"Whoso takes this survey of himself will be terrified at the thought that is upheld in the material being, given him by nature, between these two abysses of the infinite and nothing, he will tremble at the sight of these marvels...
For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in regard to the infinite, a whole in regard to nothing, a mean between nothing and the whole; infinitely moved from understanding either extreme. The end of things and their beginnings are invincibly hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy, he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he was taken, and the infinite in which he is engulfed."
Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand, France, in 1623. His mother died when he was three-years-old, and he was educated by his father, Etienne, who had associations with the likes of Descartes, Mersenne, and Fermat. He developed what became known as Pascal's Theorem (a work on the projective geomertry of the cone) at the young age of sixteen. His other early accomplishments in mathematics included the development of probability theory and a method of infintesimal analysis. Pascal also made major contributions to physics, including a treatise on hydrostatics and experiments with his barometer to determine the cause of the mercury's suspension. With The Provincial Letters, Pascal earned fame as a rhetoritician/polemic stylist, which would thereafter greatly influenced French prose. In these letters, Pascal defended the Jansenists against attacks by the Jesuits and the Pope, although Pascal himself was not a Jansenist. Pascal's greatest mark upon philosophy comes from his Pensees -- notes which Pascal had intended to use to write Apology for the Christian Religion, which he never completed. Eight years prior to his death, Pascal had a vision of God which overwhelmed him. He noted the experience on a piece of parchment paper, which he then sewed into the lining of his coat. His servant found the notes in Pascal's coat upon his death in 1662.
As mentioned in the biography above, Pascal's greatest contribution to philosophy, particularly as a precursor to existentialist thought, is his Pensees. The notes for Apology for the Christian Religion were left by Pascal in relative disarry, leaving editors with the work of piecing the notes together into a relatively coherent whole. As a consequence, various editions of the work present the piece in varied order, depending on the editor's taste. In general, Pensees follows two major lines of argument. On the one hand, like the existentialists who would follow in his footsteps, Pascal argues that religion, from the most skeptical position, is necessary, if for no other reason, then simply because a world without the belief in God would be hopeless and absurd. On the other hand, Pascal presents coherent arguments, some of which are based on his probability theoy (i.e., Pascal's "wager"), which argue that, within reason, the belief in Christ is a rational choice.
Pascal's "wager" has engendered fierce criticism over the years from the likes of, for example, William James. The "wager" argument holds that, given the choice between a belief in Christianity and non-belief, it is more reasonable, given the potential outcomes, to believe in a Christian God. Despite the potential outcome, that either God does nor does not exist, the believing Christian "wins" in that, if God does exist, he or she will share in infinite life. If God does not exist, both the believer and the non-believer suffer the same fate; whereas, if God does exist, the unbeliever loses infinite life. In the case of James' criticism, Pascal was attacked in that his "wager" applies equally well to all other religions which promise infinite life. However, this criticism has often been defended by arguing that Pascal was not comparing Christianity to other religions, but, rather, he merely showed how a belief in Christianity holds an advantage over non-belief.
Pascal's legacy in existentialist thought is found in his recognition of the finiteness of the human being -- caught between the nothingness from which being erupts and the infinite which is unfathomably larger than we can even imagine. Despite this finitude and our 'throwness' (as Heidegger would say), the human being maintains a unique dignity which transcends mere thing-ness. As Pascal wrote:
"Man is a but a reed, weakest in nature, but a reed which thinks. It needs not that the whole Universe should arm to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But were the Universe to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which has slain him, because he knows that he dies, and that the Universe has the better of him. The Universe knows nothing of this."
Pascal's view of the paradox of human beings, torn between the infinite and the finite, as well as his religious conversion, led him to believe that reason alone is unable to bring one to God. Rather, it is only God who holds the power to deliver the human being into the hand of the divine. As Pascal wrote in, perhaps, his most often cited passage:
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason."
Blaise Pascal at The Catholic Encyclopedia
Blaise Pascal--Mathematics and the Liberal Arts
Blaise Pascal Home Page
Blaise Pascal, Scientist and Religious Writer
Blaise Pascal, Scientist, Religious Writer
Blaise Pascal, Scholar and Believer
Frank's Creative Quotations from Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal: Great Quotations to Inspire and Motivate You
Works of Blaise Pascal On-line
The Provincial Letters of Blaise Pascal
Pensees by Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal's Confession
"Existentialism and Blaise Pascal" by Katharena Eiermann
"Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart, A Review with Selected Readings from Pensées" by Danielle DuRant
"The Apologetic Methodology of Blaise Pascal" by Phil Fernandes
"Pascal - Boy-Wonder" by Eddie Yuen
"Blaise Pascal: An Apologist for Our Times" by Rick Wade
Blaise Pascal: A Gambling Man?
"Blaise Pascal: From A Short Account of the History of Mathematics" by W. W. Rouse Ball
History of Mathematics: Blaise Pascal
Pascal's Mystic Hexogram
Pascal's Calculator: The Pascaline
Another Picture of the Pascaline
Pascal Time Line
on Fire : A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent (Classics of Faith
by Blaise Pascal, James M. Houston (Editor), OS Guinness (Introduction)
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by Blaise Pascal, A. J. Krailsheimer (Translator)
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by Blaise Pascal
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Pascal : Reasons of the Heart (Library of Religious Biography)
by Marvin R. O'Connell, Mark A. Noll (Editor), Nathan O. Hatch
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for Modern Pagans : Pascal's Pensees
by Peter Kreeft (Editor), Blaise Pascal (Contributor)
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Sense of It All Pascal and the Meaning of Life
by Thomas V. Morris
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Piece of the Mountain: The Story of Blaise Pascal
by Joyce McPherson
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and Pascal on Christianity (American University Studies; Series V, Philosophy,
by Charles M. Natoli
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