Although known primarily as a scientist, mathematician, and religious apologist, Blaise Pascal can also justly be seen as a major essayist. Much of his written output consists of polemical exchanges and discourses.
The work that distinguishes him above all as an essayist is the Lettres provincials (The Provincial Letters). Appearing initially as a series of pamphlets between January 1656 and June 1657, the 18 letters were first published together, under the pseudonym of Louis de Montalte, in 1657. The reason for anonymity resulted from the highly flammable debate between two leading Catholic sects, the Jesuits (who had the support of the King, Louis XIV) and the Jansenists (whom Pascal was trying to defend).
The Jansenists (never officially accepted by the Catholic Church) were named after Cornelius Jansenius (1587–1638), a Flemish theologian and Bishop of Ypres, whose posthumously published Augustinus (1640) was an attempt to vindicate the teaching of St. Augustine against the doctrines of more recent Jesuit theologians. The Jansenists, situated initially at a convent near Paris, known as Port-Royal des Champs, and then also in Paris itself at Port-Royal, based their beliefs on the doctrine of original sin. They argued that, since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, all humankind has been corrupted by sin. Their objection to the Jesuits stemmed from what they saw as the over-reliance of the Jesuits on human free will, to the detriment of divine grace.
At the beginning of 1656, a defender of those at Port-Royal was badly needed. Antoine Arnauld, a leading theologian at Port-Royal, was about to be censured by the Sorbonne for taking a stand on five so-called heretical propositions which were allegedly to be found in Jansenius’ Augustinus. However, with the risk of imprisonment which the Port- Royal sympathizers ran if they were discovered to be the authors of any attack on the Jesuits, it was difficult to find someone who could champion their cause. Pascal turned out to be the ideal person. At that time he was famous only for his mathematical and scientific gifts, and was not known for his links with Port-Royal; it was therefore easier for him to preserve his anonymity. Another great advantage was that, because he was not trained as a theologian, he could write with a freshness and immediacy that was appealing and understandable to a wider audience, not simply to those interested in the intricacies of the religious debate. It is this seeming spontaneity which has maintained the appeal of The Provincial Letters to this day.
The letters can be divided into two main groups: letters 1-10 and letters 11–18. In the first group, we find an interplay between a naive persona (often referred to as the Louis de Montalte figure) writing to his friend in the provinces, a Jansenist friend, and some Jesuit priests. By employing the interview technique (especially in letters 4–10), Pascal manages to make the Jesuits condemn themselves with their own words. He also achieves this by the highly selective quotation of various Jesuit writers. The comedy of the situation is heightened by the contrast between Pascal’s portrayal of an irascible and buffoon-like Jesuit central figure and the quietly knowing and reasonable Jansenist friend. Much of the debate in the early letters surrounds the Jesuits’ use of terms like “proximate power” and “sufficient grace,” which, according to Pascal, enabled them to explain away their pursuit of morally reprehensible lives. Whereas the Jesuits believed that human beings had sufficient grace within them to be saved, Pascal followed the more rigorous idea of “efficacious grace,” where God alone is seen as capable of bestowing grace upon human beings. Pascal had elaborated upon these ideas in his Écrits sur la grâce (wr. c. 1657–58; Writings on grace), in which he contrasts the “disciples of St. Augustine” (Jansenists) with the Calvinists and the Jesuits (or “Molinists,” as he calls them, named after the Spanish Jesuit theologian, Molina).
In letters 11–18, all pretense of a real exchange between different personae is dropped.
The speaker (now much more knowledgeable) engages in direct polemic with the Jesuits as a whole. In the final two letters (17–18), the attack is directed specifically at Père Annat, one of the leading Jesuits and the King’s spiritual confessor. The reason for the shift in emphasis in letter 11 onward stemmed from the fact that the Jesuits themselves had launched a vigorous counterattack against the author of The Provincial Letters, and Pascal felt it necessary to respond more directly to accusations that he was making fun of religion by writing such satirical pamphlets.
Many other shorter works also mark Pascal as an essayist. In addition to a large number of scientific treatises, there exist several writings on religious or related topics.
Even the preface to his treatise on the vacuum, written in 1651 (long before his definitive conversion in 1654), contains a discussion of religious issues. In it he compares the value of recent research, where the use of reason (as in scientific experiments) is paramount, with other forms of knowledge, where the importance of tradition or authority (as in theology) is stressed.
Between 1654 and 1656, Pascal wrote a number of significant short works. A document, known as the “Mémorial,” which was found sewn into Pascal’s clothing after his death, testifies to the conversion experience he underwent on the night of 23–24 November 1654. Another work that can be linked to the conversion, the “Entretien avec Monsieur de Saci” (wr. c. 1655; Conversation with Monsieur de Saci), contains an account by Nicolas Fontaine of the conversation Pascal had soon after his conversion with his spiritual director, Isaac Le Maistre de Saci, on the subject of the worldly writers Montaigne and Epictetus. Although first published only in 1728, the “Entretien” is generally accepted as authentic, and it is probable that Fontaine based his account on a written text (now lost) by Pascal. Another work, “De l’esprit géométrique” (wr. c. 1655;
On the geometrical mind), concentrates on different kinds of reasoning and reveals the influence of Descartes (much of whose philosophy Pascal would refute in his later religious writings). There is an interesting subsection of “De l’esprit geometrique” entitled “De l’art de persuader” (On the art of persuasion), in which Pascal considers the importance of different persuasive methods, acknowledging moreover that rational methods are often less persuasive than those that appeal to the heart or will. He was to develop these ideas in his most celebrated work, the posthumously published Pensées (1670).
Because the Pensées remained uncompleted at Pascal’s death, it is uncertain what form the work would have taken. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Pascal would have juxtaposed different kinds of discourse, including fragmentary writings, maxims, letters, and dialogue. It is significant that Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588) were a major influence on the Pensées, as the disparate ordering of the former can be discerned to some extent in the latter. However, one of Pascal’s major purposes in writing the Pensées was to try and convince the non-believers and skeptics of his day, many of whom were admirers of Montaigne, of the necessity of religion, and Pascal deliberately attempts to distance himself from what he sees as the extreme egotism of Montaigne.
A number of longer passages in the Pensées constitute essays in their own right. The most notorious (and most widely interpreted) section is that known as the Wager, where Pascal uses various mathematical arguments to convince the reader of the necessity to bet in favor of the existence of God. One long passage on the “disproportion de l’homme” (disproportion of man) depicts man as caught between two extremes of infinity and nothingness. Another section chronicles the debate between pyrrhonists (or skeptics) and dogmatists (or rationalists). The conflict between these leading sects is used by Pascal to demonstrate the contradictions which abound in human philosophy, contradictions which he argues can only be resolved by a recognition of original sin.
Pascal also discusses at length the dangers of “divertissement” (diversion), showing how the quest for entertainment distracts humans from reflecting upon their wretched state.
The long fragments devoted to the three orders (material, intellectual, and spiritual) are typical of his methods in other extracts, where he speaks of a “renversement continuel du pour au contre” (constant swing from pro to contra). In the passages devoted to “raison des effets” (cause and effect), for example, he considers the different attitudes of a varied range of people to appearances, showing how different kinds of people come to the same conclusion but for different reasons.
Pascal writes at length in the Pensées on the “puissances trompeuses” (deceptive powers) which cloud man’s self-awareness and which can even create their own world, named by Pascal as “une seconde nature” (a second nature). Prominent among these are imagination, which has the strength to form its own ideal of such abstract notions as beauty, justice and happiness, self-love (amour-propre), which turns man away from love for God, and custom or habit, which plays a large part in determining social attitudes or choice of employment. Other long essay-like passages include those on the concupiscences (influenced by Augustine), human justice (largely influenced by Montaigne), and that known as “le mystére de Jésus” (the mystery of Jesus), where Pascal uses prosopopoeia to depict Christ as speaker in the fragment. Other essays in the Pensées, like those on miracles, might have been intended for separate publication.
Among Pascal’s lesser-known writings, there are a number of essays, such as “Sur la conversion du pécheur” (wr. c. 1653; Upon the sinner’s conversion), which charts the different stages a sinner might encounter on the path toward recognition of God, and “Trois discours sur la condition des grands” (wr. c. 1650; Three discourses on the condition of men of noble estate), in which Pascal advises a young nobleman on the implications of his rank.
Pascal’s confrontational style has earned him many enemies as well as admirers over the centuries since his death. Significantly, Pascal himself has been the subject of essays by writers as diverse as Voltaire, Chateaubriand, Valéry, and T. S.Eliot.
See also Pensée
Born 19 June 1613 in Clermont-en-Auvergne (now ClermontFerrand). Moved with family to Paris, 1631, and to Rouen, 1640. Studied privately, tutored mostly by father.
Scientist and mathematician; invented the “Pascaline,” a machine performing mathematical calculations, 1642–52, and conducted experiments with the vacuum, 1646– 48. Converted to Jansenism, 1646. Returned to Paris on father’s second retirement, 1647; had second conversion, 23–24 November 1654, a mystical experience he described in the “Mémorial” document of faith, which was found sewn in his doublet on his death. Made occasional retreats to Jansenist community at Port-Royal des Champs, from 1655.
Worked on a public transportation system for Paris, 1660–62. Died in Paris, 19 August 1662.
Essays and Related Prose
Lettres provindales (18 letters), January 1656-June 1657; in book form (as Louis de Montalte), 1657; edited by Louis Cognet, 1965, and Michel Le Guern, 1987; as The Provincial Letters, translated by William Andrews, 1744, Thomas M’Crie, 1847, and A.J.Krailsheimer, 1966
Pensées de M.Pascal sur la religion, et sur quelques autres sujets, edited by Ètienne Périer, 1670, revised edition, 1684, Voltaire (Condorcet Edition), 1778, A.P.Faugère, 1844, Louis Lafuma, 2 vols., 1947, Georges Brunet, 1956, Louis Marin, 1969, and Philippe Sellier, 1976; as Discours sur la religion, et quelques autres sujets, edited by Emmanuel Martineau, 1992; selections edited by André Comte-Sponville, 1992; many translations, including by J.Walker, 1688, H.F.Stewart, 1950, John Warrington, 1960,
J.M.Cohen, 1961, Martin Turnell, 1962, A. J.Krailsheimer, 1966, and Honor Levi, 1995
Great Shorter Works of Pascal, translated by E.Cailliet and John C.Blankenagel, 1948
Selections, edited by Richard H.Popkin, 1989
The Mind on Fire (selections; various translators), edited by James M.Houston, 1989
Selected Readings, edited by Robert Van De Weyer, 1991
Other writings: scientific works and a life of Jesus.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes, edited by Léon Brunschvicg, 14 vols., 1904–14; OEuvres complètes (Pléiade Edition), edited by Jacques Chevalier, 1954;
OEuvres complétes (Integrale Edition), edited by Louis Lafuma, 1963; OEeuvres complètes, edited by Jean Mesnard, 4 vols., 1964–92. (in progress).
Heller, Lane M., and Thérèse Goyet, Bibliographie Blaise Pascal (1960–1969), Clermont-Ferrand: Adosa, 1989
Maire, Albert, Bibliographie générale des ceuvres de Blaise Pascal, Paris: Giraud-Badin, 5 vols., 1925–27
Croquette, Bernard, Pascal et Montaigne: Étude des réminiscences des Essais dans I’oeuvre de Pascal, Geneva: Droz, 1974
Davidson, Hugh M., Blaise Pascal, Boston: Twayne, 1983
Hammond, Nicholas, Playing with Truth: Language and the Human Condition in Pascal’s Pensées, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994
Krailsheimer, A.J., Pascal, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980
Mesnard, Jean, Les Pensées de Pascal, Paris: Société d’Édition d’Enseignement Supérieur, 1993 (original edition, 1976)
Norman, Buford, Portraits of Thought: Knowledge, Methods and Styles in Pascal, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988
Parish, Richard, Pascal’s Lettres provinciales: A Study in Polemic, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989
Rex, Walter E., Pascal’s Provincial Letters: An Introduction, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977
Wetsel, David, Pascal and Disbelief: Catechesis and Conversion in the Pensées, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994
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