On the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great 17th-century philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal, Pope Francis has released an apostolic letter—Sublimitas et miseria hominis (‘The grandeur and misery of man’)—commemorating the life, achievements and faith of this ‘tireless seeker of truth’.
Released on 19 June 2023, the letter describes not just how Pascal’s ‘brilliant and inquisitive mind’ led to his influence being felt in several fields of knowledge, but also how his passionate devotion to Christ shaped his life and legacy.
Pope Francis has previously declared his support for Pascal’s beatification, and has quoted him repeatedly in recent years, describing his Pensées ('Thoughts')—Pascal’s unfinished defence of the Christian religion—as ‘splendid, and spiritually interesting’.
In his recent letter—which follows tributes he has paid to other great Christian intellectuals, such as the apostolic letter he published to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri—Pope Francis offers Blaise Pascal to us as ‘our travelling companion, accompanying our quest for true happiness and, through the gift of faith, our humble and joyful recognition of the crucified and risen Lord.’
So who exactly was Blaise Pascal, and why has the pope chosen to remember him in this letter?
If the term Renaissance man can refer to someone who is knowledgeable and proficient in several areas, then Blaise Pascal certainly qualifies.
Born in the town of Clermont-Ferrand in France on 19 June 1623 to Antoinette and Étienne Pascal, he would show early promise and go on to become a philosopher, mathematician, scientist, inventor and theologian of great significance.
From a young age, he was recognised as brilliant. By the age of 12, he had read Euclid’s Elements, an ancient mathematical text. By 14, he was having conversations with some of the world’s leading geometricians. And at 16, he published a treatise on projective geometry and conical sections.
At the age of 19, in 1642, Pascal invented the first mechanical ‘computer’. Referred to as ‘Pascal’s calculator’, this mechanical device was designed to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It was inspired by his father’s work as a supervisor of taxes in Rouen, and it underwent 50 prototypes before being presented to the public in 1645.
Among the many other achievements of his short life—he died at just 39 years of age—he designed the world’s first public transportation system in 1662. Known as the ‘five-penny coaches’, he organised a system of seven horse-drawn coaches that followed regular routes through Paris, carrying up to eight passengers. It was popular at first, but ultimately proved to be an idea ahead of its time. French society was still essentially feudal, and by 1675 the coaches were out of business.
In the arena of scientific experiment, Pascal was also one of the first to discover the possibility of real-world ‘vacuums’. Contrary to the ancient belief that vacuums were impossible, he took inspiration from a physicist named Evangelista Torricelli and performed an experiment that decisively proved the possibility of vacuums in nature. Perhaps it was this discovery that inspired his famous insight that there exists in every person an ‘infinite abyss [or vacuum]’ that ‘can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself’ (Pensées, §7.425).
It was also this experiment that allowed him to invent the first modern syringe, making the infusion of medicines possible.
His influence has also been felt in other areas of mathematics, especially in the development of probability theory and in his reflections on infinity. Theologically, he is best known for his ‘wager’—his argument that if you bet on God, you gain everything and lose nothing, and if you don’t, you stand to lose everything.
Blaise Pascal was the first in his family to passionately embrace Christianity, albeit a version of it that would later cause great controversy in relation to its views on free will and grace.
In 1646, his father Étienne was summoned to prevent a duel and, while on the way, slipped on the ice and fractured his leg. The bonesetters turned out to be from a community of Christians who followed the writings of Cornelius Jansen, a man who sought to uphold Augustine’s ‘true’ doctrine of grace. Jansen and his followers held to a more pessimistic view of the human person as being so fallen that they couldn’t possibly participate in their own salvation. Although the Pascal family was nominally Catholic, Pascal devoured Jansen’s writings and those associated with him.
The Jansenists would go too far in denying the involvement of a person’s free will in their salvation, but as Pope Francis notes in his letter, Pascal and Jansen’s other followers were animated by a desire to protect salvation from being regarded simply as a matter of our own Herculean efforts. They were trying to preserve the priority of God’s grace, even if their perspective on this became unbalanced. Towards the end of his life, as the pope also notes, Pascal adopted a more nuanced position on the relationship between nature and grace.
Most famously, Pascal experienced what came to be known as ‘the night of the fire’. On the evening of 23 November 1654, he had an intense and mystical conversion experience, one that affected him so deeply that he retreated from his previous inventions and experiments and devoted himself to writing about the Christian faith.
These writings—now hailed as some of the finest works of French literature—included both his Provincial Letters and his famous Pensées, containing his scattered thoughts on faith, religion, reason and human life.
After ‘the night of the fire’, Pascal wrote himself a note on a scrap of paper that he carried with him always, hidden in the lining of his coat. Discovered only after his death, it is known as ‘Pascal’s Memorial’ and begins, ‘Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your God will be my God’, and it ends with a reminder ‘Not to forget your words. Amen.’
Whatever it was that Pascal experienced, it was clearly a night that brought to life in a new way the reality of God and his personal existence.
There are many reasons Pope Francis recommends Pascal to us. First, he believes Pascal to be a man ‘marked by a fundamental attitude of awe and openness to all reality’, as evidenced by his many contributions and areas of expertise.
Pope Francis also praises his devotion to Christ as the answer to the human mystery. Pascal’s writings meditate constantly on the riddle of humanity, reflecting on our ‘grandeur’ and our ‘misery’, our longing for happiness and constant dissatisfaction, on the tangle of contradictory things we are. Francis quotes a line from the Pensées in which Pascal proposes Christ as the answer to our own mysteriousness:
Apart from Jesus Christ, we understand neither our life nor our death, neither God nor ourselves. Hence without the Scriptures, which speak solely of Jesus Christ, we know nothing and we see only darkness.
The pope also points to Pascal’s approach to faith and reason. Pascal was, in many ways, a man of reason and science, applying these principles for the good of his society. But he also recognised the limitations of reason, acknowledging that it cannot completely untangle the mystery of the human person. Reason cannot fully explain the mystery of love, for instance, nor can it explain the mystery of the human mind.
Again, Pope Francis quotes Pascal:
From all bodies put together, one could not succeed in producing a tiny thought. That is impossible and of another order. From all bodies and minds, one could not draw an impulse of true charity. That is impossible and of another, supernatural order.
For true understanding, as Blaise Pascal came to see, we need the gift of faith.
You can read Pope Francis’ full apostolic letter here.
Main image: Portrait of Blaise Pascal by an unknown artist, oil on canvas, a copy of the painting that was made for Gérard Edelinck in 1691, collection of the Palace of Versaille.
Melbourne Catholic03 March 2024
Melbourne Catholic01 March 2024