Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), scientist, philosopher, and mathematician, was born in Clermont in Auvergne, France, the son of a nobleman who was a government official. A child prodigy, he learned Latin, Greek, mathematics, and science under his father's supervision. As a child he discovered Pythagoras's theorem. At sixteen he published a treatise on conic sections (projective geometry) and at eighteen invented a calculating machine. In 1646 he began work on the problem of the vacuum, which later led to his inventing the barometer. He made discoveries on the nature of probability, which, since his work was used to enhance gambling, troubled his soul.
Suddenly, on the night of November 23, 1654, he had a deeply religious experience. He calls it “The night of fire” and speaks of “joy, joy, joy, tears of joy!” and exhalts the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and scholars.” From that time forward he devoted his entire energies to his faith. Eight years earlier he had already joined the Jansenists, a radical Catholic movement, seeking to purify the Church (for example, they proposed three yearly Lents, each consisting of forty days of fasting). Now he devoted his life to carrying out their ideals.
Pascal was struck with the insignificance of human life. Man is a creature of contradictions, a creature occupying a middle position in the universe between the infinitesimal and the infinite. He is an All in relation to Nothing, a Nothing in relation to the All. Man's condition is “inconstancy, boredom, anxiety … Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.”
What kind of chimera then is man? What novelty, what monster, what chaos, what subject of con-
tradictions, what prodigy? Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth, depository of truth,
sink of uncertainty and error, glory and scum of the universe.
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after,
the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which
I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished being here rather
than there, why now rather than then.
He held that faith was the appropriate mode for apprehending God, announcing that “the heart has reasons of its own which the mind knows nothing of.”
Know, then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason. Si-
lence yourself, foolish nature, learn that man infinitely surpasses man, and hear from your mas
ter your real state which you do not know … Hear God.
In the famous section from his Pensées (Thoughts) Pascal argues that if we do a costbenefit analysis of the matter, it turns out that it is eminently reasonable to get ourselves
Reprinted from Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, translated by W. F. Trotter (New York: Collier & Son, 1910).