The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue

By Matthew L. Jones | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Mathematical Liaisons

Toward the end of his life, Pascal wrote to Pierre de Fermat: “To speak honestly to you about mathematics, I find it the greatest exercise of the mind.” The letter continues in a more negative vein: “but at the same time I know it to be so useless that I can see little difference between a man who is only a mathematician and a skilled artisan. Thus, I call it the most beautiful craft in the world; but in the end, it is only a craft; and I have often said that it is good for making an effort, but not at all for the employment of our force: so much so that I would not take two steps for mathematics, and I assure myself that you are very much of my opinion.”1 Much like Descartes in his Rules for the Direction of the Natural Intelligence, Pascal stressed the intellectual and social opposition between mathematics as a craft and mathematics as an exercise useful for other ends. Whereas Descartes disparaged Fermat as a mere “gasçon” capable of doing some tricks, Pascal admired Fermat's mathematics and his person alike: “although you are the person in all of Europe that I hold to be the greatest mathematician, that quality would not have attracted me. But I find so much of the mind and of the honnête in your conversation that I would seek you out for those [qualities].”2 Fermat had a mind—a much more generalized good judgment—in addition to his skill in mathematics. No mathematical artisan, he was an honnête homme.

Pascal had long admired those capable of combining mathematical acuity and honnêteté—a key seventeenth-century ideal of noble cultivation. Six years previously, he had encouraged Fermat to try to convince a paragon of honnêteté and amicable conversation—the chevalier de Méré—about the infinite divisibility of a mathematical line. “If you could do it,” Pascal quipped, “he would be made perfect.”3 In his works from the mid-1650s onward, Pascal insisted that mathematical and logical competencies be

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The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Abbreviations xv
  • A Note on Conventions xvii
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Descartes 13
  • Chapter One - Geometry as Spiritual Exercise 15
  • Chapter Two - A Rhetorical History of Truth 55
  • Part II - Pascal 87
  • Chapter Three - Mathematical Liaisons 89
  • Chapter Four - The Anthropology of Disproportion 131
  • Part III - Leibniz 167
  • Chapter Five - Forms of Expression 169
  • Chapter Six - Seeing All at Once 229
  • Epilogue 267
  • Notes 271
  • Bibliography 329
  • Index 363
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