Excerpt from Pascal's Pensées, by Blaise Pascal

    02.16.20 | Faith by Blaise Pascal


    It might seem that about Blaise Pascal, and about the two works on which his fame is founded, everything that there is to say had been said. The details of his life are as fully known as we can expect to know them; his mathematical and physical discoveries have been treated many times; his religious sentiment and his theological views have been discussed again and again; and his prose style has been analysed by French critics down to the finest particular. But Pascal is one of those writers who will be and who must be studied afresh by men in every generation. It is not he who changes, but we who change. It is not our knowledge of him that increases, but our world that alters and our attitudes towards it. The history of human opinions of Pascal and of men of his stature is a part of the history of humanity. That indicates his permanent importance.

    The facts of Pascal's life, so far as they are necessary for this brief introduction to the Pensées, are as follows. He was born at Clermont, in Auvergne, in 1623. His family were people of substance of the upper middle class. His father was a government official, who was able to leave, when he died, a sufficient patrimony to his one son and his two daughters. In 1631 the father moved to Paris, and a few years later took up another government post at Rouen. Wherever he lived, the elder Pascal seems to have mingled with some of the best society, and with men of eminence in science and the arts. Blaise was educated entirely by his father at home. He was exceedingly precocious, indeed excessively precocious, for his application to studies in childhood and adolescence impaired his health, and is held responsible for his death at thirty-nine. Prodigious, though not incredible stories are preserved, especially of his precocity in mathematics. His mind was active rather than accumulative; he showed from his earliest years that disposition to find things out for himself, which has characterised the infancy[Pg viii] of Clerk-Maxwell and other scientists. Of his later discoveries in physics there is no need for mention here; it must only be remembered that he counts as one of the greatest physicists and mathematicians of all time; and that his discoveries were made during the years when most scientists are still apprentices.

    Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher, who laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities.


    Mathematician Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. In the 1640s he invented the Pascaline, an early calculator, and further validated Evangelista Torricelli's theory concerning the cause of barometrical variations. In the 1650s, Pascal laid the foundation of probability theory with Pierre de Fermat and published his most famous theological work Les Provinciales, a groundbreaking series of letters that defended his Jansenist faith. Pascal is also widely known for his body of notes posthumously released as the Pensées. He died in Paris on August 19, 1662.

    Background and Early Life

    Inventor, mathematician, physicist and theological writer Blaise Pascal, born on June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France, was the third of four children and only son to Etienne and Antoinette Pascal. His mother passed away when Blaise was just a toddler and he became exceptionally close to his two sisters Gilberte and Jacqueline. His father, Etienne, was a tax collector and talented mathematician.

    Etienne moved the family to Paris in 1631. He had decided to educate Blaise—a child prodigy—at home so he could design an unorthodox curriculum and make sure that Blaise was able to express his own innate curiosity. It's also believed that Blaise may have been educated at home due to issues around his health. Ironically, Etienne omitted mathematics from his son's early curriculum out of concern that Blaise would become so fascinated with geometry that he wouldn’t be able to focus on classical subjects.

    The beginning of Blaise’s education was geared toward languages, especially Latin and Greek. Even so, Etienne's plan backfired: The fact that mathematics was a forbidden topic made the subject even more interesting to the inquisitive boy, who at the age of 12 began exploring geometry on his own. He made up his own terminology, not having learned official mathematical terms, and quickly managed to work out that the sum of a triangle's angles are equal to two right angles.

    Mystic Hexagram and Religious Conversion

    Etienne was impressed. In answer to Blaise's unswerving fascination, his father permitted him to read the works of ancient Greek mathematician Euclid. Etienne also allowed Blaise to accompany him to meetings at Mersenne's Academy in Paris. It was there, at age 16, that Blaise presented a number of his early theorems, including his Mystic Hexagram, to some of the premier mathematical thinkers of the time.

    After a bit of political tumult, the Pascal family drew up stakes once again in 1640. They moved to Rouen, France, where Blaise's father had been appointed the previous year to collect taxes. In 1640, Pascal also published his first written work, Essay on Conic Sections. The writings constituted an important leap forward in projective geometry, which involved transferring a 3-D object onto a 2-D field.

    In 1646, Etienne was seriously injured in a fall that resulted in a broken hip, rendering him housebound. The accident created a shift in the family's religious beliefs, as the Pascals had never fully embraced local Jesuit ideas. After Etienne's accident, he received medical visits from two brothers who were also followers of Jansenism, a particular denomination within the Catholic Church. Their influence, presumably coupled with trauma over Etienne's health, led the family to convert. Blaise became devoutly religious and sister Jacqueline eventually becoming a Jansenist nun. 

    Blaise Pascal's Wager

    Inventions and Discoveries

    In 1642, inspired by the idea of making his father's job of calculating taxes easier, Blaise Pascal started work on a calculator dubbed the Pascaline. (German polymath William Schickard had developed and manufactured an earlier version of the calculator in 1623.) The Pascaline was a numerical wheel calculator with movable dials, each representing a numerical digit. The invention, however, was not without its glitches: There was a discrepancy between the calculator's design and the structure of French currency at the time. Pascal continued to work on improving the device, with 50 prototypes produced by 1652, but the Pascaline was never a big seller.

    In 1648, Pascal starting writing more of his theorems in The Generation of Conic Sections, but he pushed the work aside until the following decade.