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Pascal's Pensées

Pascal's Pensées
Title: Pascal's Pensées
Release Date: 2006-04-27
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
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A Dutton Paperback

New York

This paperback edition of
"Pascal's Pensées"
Published 1958 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
All rights reserved. Printed in the U. S. A.

SBN 0-525-47018-2

[Pg vii]


It might seem that about Blaise Pascal, and about the twoworks on which his fame is founded, everything that there isto say had been said. The details of his life are as fully knownas we can expect to know them; his mathematical andphysical discoveries have been treated many times; hisreligious sentiment and his theological views have been discussedagain and again; and his prose style has been analysedby French critics down to the finest particular. But Pascalis one of those writers who will be and who must be studiedafresh by men in every generation. It is not he who changes,but we who change. It is not our knowledge of him thatincreases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towardsit. The history of human opinions of Pascal and of men ofhis stature is a part of the history of humanity. That indicateshis permanent importance.

The facts of Pascal's life, so far as they are necessary forthis brief introduction to the Pensées, are as follows. Hewas born at Clermont, in Auvergne, in 1623. His familywere people of substance of the upper middle class. Hisfather was a government official, who was able to leave, whenhe died, a sufficient patrimony to his one son and his twodaughters. In 1631 the father moved to Paris, and a fewyears later took up another government post at Rouen.Wherever he lived, the elder Pascal seems to have mingledwith some of the best society, and with men of eminence inscience and the arts. Blaise was educated entirely by hisfather at home. He was exceedingly precocious, indeedexcessively precocious, for his application to studies in childhoodand adolescence impaired his health, and is heldresponsible for his death at thirty-nine. Prodigious, thoughnot incredible stories are preserved, especially of his precocityin mathematics. His mind was active rather than accumulative;he showed from his earliest years that disposition tofind things out for himself, which has characterised the infancy[Pg viii]of Clerk-Maxwell and other scientists. Of his later discoveriesin physics there is no need for mention here; it must only beremembered that he counts as one of the greatest physicistsand mathematicians of all time; and that his discoveries weremade during the years when most scientists are still apprentices.

The elder Pascal, Étienne, was a sincere Christian. About1646 he fell in with some representatives of the religiousrevival within the Church which has become known asJansenism—after Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres, whose theologicalwork is taken as the origin of the movement. This period isusually spoken of as the moment of Pascal's "first conversion."The word "conversion," however, is too forcible to be appliedat this point to Blaise Pascal himself. The family had alwaysbeen devout, and the younger Pascal, though absorbed in hisscientific work, never seems to have been afflicted withinfidelity. His attention was then directed, certainly, toreligious and theological matters; but the term "conversion"can only be applied to his sisters—the elder, already MadamePérier, and particularly the younger, Jacqueline, who at thattime conceived a vocation for the religious life. Pascal himselfwas by no means disposed to renounce the world. After thedeath of the father in 1650 Jacqueline, a young woman ofremarkable strength and beauty of character, wished to takeher vows as a sister of Port-Royal, and for some time her wishremained unfulfilled owing to the opposition of her brother.His objection was on the purely worldly ground that shewished to make over her patrimony to the Order; whereaswhile she lived with him, their combined resources made itpossible for him to live more nearly on a scale of expensecongenial to his tastes. He liked, in fact, not only to mixwith the best society, but to keep a coach and horses—sixhorses is the number at one time attributed to his carriage.Though he had no legal power to prevent his sister fromdisposing of her property as she elected, the amiable Jacquelineshrank from doing so without her brother's willing approval.The Mother Superior, Mère Angélique—herself an eminentpersonage in the history of this religious movement—finallypersuaded the young novice to enter the order without thesatisfaction of bringing her patrimony with her; but Jacquelineremained so distressed by this situation that her brotherfinally relented.

So far as is known, the worldly life enjoyed by Pascal during[Pg ix]this period can hardly be qualified as "dissipation," andcertainly not as "debauchery." Even gambling may haveappealed to him chiefly as affording a study of mathematicalprobabilities. He appears to have led such a life as anycultivated intellectual man of good position and independentmeans might lead and consider himself a model of probityand virtue. Not even a love-affair is laid at his door, thoughhe is said to have contemplated marriage. But Jansenism,as represented by the religious society of Port-Royal, wasmorally a Puritan movement within the Church, and itsstandards of conduct were at least as severe as those of anyPuritanism in England or America. The period of fashionablesociety, in Pascal's life, is however, of great importance in hisdevelopment. It enlarged his knowledge of men and refinedhis tastes; he became a man of the world and never lost whathe had learnt; and when he turned his thoughts whollytowards religion, his worldly knowledge was a part of hiscomposition which is essential to the value of his work.

Pascal's interest in society did not distract him fromscientific research; nor did this period occupy much space inwhat is a very short and crowded life. Partly his naturaldissatisfaction with such a life, once he had learned all it hadto teach him, partly the influence of his saintly sister Jacqueline,partly increasing suffering as his health declined, directedhim more and more out of the world and to thoughts of eternity.And in 1654 occurs what is called his "second conversion,"but which might be called his conversion simply.

He made a note of his mystical experience, which he keptalways about him, and which was found, after his death,sewn into the coat which he was wearing. The experienceoccurred on 23 November, 1654, and there is no reason todoubt its genuineness unless we choose to deny all mysticalexperience. Now, Pascal was not a mystic, and his worksare not to be classified amongst mystical writings; but whatcan only be called mystical experience happens to many menwho do not become mystics. The work which he undertooksoon after, the Lettres écrites à un provincial, is a masterpieceof religious controversy at the opposite pole from mysticism.We know quite well that he was at the time when he receivedhis illumination from God in extremely poor health; but itis a commonplace that some forms of illness are extremelyfavourable, not only to religious illumination, but to artistic[Pg x]and literary composition. A piece of writing meditated,apparently without progress, for months or years, maysuddenly take shape and word; and in this state long passagesmay be produced which require little or no retouch. I haveno good word to say for the cultivation of automatic writingas the model of literary composition; I doubt whether thesemoments can be cultivated by the writer; but he to whomthis happens assuredly has the sensation of being a vehiclerather than a maker. No masterpiece can be producedwhole by such means; but neither does even the higher formof religious inspiration suffice for the religious life; even themost exalted mystic must return to the world, and use hisreason to employ the results of his experience in daily life.You may call it communion with the Divine, or you may callit a temporary crystallisation of the mind. Until sciencecan teach us to reproduce such phenomena at will, sciencecannot claim to have explained them; and they can be judgedonly by their fruits.

From that time until his death, Pascal was closely associatedwith the society of Port-Royal which his sister Jacqueline, whopredeceased him, had joined as a religieuse; the society wasthen fighting for its life against the Jesuits. Five propositions,judged by a committee of cardinals and theologiansat Rome to be heretical, were found to be put forward inthe work of Jansenius; and the society of Port-Royal, therepresentative of Jansenism among devotional communities,suffered a blow from which it never revived. It is not theplace here to review the bitter controversy and conflict; thebest account, from the point of view of a critic of genius whotook no side, who was neither Jansenist nor Jesuit, Christiannor infidel, is that in the great book of Sainte-Beuve, Port-Royal.And in this book the parts devoted to Pascal himselfare among the most brilliant pages of criticism that Sainte-Beuveever wrote. It is sufficient to notice that the nextoccupation of Pascal, after his conversion, was to write theseeighteen "Letters," which as prose are of capital importancein the foundation of French classical style, and which aspolemic are surpassed by none, not by Demosthenes, orCicero, or Swift. They have the limitation of all polemic andforensic: they persuade, they seduce, they are unfair. But itis also unfair to assert that, in these Letters to a Provincial,Pascal was attacking the Society of Jesus in itself. He was[Pg xi]attacking rather a particular school of casuistry which relaxedthe requirements of the Confessional; a school which certainlyflourished amongst the Society of Jesus at that time, and ofwhich the Spaniards Escobar and Molina are the mosteminent authorities. He undoubtedly abused the art ofquotation, as a polemical writer can hardly help but do; butthere were abuses for him to abuse; and he did the jobthoroughly. His Letters must not be called theology.Academic theology was not a department in which Pascalwas versed; when necessary, the fathers of Port-Royal cameto his aid. The Letters are the work of one of the finestmathematical minds of any time, and of a man of the worldwho addressed, not theologians, but the world in general—allof the cultivated and many of the less cultivated of theFrench laity; and with this public they made an astonishingsuccess.

During this time Pascal never wholly abandoned hisscientific interests. Though in his religious writings hecomposed slowly and painfully, and revised often, in mattersof mathematics his mind seemed to move with consummatenatural ease and grace. Discoveries and inventions sprangfrom his brain without effort; among the minor devices ofthis later period, the first omnibus service in Paris is said toowe its origin to his inventiveness. But rapidly failing health,and absorption in the great work he had in mind, left himlittle time and energy during the last two years of his life.

The plan of what we call the Pensées formed itself about1660. The completed book was to have been a carefullyconstructed defence of Christianity, a true Apology and akind of Grammar of Assent, setting forth the reasons whichwill convince the intellect. As I have indicated before,Pascal was not a theologian, and on dogmatic theology hadrecourse to his spiritual advisers. Nor was he indeed asystematic philosopher. He was a man with an immensegenius for science, and at the same time a natural psychologistand moralist. As he was a great literary artist, his bookwould have been also his own spiritual autobiography; hisstyle, free from all diminishing idiosyncrasies, was yet verypersonal. Above all, he was a man of strong passions; andhis intellectual passion for truth was reinforced by his passionatedissatisfaction with human life unless a spiritualexplanation could be found.[Pg xii]

We must regard the Pensées as merely the first notes fora work which he left far from completion; we have, in Sainte-Beuve'swords, a tower of which the stones have been laidon each other, but not cemented, and the structure unfinished.In early years his memory had been amazingly retentive ofanything that he wished to remember; and had it not beenimpaired by increasing illness and pain, he probably wouldnot have been obliged to set down these notes at all. Buttaking the book as it is left to us, we still find that it occupiesa unique place in the history of French literature and in thehistory of religious meditation.

To understand the method which Pascal employs, thereader must be prepared to follow the process of the mind ofthe intelligent believer. The Christian thinker—and I

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