GREAT FRENCH MORALISTS: Blaise Pascal is the «French Leonardo» and author of epiphanies
Art design: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
This summer is precisely 400 years since the birth of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) — one of the universal geniuses of mankind. Physics and geometry, mechanics and theology, philosophy and literature, mathematics and hydrostatics — this is an incomplete list of branches of human knowledge, in each of which the French scientist showed his outstanding abilities and achieved significant results.
Pascal’s achievements are so multifaceted and essential that the title «French Leonardo», which I have established, characterizes the importance of the scientist’s personality as accurately as possible. Living only 39 years, Pascal made fundamental discoveries in hydrostatics, probability theory, and projective geometry. He invented the first counting machine and hydraulic press.
Thanks to Pascal, the first public transportation appeared in Paris: a carriage for 8 people — omnibus (Latin for «for all»), which constantly ran along a specific route. The unit of pressure in the International System is named in his honor. Emperor Napoleon appreciated Pascal’s intelligence and claimed he would have made him a senator. The most famous wager in the history of religion is called Pascal’s wager.
But many of us know Blaise Pascal is interesting as a writer and philosopher, the author of «The Pensées (Thoughts)» — a book where a brilliant literary style helps to reveal the scientist’s views on human nature, his ideas about God and morality, the essence of faith and goodness.
All these precise philosophical reflections, like the laws of physics he discovered, claim to be absolute truths, axioms of the rules of human existence.
Fine minds marvel at Pascal as a writer most perfect in the greatest age of the French language. Every line that came from his pen is revered as a jewel
BIOGRAPHY OF THE PRODIGY AND HIS INGENIOUS DISCOVERIES
Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623 in the family of the head of the tax department Etienne Pascal and Antoinette Begon in the city of Clermont-Ferrand, located in the central region of France. At the age of three, Blaise was left without a mother. The boy’s upbringing and education were led by his father, who himself was a talented mathematician and even became famous for having investigated the algebraic curve, now known as «Pascal’s snail».
Etienne Pascal’s pedagogical plan envisioned a step-by-step education: from the age of 12 — languages, from 15 — exact sciences. Seeing his son’s unprecedented interest in geometry, he hid all the books on mathematics so as not to distract him from the study of languages, which, however, did not prevent young Blaise from drawing charcoal on the floor geometric figures and re-prove Euclid’s theorem on the sum of angles of a triangle. The incredible giftedness of his son forced Pascal’s father to change his decision, and soon, he allowed Blaise to study math books.
The mysteries of nature and the riddles of science were revealed to him from an early childhood.
Once, at the age of 11, Blaise accidentally nicked an earthenware dish with a knife — it made a sound, but the boy noticed that if he took the plate with his hand, the sound disappeared. Trying to find an explanation for this, he conducted several acoustic experiments, the results of which he later outlined in «Treatise on Sounds».
From the age of 14, Pascal attends weekly seminars of the famous mathematician of the time, Maren Mersenne, where he gets acquainted with the geometer Gerard Desargues. Blaise carefully studies his geometric ideas, complements and improves them, and in 1640, the first printed edition of Pascal’s scientific research — the book «The Generation of Conic Sections».
At the age of 19, wanting to help his father in his endless arithmetic operations to calculate taxes, Blaise invented the world’s first counting machine, which was called «Pascaline». Pascal made about 50 arithmometers, but due to the high cost of production, their sale was not successful and did not bring profit.
Despite this, Pascal’s counting machine was patented, and its manufacture without the author’s permission was punishable by a huge fine. 200 years later, the principles of Pascal’s machine became the basis for the production of mechanical calculators, which became objects of widespread consumption.
Among Blaise Pascal’s textbook discoveries is the law of pressure on a liquid or gas being transmitted equally in all directions. 7th grade physics students learn it as the basic equation of hydrostatics, according to which hydraulic presses and car braking systems work.
And in 1648, on the Tour of Saint-Jacques in Paris, Blaise Pascal measured atmospheric pressure, repeating the legendary experiment of Galileo’s pupil Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647), which is also mentioned in school.
Pascal’s genius left a footprint wherever he showed scientific interest. Thus, as a result of correspondence with the mathematician Pierre de Fermat, the scientist managed to lay the foundation of a new section of mathematics — the theory of probability. Pascal even notified the Paris Academy of Sciences by letter about the plan to write a work — «Mathematics of Chance».
The only thing that prevented the development of the full power of Pascal’s creative abilities from his youth was the poor state of his health. Continuous headaches — and modern doctors suspect that Pascal suffered from a brain tumor — plagued the scientist for many years of his life and caused his premature death.
It was fate that Pascal became a true chosen one of God and was able to do in such a short period of time what could not be accomplished even after living two or three long lives.
«THE PENSÉES (THOUGHTS)» (1670)
Let no one say that I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better. I had as soon it said that I used words employed before. And in the same way if the same thoughts in a different arrangement do not form a different discourse, no more do the same words in their different arrangement from different thoughts! Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects
In 1657–1658, Pascal began work on religious apologia, in which he planned to defend religion from the attacks of atheism. But because of a serious illness and subsequent August 19, 1662 death, he was not able to finish the book. The supposed title of the book «Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects» was later shortened by Voltaire to the short and world-famous title — «Thoughts».
Pascal’s «Thoughts» is an ingenious draft of an unfinished book, the architecture of which was entirely at the mercy of the publishers. Over the long history of publication, the order of the 912 disparate fragments left to us by the author has varied widely, and this structure has been influenced by the religious, literary, and even political attitudes of the publishers.
There is still no canonical edition of «Thoughts», and the debate about the order of the fragments in Pascal’s book has not subsided to this day. For the textual basis of «Thoughts» in the XXI century, take either the edition of Degrange 1964 or the so-called three-hundred-year edition of the Complete Works of Pascal 1964–1992, published under the direction of Jean Menard.
But the point is not the order in which Pascal states his views; it is what he says that matters.
«Thoughts» is a book where the small «i» of a man named Blaise Pascal becomes an all-encompassing phenomenon of the «I» of the universal, and when the author speaks in the first person, he always means everyone — our third person: «Speaking of their works, other authors say: “My book, my commentary, my history”. It would be better to say, “our book, our commentary, our history”».
«Thoughts» is the purest spring of humanism. Pascal regards both the greatness and nothingness of man as the absolute norm of existence, for he does not believe in the moral progress of mankind. The history of mankind does not inspire him with optimism, but he realizes that it is within his power to improve mankind: «As a stone thrown into the sea has an effect on the whole sea, so every man has an effect on the whole of humanity».
Pascal explores the essence of man with the precision of a geometer and attempts to legitimize his unique worldview in a manner similar to the physical laws he discovered.
Thinking as a huge human possibility is considered by Pascal in an inseparable unity with the structure of the whole universe: «It is not from space that I must seek my dignity but from the government of my thought. I shall have no more if I possess worlds. By space, the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought, I comprehend the world».
To think accurately means to live correctly and act correctly: «Let us try to think honorably — this is the basis of morality».
Pascal is sure: that it is impossible to preserve man without preserving God.
Pascal’s Wager for Pascal himself is a win-win: «If there is no God and I believe in Him, I lose nothing. But if there is a God and I don’t believe in Him, I lose everything».
However, the religiosity of the writer and scientist is not contrived, not made up, it flows from the depths of his heart, not accidental, but God’s chosen man.
And we realize that none of us can be Pascal, for such people appear in a unique number and stand in a narrow row on the plaza of eternity as the pride and glory of mankind.
We can only try to perceive with our minds the moral precepts of Blaise Pascal and try to follow them, at least to some extent.
Whether we succeed or not is no longer a question, for the very attempt to become more perfect and kinder is always worthy of praise by non-existence.
LIVING BY PASCAL. ALEXANDER DIANIN-HAVARD, FROM THE BOOK «7 PROPHETS» (2023)
«To live like Pascal is to find one’s heart, to accept it as the center of the personality and the foundation of reason and will.
To live like Pascal is to live in search of truth and to communicate that truth to people in a graceful and accessible way. To persuade, not to conquer.
To live like Pascal is to realize your insignificance without God and your greatness with Him. To understand yourself.
To live like Pascal is not to hide the emptiness of your life without God in entertainment or workaholism.
To live like Pascal means to be seriously concerned about the salvation of one’s soul. Not to tolerate spiritual indifference.
To live like Pascal means to live realistically, making conscious choices, not naively, dreaming of Progress.
To live like Pascal means to choose between Christ crucified and nothingness».