation, without diversion, withouteffort. Then he faces his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy,dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths ofhis soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin,resentment, despair.Pensée 622 (131)
  17. 17. Faith and Reason• If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.• If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.• [Thus] two excesses: [1] to exclude reason, [2] to admit nothing but reason. Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them. Pensées 173 and 183 & 185 (273, 253, 265)I agree that Copernicus’ opinion need not be more closely examined. But this: It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal. Pensée 164 (218)
  18. 18. Faith as a Gift from God• Faith is different from proof. One is human and the other a gift of God. The just shall live by faith [Rom 1:17]. This is the faith that God himself puts into our hearts, often using proof as the instrument. Faith cometh by hearing [Rom 10:17]. But this faith is in our hearts, and makes us not say “I know,” but “I believe.” Pensée 7• Wisdom leads us back to childhood. Except ye become as little children [Matt 18:3]. Pensée 82 (291)
  19. 19. Pascal appeals to Christian evidences• The Person and Work of Jesus Christ – Incl. the Hiddenness of God (cf. Luther) – The Incarnation in light of the Fall• Fulfilled Prophecy – Incl. the Reliability of Scripture• Testimony of the Apostles• The Jewish People• Miracles – His own niece was famously healed
  20. 20. Metaphysical Arguments for the Existence of GodThe metaphysical proofs for the existence of God areso remote from human reasoning and so involvedthat they make little impact, and, even if they didhelp some people, it would only be for the momentduring which they watched the demonstration,because an hour later they would be afraid they hadmade a mistake. What they gained by curiosity they lost throughpride. That is the result of knowing God without Christ.Pensée 190 (543)
  21. 21. Jesus Christ• This is not how Scripture speaks, with its better knowledge of the things of God. On the contrary it says that God is a hidden God, and that since nature was corrupted he has left men to their blindness, from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ, without whom all communication with God is broken off. Neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him [Matt 11:27]. Pensée 781 (242); cf. the extensive Pensée 449 (556)
  22. 22. The Testimony of the ApostlesProofs of Jesus Christ. The hypothesis that the Apostles wereknaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imaginethese twelve men meeting after Jesus’s death and conspiringto say that he had risen from the dead. This means attackingall the powers that be. The human heart is singularlysusceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery.One of them had only to deny his story under theseinducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment,tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. Followthat out.Pensée 310 (801)
  23. 23. Pascal’s WagerI should be much more afraid of beingmistaken and then finding out thatChristianity is true than of being mistaken inbelieving it to be true.Pensée 387 (241)[One must step out, but it is not a blind leapof faith . . .]
  24. 24. Pascal’s WagerFrom Peter Kreeft, Christianity for God exists God does not existModern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées,297. Pensée 387 (241) GAIN: GAIN: I believe everything nothing (eternal happiness) LOSE: LOSE: nothing nothing GAIN: GAIN: I do not believe nothing nothing LOSE: LOSE: everything nothing (eternal happiness)
  25. 25. Works Cited• Hastings, James, et al. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Google Books. Google, n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.• Kreeft, Peter. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993. Print.• Lewis, C. S. “The Weight of Glory.” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1980. Print.• New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, The. Samuel Macauley Jackson, Editor in Chief. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977. Print.• Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin, 1966. Print.