In , he corresponded on the subject of gambling problems with his friend Pierre de Fermat , a lawyer, an amateur mathematician and a noted gambler. Together the two correspondents effectively founded the modern theory of probability , thus strongly influencing the development of not only mathematics but also other fields like economics and social science. However, Pascal did make it famous in the Western world and hence it bears his name. Blaise Pascal had an intense religious vision in after which he focused his talents almost exclusively on religious writing. Between January, and March, , Pascal published a series of eighteen letters to defend the Jansenist community of Port-Royal against the Jesuits, who accused them of heresy.
These are now known as Lettres provinciales Provincial letters. In the Provincial letters, Pascal denounced casuistry as the mere use of complex reasoning to justify moral laxity and all sorts of sins. The Pensees contained a detailed and coherent examination and defense of the Christian faith. It first appeared in print in and soon became a classic. The Pensees is widely considered to be a masterpiece and a landmark in French prose.
Due to his great literary works, the Pensees and Lettres provinciales, Blaise Pascal is regarded as one of the most important authors of the French Classical Period and one of the greatest masters of French prose. He is also considered by many as an early pioneer of existentialism , a philosophical theory centered on analysis of individual existence.
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. Learnodo Newtonic. Please enter your comment! Pascal ventured into this particular fray with a unique set of weapons — a mind honed by mathematical exercise and scientific debate, a pointed wit, and sharp-edged literary and dramatic skills. Even the just, no matter how hard they may strive, lack the power and grace to keep all the commandments.
In our fallen condition it is impossible for us to resist interior grace. In order to deserve merit or condemnation we must be free from external compulsion though not from internal necessity. Two separate questions were at stake: 1 Are the propositions actually in Jansen, if not explicitly and verbatim , then implicitly in meaning or intention?
This was the so-called question of fact de fait. This was the question of right or law de droit. The Port-Royal position was yes in the case of the second question, no in the case of the first. Despite the fact that he disavowed any support for the five propositions, he and the Port-Royal community as a whole stood under suspicion of secretly approving, if not openly embracing them.
Such was the situation that Pascal found himself in when he sat down to compose the first provinciale. What he produced was something utterly new in the annals of religious controversy. In place of the usual fury and technical quibbling, he adopts a tone of easy-going candor and colloquial simplicity. Through devices of interview and dialogue Montalte manages to present these issues in relatively clear, understandable terms and persuade the reader that the Jansenist and Thomist views on each are virtually identical and perfectly orthodox.
He goes on to show that any apparent discrepancy between the two positions — and in fact the whole attack on Jansenism and Arnauld — is based not on doctrine, but is entirely political and personal, a product of Jesuit calumny and conspiracy. In effect, a complicated theological conflict is presented in the form of a simple human drama.
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Irony and stinging satire are delivered with the suave aplomb of a Horatian epistle. Not all of the provinciales deal with the same issues and concerns as the first. In fact some of the later letters, far from being breezy and affable, are passionate and achieve sublime eloquence; others are downright vicious and blistering in their attack. Letters offer a defense of Arnauld, challenging his trial and censure. Letter 4, pitting a Jesuit against a Jansenist, serves as a bridge between provinciales and Letters attack Jesuit casuistry and doctrine; in them Montalte accuses the Society of hypocrisy and moral laxity and of placing ease of conscience and the glory of the Order above true Christian duty and love of God.
Letter 14 includes an extended discussion of both natural and divine law and makes an important ethical distinction between homicide, capital punishment, and suicide. In Letter 17, a virtual reprise and summation of the case of the five propositions, he repeats once again that he writes purely as a private citizen and denies that he is a member of Port Royal. Since Pascal was neither a monk nor a solitaire within the community, the claim is technically accurate, though it arguably leaves him open to the same charges of truth-bending and casuistry that he levels against the Jesuits.
Although the Letters gained a wide readership and enjoyed a period of popular success, they failed to achieve their strategic goal of preserving Port-Royal and Jansenist doctrine from external attack. They also had a few unfortunate, unintended consequences. They were blamed, for instance, for stirring up cynicism, disrespect, and even contempt for the clergy in the minds of ordinary citizens.
After the publication of the provinciales , the term Jesuitical would become synonymous with crafty and subtle and the words casuistry and casuistical would never again be entirely free from a connotation of sophistry and excuse-making. Banned by order of Louis XIV in and placed on the Index and burned by the Inquisition, the provinciales nevertheless lived on underground and abroad with their popularity undimmed. Today, the provinciales retain documentary value both as relics of Jansenism and as surviving specimens of 17 th -century religious polemic, but modern readers prize them mainly for their literary excellence.
They represent the original model not only for the genre of satirical non-fiction, but for classic French prose style in all other genres as well. Rabelais and Montaigne were basically inimitable and far too quirky and idiosyncratic to serve as a style model for later writers. Can an act be both voluntary and irresistible?
Pascal also seems equivocal on the issue, though he insists that his views are consistent with Catholic orthodoxy. However, even there his account is abstruse and theological rather than blunt and philosophical and is thus of interest mainly to specialists rather than general readers. Sainte-Beuve compared the work to a tower in which the stones have been piled up but not cemented. Inspired by the force and certainty of his own conversion and by the late excitement of the Holy Thorn, Pascal was further encouraged by the recent success of the provinciales.
Confident in his powers of argument and persuasion, both logical and literary, he felt called upon to undertake a bold new project. The new work was to be nothing less than a definitive affirmation and justification of Christianity against its detractors and critics. It would also be an exercise in spiritual outreach and proselytization — an earnest appeal, addressed to both the reason and the heart, inviting scoffers, doubters, the undecided, and the lost to join the Catholic communion. In the spring of , he presented a detailed outline of his project, explaining its scope and goals, to an audience of friends and members of Port-Royal.
The work would be unified, but layered and textured, with multiple sections and two main parts:. Second part : That there is a Redeemer. Proved by Scripture. The project was designed as an example of what is today termed immanent apologetics. He will instead appeal to the unfolding history of the Christian faith from its roots in Old Testament prophecy through its early development to the modern Church.
In essence, Pascal will leave it to readers to decide whether his account of the human condition and his descriptions of their social and physical worlds not as they might wish them to be, but as they actually experience them in our daily lives are credible and persuasive. If the reader accepts his accounts, Pascal will be halfway to his goal. It will remain for him to further convince readers that the solution to our wretchedness, to the disorder and unfairness of life, is acceptance of Jesus Christ.
To support this claim, he will offer historical evidence in its favor from the authority of Scripture and ancient witnesses, and also in the form of miracles, prophecies, and figural typological hermeneutics. However, he admits that this evidence will not be conclusive — for Christianity can never be proved by reason or authority alone. Such in essence was the plan. Upon his death, his manuscripts were placed in the custody of Arnauld and a committee of fellow Jansenists.
While transcribing the manuscripts, the committee produced two variant copies. Several new editions, with different arrangements of the material, appeared over the next century. Yet even with its multiple subject headings and wide range of topics, the work can still be read as the deep exploration of a single great theme: the Human Condition, viewed under its two opposing yet interrelated aspects — our wretchedness without God, and our greatness with Him. Pascal argues that without God our spiritual condition is essentially a state of misery characterized by anxiety, alienation, loneliness, and ennui.
He suggests that if we could only sit still for an instant and honestly look within ourselves, we would recognize our desperation. However, we spend most of our time blocking out or concealing our true condition from ourselves via forms of self-deception and amour-propre. Like Augustine before him, Pascal accurately describes mechanisms of denial and ego-defense long before they were clinically and technically defined by Sigmund Freud. They may even consist of pastimes that are basically innocent, but which are nevertheless vain, trivial, or unedifying, for example, sports like tennis and fencing.
So are all the luxuries, consumer goods, and worldly delights with which we proudly surround ourselves.
According to Pascal, we use these goods and activities not, as we self-flatteringly suppose, to certify our achievements or add a touch of bonheur to our inner life. On the contrary, we use them mainly as a way of concealing our bleak inner reality from ourselves and from one another. They are a means of denying our own mortality and hollowness. In effect diversions prevent us from acknowledging our essential misery. They create a false sense of security that hides the abyss or vacuum within. On the other hand, wretchedness and insecurity are only part of our nature.
We are one part misery and one part grandeur; and alongside our feelings of isolation and destitution we also have a profound sense of our intrinsic dignity and worth. For thought, he argues, is the whole basis of our dignity, the attribute of our nature that elevates and separates us from the rest of the material universe.
But the title is appropriate, since the work as a whole could well be described as an extended meditation on human consciousness, on what it means to think. The first, which could be called the conventional or historical approach, is the one favored by most literary scholars and historians of religion, including most notably Philippe Sellier, David Wetsel, and Jean Mesnard.
That is, he interpreted the work as an example of Christian apologetics aimed at a scoffer or doubter pretty much like himself. To the claim that the human condition is one of anxiety and wretchedness, he responds that we are neither as wicked nor as miserable as Pascal says.
He even suggests that Christianity would be better off without such strained and overwrought apologetics, which he compared to trying to prop up an oak tree by surrounding it with reeds. The poet and critic T. That is, it presents a cri de coeur or cri de triomphe that provides a direct look into the heart and soul of a penitent former sinner who, after a long and agonizing struggle, finds Christ and renounces the world.
They also offer different interpretations of the audience or addressee of the work. A private confession addressed to God? A dialog between Pascal and the reader? Between Pascal and himself? Or are they meant also as a meditative exercise and inspiration for active Christians, a spiritual tool to help guide believers and strengthen their faith?
Or perhaps Pascal, in the manner of St. Paul, is trying to be all things to all people and thus to a certain extent trying to do some or all of the above at the same time? Pascal was proclaimed a heretic and a Calvinist during his lifetime and has been called everything from a skeptic to a nihilist by modern readers. New Testament antitype; reason vs. Those polarities are homologous with and paralleled by the larger historical oppositions of the period: the new science vs. Catholicism; and so forth.
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These discussions address a range of issues relating to the Wager, such as its status in the development of decision theory and probability theory, the various objections that have been made against it, and the numerous revised or alternate versions and applications that have been derived from it. This section will take up only two matters related to the topic: 1 the question of whether or not Pascal himself sincerely approved the Wager and believed that it presents a legitimate and persuasive argument for faith in God; 2 the response to the Wager on the part of a few selected philosophers and critics along with a glance at some of its precedents in literary history.
Simply characterized, the Wager is a second-person dialog in which Pascal imagines an individual forced to choose between belief in God and disbelief in Him. The conditions and possible outcomes of the Wager are presented in the following table:. For consider: if you bet on His existence, you stand to win an infinite reward an eternity in paradise at the risk of only a small loss whatever earthly pleasures you would be required to forego during your mortal life. Pascal was a lifelong Catholic whose personal conversion from lukewarm to whole-hearted faith was accomplished not by rational argument but by a life-changing mystical experience.
After all, what better than a wager to entice a gambler? Similarly, Pascal, in the role a latter-day apostle, uses a game of chance as a net to bring sinners to salvation. The concept of the Wager was by no means original with Pascal. On the other hand, we risk a great deal of personal hardship by failing to show him proper reverence if he truly is a god.
The friar responds that the pain is trivial, if we remember Hell. Then art thou a greater fool. A comical modern parody of the Wager occurs in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. But if he wins, the gamblers will have to attend a midnight revival meeting at the Save-a-Soul mission. Sky wins his wager. If so, how much? In effect, he argues that in a case where the truth is uncertain and the alternatives, immortality of the soul vs. His non-existence, appear equally probable, it is legitimate to prefer the more hopeful option as being the choice more likely conducive to overall happiness.
When religious faith expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trumps. Surely Pascal's own personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart. We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted willfully after such a mechanical calculation would lack the inner soul of faith's reality; and if we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern from their infinite reward He argues that there are matters where the truth is in doubt and science is incapable of passing judgment as in the question of whether God exists.
Where that choice is, in his terms, live meaning that it seems of vital interest and value to us and engages us emotionally , momentous meaning that it is non-trivial and has serious consequences , and forced meaning that we must choose one way or the other and cannot simply sit the fence or stand aside , then it is lawful, indeed even necessary for us to weigh the risks and evidence and choose.
First published in , the work was written at the same time as the provinciales and covers much of the same ground proximate power, concupiscence, free will, and so forth , though in a more serious and less cavalier manner and in a more direct and methodical form.
Adam was upright but free to fall; we children of Adam are weighed down by sin, and incapable of rising by our own effort. But, we are free to accept grace and can therefore be lifted up. Pascal dissects the problem of free will in a similarly Augustinian fashion. Adam had free will in the sense that he could freely choose either good or evil, though he naturally inclined to the former. We, in our concupiscent state, are also free to choose. However, we are naturally inclined to prefer evil, which in our ignorant, fallen condition we commonly mistake for good.
Pascal also points out that through the grace of Jesus Christ, a grace instilled by the Holy Spirit, we can achieve a redeemed will — a will sufficient to overcome concupiscence and capable of recognizing and choosing good. He asserts that geometry and mathematics are the only areas of human inquiry that provide knowledge that is both certain and infallible. He then supports this claim with arguments and demonstrations. The most popular way of dealing with the Discourse has been simply to dismiss it as uncanonical and regard it as, at bottom, some kind of anonymously composed pastiche that incorporates bits and echoes of Pascal along with selections from other sources.
One can indeed easily imagine the pair challenging their shy friend to attempt such an exercise and then delighting in his successful performance. The work which is addressed to a young man of high degree begins with a parable about a castaway on an island whom the inhabitants owing to his close physical resemblance mistake for their long-lost king. Such, Pascal argues, is the condition of those born to nobility or wealth within society: it is only by coincidence or lucky accident and by the power of custom and convention, not by nature, that they have their status.
Pascal concludes the Discourses by reminding his young learner of his true condition and enjoins him to rule and lead with beneficence. Simply stated, the political philosophy expressed in the Discourses is noblesse oblige. Pascal acknowledges that the origins of human inequality are of two kinds, natural and institutional. The former arise from relative abilities or deficiencies of mind or body.
For instance, A has better eyesight than B; X is taller and stronger than Y. Institutional inequalities, unless they are sanctioned by divine law, are entirely conventional and sometimes even arbitrary and can be rescinded or overturned. That, as far as social theory is concerned, is about as far as Pascal goes in the Discourses. This reading is defective in at least two ways. It expresses the blend of neo-stoicism and contemptus mundi that was common in prayers and sermons of the day.
Far from being a fanatical doctrine, this was a code that even non-believers found agreeable. Indeed most of us find it admirable when individuals who are sorely afflicted with a disease or who have suffered the loss of an organ or limb accept their condition with fortitude and equanimity. The minor work Entretien avec M. It is the record of a conversation that took place between Pascal and his spiritual director Lemaistre de Sacy shortly after Pascal took up residence at Port-Royal in The portrait of Pascal that emerges from the Conversation is well drawn and seems authentic, and the words and style are recognizably his own.
Pascal praises Epictetus as a brilliant philosopher whose knowledge of our essential moral duties and especially of our need for patience, courage, faith, and humility is unsurpassed. For example, Epictetus wrongly supposes that human reason is a perfectly reliable guide to truth. He also errs in holding that the mind and the senses are sufficient for perceiving and understanding the true nature and overall justice of the cosmos. Of Montaigne, Pascal remarks that although he was a professed Catholic he nevertheless chose to forego Christian doctrine as a source of moral law and turned instead to his, admittedly fallible, personal judgment and natural instinct as ethical guides.
Pascal then goes on to criticize Montaigne for his utter and thoroughgoing Pyrrhonism symbolized by the device of a scales that Montaigne had emblazoned on the ceiling of his study with his famous motto Que sais-je? What do I know? Near the end of the conversation, Pascal launches into an oratorical peroration describing how the errors, imperfections, and opposing polarities represented by the two philosophers are ultimately mediated and reconciled in the person of Jesus Christ. It is therefore from this imperfect enlightenment that it happens that the one [that is, Epictetus] knowing the duties of man and being ignorant of his impotence, is lost in presumption, and that the other [that is, Montaigne], knowing the impotence and being ignorant of the duty, falls into laxity; whence it seems that since the one leads to truth, the other to error, there would be formed from their alliance a perfect system of morals.
But instead of this peace, nothing but war and a general ruin would result from their union; for the one establishing certainty, the other doubt, the one the greatness of man, the other his weakness, they would destroy the truths as well as the falsehoods of each other. So that they cannot subsist alone because of their defects, nor unite because of their opposition, and thus they break and destroy each other to give place to the truth of the Gospel. This it is that harmonizes the contrarieties by a wholly divine act, and uniting all that is true and expelling all that is false, thus makes of them a truly celestial wisdom in which those opposites accord that were incompatible in human doctrines.
Such is the marvelous and novel union which God alone could teach, and which He alone could make, and which is only a type and an effect of the ineffable union of two natures in the single person of a Man-God. Pascal made his first important mathematical discovery and published his first article, the Essay on Conics , at the age of sixteen.
Barely an essay at all, the work is a one-page document consisting of three diagrams, three definitions, and two lemmas. Although it had little immediate impact beyond a small circle of mathematicians, it was nevertheless a breakthrough contribution to the emerging new field of projective geometry.
It states that if six points are situated on a conic section an ellipse, parabola, or hyperbola , and if these points are then joined by line segments to form a hexagon, then if the sides of this hexagon are projected beyond the section, the pairs of opposite sides will meet in three points all of which lie on a straight line.
Figure 1: Pascal's "Mystic Hexagram. In this case all the points lie entirely outside the ellipse. Eventually these manuscripts were turned over to the great German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz for his evaluation and use. In the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli, testing a hypothesis suggested by Galileo, took a glass tube closed at one end and filled it with mercury.
He then inverted the tube, open end down, into a bowl also containing mercury and watched as the mercury in the tube dropped slightly leaving a vacant space at the top. Contrary to the prevailing scientific view upheld by Aristotelians and Cartesians alike according to which a vacuum in nature is a physical impossibility, Torricelli surmised that the space at the top of the tube was indeed a vacuum and that it was created by the pressure of the external air, which exactly balanced the pressure exerted by the column of mercury inside the tube.
Just obtaining the required apparatus posed a huge challenge. Scientists of the era typically had to design, specify, oversee the production of, test, and of course pay for their own equipment. Pascal did all that and then went to work conducting his own experiments and demonstrations. Confident of his results, he went on tour to demonstrate his hypothesis, which he was able to do using tubes of different length and diameter and a variety of liquids. He published his findings in a short pamphlet New Experiments concerning the Vacuum Using two identical tubes, the team measured the levels of mercury at a base point in the town.
Then, with a portion of the party staying behind to monitor the mercury level in one tube, which remained at the home base, Florin and the rest of the party ascended the mountain with the other tube and measured the mercury level at various elevations. It was found that the level of mercury in the mobile or test tube varied inversely with the altitude. Meanwhile, the mercury level in the stationary or control tube never varied.
Repeated experiments produced the same conclusive results: the level of mercury was due to air pressure, which also has the ability to create a vacuum.
It is not on this occasion only that, when the weakness of men has been unable to find the true causes, their subtlety has substituted imaginary causes to which they have given specious names filling the ears and not the mind. The rule [of scientific method] is never to make a decisive judgment, affirming or denying a proposition, unless what one affirms or denies satisfies one of the two following conditions: either that of itself it appear so clearly and distinctly to sense or to reason, according as it is subject to one or the other, that the mind cannot doubt its certainty, and this is what we call a principle or axiom, as, for example, if equals are added to equals, the results are equal; or that it be deduced as an infallible and necessary consequence from such principles or axioms.
Everything satisfying one of these conditions is certain and true, and everything satisfying neither is considered doubtful and uncertain. We pass decisive judgment on things of the first kind and leave the rest undecided, calling them, according to their deserts, now a vision , now a caprice , occasionally a fancy , sometimes an idea , and at the most a happy thought ; and since it is rash to affirm them, we incline rather to the negative, ready however to return to the affirmative if a convincing demonstration brings their truth to light….
For all things of this kind [that is, hypothetical entities] whose existence is not manifest to sense are as hard to believe as they are easy to invent. Many persons, even among the most learned men of the day, have opposed me with this same substance [that is, rarified air or some comparable ethereal matter] before you but simply as an idea and not as a certain truth , and that is why I mentioned it among my propositions.
Others, to fill empty space with some kind of matter, have imagined one with which they have filled the entire universe, because imagination has this peculiarity that it produces the greatest things with as little time and trouble as little things; some have considered this matter as of the same substance as the sky and the elements, and others of a different substance, as their fancy dictated, for they disposed of it as of their own work.
But if we ask of them, as of you, that you show us this matter, they answer that it cannot be seen; if we ask that it make a sound, they say it cannot be heard, and so with all the remaining senses; and they think they have done much when they have convicted others of powerlessness to show that it does not exist by depriving themselves of all power to show that it does.
Pascal later composed, but never published, two detailed monographs that were discovered among his manuscripts after his death: a Treatise on the Equilibrium of Liquids and a Treatise on the Weight of the Mass of Air. It is in recognition of his important work in the study of fluid mechanics that a standard unit of pressure is today known as the pascal Pa , defined as a force equal to 1 Newton per square meter.
Suppose, Pascal was asked, that you are given 24 rolls of a pair of dice. What is the probability of your throwing double sixes at least one time? This problem asks, if a wager game is terminated before it has been completed, how should the contestants divide the stakes?
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For example, suppose that A and B are playing a winner-take-all game in which a point is scored on every try and the winner is the first player to reach ten points. How should the stakes be divided if the game is terminated after A has 7 points and B has 5? Pascal developed solutions to these and other problems relating to the calculation of gambling odds and in an exchange of letters shared his insights with the great Toulouse mathematician Pierre de Fermat. Together the two correspondents effectively founded the modern theory of probability.
Blaise Pascal Biography
He sent a copy of this document to Fermat during their correspondence, but it was never published until after his death. He was simply interested in demonstrating its fascinating properties and powers. Figure 2. Pascal's Triangle. Overlapping his work on the roulette machine was Pascal's correspondence with mathematical theorist Pierre de Fermat, which began in Through their letters discussing gambling and Pascal's own experiments, he found that there is a fixed likelihood of a particular outcome when it comes to the roll of the dice.
This discovery was the basis of the mathematical theory of probability, with Pascal's writings on the subject published posthumously. Although the specific dates are uncertain, Pascal also reportedly invented a primitive form of the wristwatch. It was an informal invention to say the least: The mathematician was known to strap his pocket watch to his wrist with a piece of string, presumably for the sake of convenience while tinkering with other inventions. Antoine Arnauld was a Sorbonne theologian who defended Jansenist beliefs, and thus found his position under fire from papal doctrine and university faculty.
Pascal wrote a series of pseudonymous open letters from that ultimately came to be known as Les Provinciales. The writings defended Arnauld and critiqued Jesuit beliefs while exhibiting a groundbreaking style, relying on relatively tight, sharp prose with irony and satire. The most oft cited portion of the collection is Pascal's famed "Wager," in which he states that it is more advantageous for religious skeptics to embrace a belief in God as they ultimately have more to lose if a higher power is revealed after death.
Pascal, a complex personality, was described by biographer Donald Adamson as "precocious, stubbornly persevering, a perfectionist, pugnacious to the point of bullying ruthlessness yet seeking to be meek and humble. Pascal died of a malignant stomach tumor at his sister Gilberte's home in Paris on August 19, By then, the tumor had metastasized in his brain.
He was 39 years old. During the 20th century, the Pascal Pa unit was named after the thinker in honor of his contributions to the understanding of atmospheric pressure and how it could be estimated in terms of weight. In the late s, Swiss computer scientist Nicklaus Wirth invented a computer language and insisted on naming it after Pascal. This was Wirth's way of memorializing Pascal's invention of the Pascaline, one of the earliest forms of the modern computer.
We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us! Sign up for the Biography newsletter to receive stories about the people who shaped our world and the stories that shaped their lives. French physicist Pierre Curie was one of the founding fathers of modern physics and is best known for being a pioneer in radioactive studies.