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It’s good to see Pascal being recognized by Pope Francis and others for his contributions. He was, indeed, a genius…..

It’s good to see Pascal being recognized by Pope Francis and others for his contributions. He was, indeed, a genius…..

The French mathematician, philosopher, and apologist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was born 400 years ago. The anniversary of his birth was recently celebrated by Pope Francis in an apostolic letter titled Sublimitas et Miseria Hominis (“The Grandeur and Misery of Man”)—reflecting one of the themes in Pascal’s writing.

Recent popes, such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have expressed appreciation for Pascal, and in 2017 Pope Francis reportedly said that he “deserves beatification.”

The pope’s 5,400-word apostolic letter makes for interesting reading. Papal documents like this are commonly ghost written, and the pope then makes the words his own when he signs and issues the document. The same is presumably true of this letter, and it is clear that whoever drafted it knows Pascal’s life and thought very well. It’s a quality read!

At least in Catholic circles, Pascal is best known today for two things: his Provincial Letters, which are a defense of the Jansenists against their Jesuit opponents, and his Pensees (French, “Thoughts”), which consists of notes that he took in preparation for an apology defending the Christian faith that he wanted to write.

However, these writings come from the later period of Pascal’s life, and he is remembered outside Catholic circles for other contributions. As the letter notes, “In 1642, at the age of nineteen, he invented an arithmetic machine, the ancestor of our modern computers.”

Pascal also made contributions in other areas, including physics (specifically, fluid dynamics, where he proposed what is now known as Pascal’s law) and mathematics (where he made numerous contributions, including being one of the founders of probability theory).

Pope Francis’s apostolic letter touches briefly on such contributions, but it focuses on the development of Pascal’s life and his Christian faith, which became more prominent as he got older.

A turning point in this regard occurred on the night of Monday, November 23, 1654, when Pascal was 31-years old. For two hours—between 10:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.—he had a profound mystical experience that led to a religious conversion.

Afterward, he wrote an intimate series of thoughts about this experience on a sheet of paper. How meaningful the experience was to him is illustrated by the fact that he thereafter carried the paper with him, keeping it in the lining of his coat, where it was discovered after his death.

What we know about this powerful mystical experience comes from the brief, tantalizing statements he made on the paper. It is now known as Pascal’s Memorial, and an English translation is available here.

Pope Francis’s letter discusses the Provincial Letters and the Jansenist controversy that occasioned them. Since the Jesuits were the target of the Provincial Letters, it is interesting to see what Francis—the first Jesuit pope—has to say. He writes:

Before concluding, I must mention Pascal’s relationship to Jansenism. One of his sisters, Jacqueline, had entered religious life in Port-Royal, in a religious congregation the theology of which was greatly influenced by Cornelius Jansen, whose treatise Augustinus appeared in 1640. In January 1655, following his “night of fire” [i.e., his mystical experience], Pascal made a retreat at the abbey of Port-Royal. In the months that followed, an important and lengthy dispute about the Augustinus arose between Jesuits and “Jansenists” at the Sorbonne, the university of Paris. The controversy dealt chiefly with the question of God’s grace and the relationship between grace and human nature, specifically our free will. Pascal, while not a member of the congregation of Port-Royal, nor given to taking sides—as he wrote, “I am alone. . . . I am not at all part of Port-Royal”—was charged by the Jansenists to defend them, given his outstanding rhetorical skill. He did so in 1656 and 1657, publishing a series of eighteen writings known as The Provincial Letters.

Although several propositions considered “Jansenist” were indeed contrary to the faith, a fact that Pascal himself acknowledged, he maintained that those propositions were not present in the Augustinus or held by those associated with Port-Royal. Even so, some of his own statements, such as those on predestination, drawn from the later theology of Augustine and formulated more severely by Jansen, do not ring true. We should realize, however, that, just as Saint Augustine sought in the fifth century to combat the Pelagians, who claimed that man can, by his own powers and without God’s grace, do good and be saved, so Pascal, for his part, sincerely believed that he was battling an implicit pelagianism or semipelagianism in the teachings of the “Molinist” Jesuits, named after the theologian Luis de Molina, who had died in 1600 but was still quite influential in the middle of the seventeenth century. Let us credit Pascal with the candor and sincerity of his intentions.

Pope Francis also touches on Pascal’s apologetics and his famous work, the Pensees. Interestingly, he does not mention the most famous part of the Pensees, which is a passage in which Pascal seeks to help those who feel unable to choose between skepticism and Christianity based on evidence.

He proposes what has become known as Pascal’s Wager, in which he offers a way to use practical reason to decide between the options when an evidential solution seems unavailable. In essence, Pascal argues that if one adopts or “bets” on skepticism and it turns out that skepticism is true, then one will at most reap a finite benefit. However, if one “bets” on Christianity and it turns out that Christianity is true, then one will receive an infinite benefit. It is thus in one’s interest to wager that Christianity is true if one feels unable to decide based on the evidence.

It should be noted that the Wager is designed only to decide between Christianity and skepticism. However, Wager-like reasoning can be applied to other religious options. (For example, if one is deciding between reincarnation and the view we only have one life, it is better to wager that we only have one life, so we need to make this one count.)

Pascal experienced his final illness in 1662. Shortly before his death, he said that if the doctors were correct and he would recover, he would devote the rest of his life to serving the poor.

However, he did not recover, and he passed on to his reward at the age of 39. It is not clear what he died of, but tuberculosis and stomach cancer have been proposed.

It is good to see Pascal being recognized for his contributions. He was, indeed, a genius, as well as a man of profound faith and insight. He is well worth studying by contemporary apologists.

Author: Jimmy Akin

Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith, and in 1992 he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”

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