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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Arthur Graves Canfield (1859–1947)
 
BLAISE PASCAL was born at Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne, France, June 19th, 1623. His father, Étienne Pascal, was a man of wealth, education, and high judicial position, who, when Blaise was eight years old, removed to Paris especially to care for his education. Blaise showed a very precocious talent, especially for mathematics. At the age of sixteen he wrote a remarkable treatise on conic sections; at nineteen he invented a calculating machine. By this time his health, never robust, was undermined by his study, and thereafter he had to contend with disease. But in spite of it he went on with his researches in mathematics and physics. He developed the calculus of probabilities, and solved the problem of the cycloid. In 1648 he made the series of experiments which confirmed the conclusions of Torricelli, and established our knowledge of the weight of the atmosphere. Then for some years he gave himself to social pleasures and dissipations; but after his sister Jacqueline’s entrance into a convent, and a startling accident through which he nearly lost his life, he renounced the world and entered the community of Port-Royal in 1654. In its defense he wrote, under the name of Louis de Montalte, the famous ‘Lettres Provinciales,’ in 1656. The even more famous ‘Pensées’ are the fruit of the profound and poignant meditation that, with increasing bodily pains, filled out the few years until his death, August 19th, 1662.  1
  But this little outline gives no adequate suggestion of the power and versatility of his mind:
          “There was a man who at the age of twelve, with straight lines and circles, had created mathematics; who at sixteen had composed the most learned treatise on conic sections produced since ancient times; who at nineteen reduced to machinery the processes of a science that resides wholly in the mind; who at twenty-three demonstrated the weight of the atmosphere and destroyed one of the greatest errors of the older physics; who at an age when other men are just beginning to awake to life, having traversed the whole round of human knowledge, perceived its emptiness, and turned all his thoughts toward religion; who from that moment till his death at the age of thirty-eight, constantly beset by infirmity and disease, fixed the tongue that Bossuet and Racine spoke, gave the model at once of the most perfect pleasantry and of the closest logic, and finally, in the short respite that his bodily pains allowed him, solved unaided one of the deepest problems of geometry, and set down in random order thoughts that seem as much divine as human.”
  2
  In such words does Chateaubriand sum up Pascal’s career, and they hardly overstate his qualities and achievements. His contributions to the progress of mathematics and physics would be enough of themselves to make his name remembered; but they are wholly overshadowed by the fame of his two great contributions to literature,—the ‘Provincial Letters’ and the ‘Thoughts.’ Both these works have a very direct relation to his life and experience. The ‘Provincial Letters’ bear witness both to his sincere devotion to Port-Royal, and to his familiarity with the mind and spirit of worldly society. Before becoming a member of that famous little band of scholars and teachers, he had been an accomplished man of the world. He had early been attracted by the logic of the doctrines of Jansenius, and had become a zealous champion of Jansenism. But he did not therefore renounce the gay companions and pleasures of his hours of recreation. It was only as his ideas developed, and he advanced from the curious pursuit of knowledge to the imperious need of certainty, that he was driven from reason, self-convicted of insufficiency, to revelation, and the complete surrender of himself to God and to the austere religious life of Port-Royal. The influence of his sister Jacqueline’s example, and the impression made upon him by his almost miraculous escape from death, are only incidents of his approach to the experience of the night of the twenty-third of November, 1654; when, in an ecstasy of religious feeling, he felt himself possessed by Divine grace. So he brought to Port-Royal a wholly lay mind, capable of appreciating from the simple human standpoint of the common man the theological controversy over grace and free-will in which it was soon involved. He was therefore equipped as no other for bringing this quarrel before the bar of public opinion. So the ‘Provincial Letters’ are not merely, nor mainly, a skillful argument on the theological doctrines in contest. They are that at first; but from the fifth letter their field broadens, and they become a vehement and indignant impeachment of the moral teachings and practices of the Jesuits, who were the head and front of the attack against Port-Royal. In them Pascal makes an appeal to the common reason and conscience, with such an accent of intense sincerity and conviction, with such resources of irony, ridicule, illustration, and eloquent indignation, and with such command of clear, nimble, and strong speech, that the letters have long outlived the interest of the quarrel that was the occasion of them, and have become its imperishable monument.  3
  The ‘Thoughts’ are especially the expression of the life of religious devotion and meditation to which he gave himself at Port-Royal. Having given himself unreservedly to it, he could not do and suffer enough. He welcomed the pains that his feeble health imposed upon him, and doubled them by self-inflicted rigors. All the strength his infirmities left him was given to an ‘Apology for the Christian Religion,’ but he was not permitted to finish it.  4
  The ‘Thoughts’ are the fragments of this work. In them he unites the eager intellectual curiosity of the man of science with the fervent devotion of the religious ascetic and the imagination of the poet. He is possessed, almost tormented, by the imperious need of knowing, of satisfying his reason. But his reason halts appalled before the infinitely little and the infinitely great, and declares itself powerless to get beyond the partial and relative knowledge of the world and to attain absolute truth. The source of absolute certainty must then be above reason, and reason herself is summoned to testify to the superior authority of revelation and Christian faith. In the very opposition of revelation and reason he makes reason find a seal of the Divine source of revelation. But the ‘Thoughts,’ left incomplete and in disorder, do not persuade us, as Pascal intended, by close and consecutive argument and logical unity, so much as profoundly impress us by his wealth of powerful and illuminating ideas, the depth of his searching of the human heart, and the intense and passionate eloquence of his style. Few if any have given such poignant expression to the sense of disproportion between human powers and human aspirations, and of the combined grandeur and pettiness of human destiny. From all other such collections of ‘Thoughts,’ Pascal’s stand pre-eminent for the intensity of the human emotion that vibrates through them.  5
 
 
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