Blaise Pascal

1623 - 1662
by David F. Coppedge

Blaise Pascal was one of those students classmates hate; the kind that keeps the average so high, everybody looks dumb by comparison and has to struggle to get C’s. This genius did not offend too many classmates, however, because he was home-schooled. And although his father did not feel mathematics was a proper subject till age 15, young Blaise took interest at 12, and when his father relented, math became his best subject – one of many best subjects. Pascal went on to excel at just about everything he tried: physics, hydrostatics, hydrodynamics, mathematics, statistics, invention, logic, debate, philosophy, and prose. We speak of “pascals” of pressure, Pascal’s Principle, and a computer language named Pascal. Computer historians remember the Pascaline, an early mechanical calculator he invented (see illustration), and mathematicians speak of Pascal’s triangle. Literary historians call Pascal the Father of French Prose, and theologians debate Pascal’s Wager while evangelists use it to reason with sinners about the gospel. Few, however, know much about the personal life of this scientific and mathematical genius. He knew pain, he knew conflict, and he knew Jesus Christ with a depth and sensitivity that few experience. And he accomplished all his discoveries without reaching his 40th birthday.

Blaise Pascal was the youngest of three children, the only boy. His mother died when he was three years old. His father, Etienne, a tax collector, took to schooling the children himself. At age 19, Blaise started working on a mechanical calculator to help his father with his work. The Pascaline was the second such invention (the first, by Schickard, was 18 years prior). Pascal’s invention consisted of toothed wheels which engaged each other in such a way that rotating the first 10 steps would increment the next by one, and so on. It was not successful because the French currency was not a decimal system, and the calculator could only add, not subtract. Nevertheless, it was a clever piece of work for a young man who went on to greater things.

Pascal grew in reputation as a mathematician so that in his prime he corresponded with other notable scientists and philosophers: Fermat, Descartes, Christopher Wren, Leibniz, Huygens, and others. He worked on conic sections, projective geometry, probability, binomial coefficients, cycloids, and many other puzzles of the day, sometimes challenging his famous colleagues with difficult problems which he, of course, had solved on his own.

In physics, Pascal also excelled in both theory and experiment. At age 30, he had completed a Treatise on the Equilibrium of Liquids, the first systematic theory of hydrostatics. In it he formulated his famous law of pressure, that states that the pressure is uniform in all directions on all surfaces at a given depth. This principle is foundational to many applications today: submarines, scuba gear, and a host of pneumatic devices. By applying the principle, Pascal invented the syringe and the hydraulic press. Blaise Pascal’s perceptive mind enabled him to explain the rising liquid in a barometer not as “nature abhorring a vacuum,” but as the pressure of the air outside on the liquid reservoir. He argued against Descartes (who did not believe a vacuum could exist) and other Aristotelians of his day. Observing that barometric pressure dropped with altitude, he reasoned that a vacuum existed above the atmosphere. James Kiefer writes, “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’s controversies with the Jesuits had begun in his early twenties. Two brothers from a religious movement, while caring for Pascal’s father, had a profound influence on Blaise. He took great interest in a movement called Jansenism that was a kind of “back to the Bible” movement within Catholicism, that stressed salvation was the free gift of God by grace through faith. Pascal became one of their chief apologists, and in writing his Provincial Letters, also showed himself to be an exceptional logician and writer. His wit, irony, perception, knowledge, and a logic honed by mathematics, made his writing sparkle with enthusiasm and force. Kiefer writes, “He taught his countrymen how to write work that could be read with pleasure.” And indeed it can!  We encourage our readers to find out by sampling his work. Pascal is a good source of pithy quotes, proverbs, witty sayings, and thoughtful paragraphs.

His best-known work was not even titled or completed.  In his thirties, he was apparently working on an “Apology [Defense] of the Christian Religion,” but, unfortunately, at his death there was only found a stack of unorganized papers that was published as Pensées (Thoughts). Nevertheless, enough was written to give believers and unbelievers alike a great deal of food for thought: on the nature of man, sin, suffering, unbelief, philosophy, false religion, Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, heaven and hell, and much more. The entire work is available online by Project Gutenberg and highly recommended reading. If time is short, try these quotations from Goodreads.

Artwork by J. Beverly Greene commissioned for this biography. All rights reserved.

Much has been made of “Pascal’s Wager,” a philosophical challenge usually unfairly oversimplified as follows: If you choose Christianity and it is false, you lose nothing. If you reject Christianity and it is true, you lose everything. Skeptics (and many Christians) feel this is a weak argument to become a Christian. It is, but it is not what Pascal meant. James Kiefer explains that the Wager is an educated choice, not a flip of the coin. Having decided that the evidence for Christianity is strong, and having decided that union with Christ is a worthy goal in life, it is the best option to train for it like an athlete would train for the highest prize, even though the athlete cannot be sure he will win or the contest will even occur. Kiefer says, “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.” Understanding this, the Wager is not a blind hope that I’ll find myself on the right side after I die; it is a positive choice that will order my life and give me peace, joy, and purpose in the present. To avoid misrepresenting Pascal’s Wager, we encourage readers to read the argument in his own inimitable words in the Pensées. When used properly, it’s still a powerful argument for accepting Christ.

Pascal’s last writings are all the more poignant when we remember he wrote much of them while suffering intensely. A contemporary wrote, “He lived most of his adult life in great pain. He had always been in delicate health, suffering even in his youth from migraine …”  Pascal died at age 39 in intense pain from stomach cancer. After his death, a servant found a surprise in the lining of Pascal’s coat.

At age 31, Pascal had a spiritual experience that was so overpowering, he wrote it down so that he would never forget it. Somehow, after a sweet hour of prayer or worship service – he never mentioned what it was to anyone – he felt so close to God, so overjoyed with His grace and salvation, so convinced of the urgency of trusting Him, that he took hasty notes of his feelings and sewed them into the lining of his coat, to be near his heart forever. Here are those words. Consider the brilliant scientist and mathematician, the logical thinker and debater, the inventor and writer and genius that got this close to the heart of God:

Memorial

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 twelve,

Fire!

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.” (Jr 2:13)  “My God, wilt Thou leave me?” (Mt 27:46)
Let me not be separated from Him eternally.  “This is the eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and the one whom Thou hast sent, Jesus Christ.” (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.

Blaise Pascal took the wager, and won.