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Blaise Pascal - Biography

Blaise Pascal was born June 19, 1623 in Clermont-Ferrand, France and died in Paris on August 19, 1662. He was a mathematician, physicist, theologian, and philosopher.

Blaise Pascal was only three years old when his mother died. After her death the family spent five more years in Clermont-Ferrand. Then the family moved to Paris in 1631. His father, who was a mathematician himself, decided to teach his son at home. And Blaise Blaise Pascal turned out to be an exceptionally talented child. At the age of 12 or 13 he began attending discussion groups at the Académie Parisienne with such renowned scientists such as Pierre de Fermat and René Descartes. By the age of sixteen Blaise Pascal had written two treatises, one being the acclaimed Essai pour les coniques, which already contained his geometrical theorem that is often referred to as the “mystic hexagram.” When Blaise Pascal presented the Essai at the Académie Parisienne it was discarded, by René Descartes, because of Blaise's young age.

Blaise Pascal then became an assistant to his father, who had been appointed tax collector in Rouen, France. During this time, at the age of eighteen, Blaise Pascal constructed an arithmetical machine that was able to add and subtract numbers, the “Blaise Pascaline,” of which he built more than fifty in total. Other inventions by Blaise Pascal include the syringe and the hydraulic press.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Blaise Pascal converted to Jansenism in 1646. This was a Catholic movement that condemned free will and instead underlined the importance of original sin, and that which is predestined and thus divine grace is the only assurance for salvation. However, this did not cause Blaise Pascal to yet abandon his “will” with experiments as he continued to apply himself further in scientific studies. After having returned to Paris in 1647, where he and Descartes met again, he repeated and extended the experiments of Evangelista Torricelli’s with barometers. As a result, Blaise Pascal in the same year wrote Expériences nouvelles touchant la vide (New Experiments with the Vacuum), arguing against the predominant notion that there is not a vacuum in nature.

In 1654, Blaise Pascal finished his Traité du triangle arithmétique (Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle), which remained unpublished during his lifetime. The treatise was the result of a correspondence with Pierre Fermat over the age-old problem in probability theory, the “gambling problem,” concerning the division of stakes. By creating a calculus of probabilities, the two offered a new solution. In turn, the treatise is thus Blaise Pascal’s most important mathematical work; it is to be seen as the foundation of the modern theory of probabilities.

Shortly thereafter, Blaise Pascal had a religious experience and, consequently, converted to Jansenism, a second time. In 1655 he went to accompany his sister, who had joined a Jansenist convent in Port Royal, the main centre of Jansenism, in 1651. He subsequently gave up science for four years, until he left the monastery. Yet it was during this very time in Port Royal that Blaise Pascal wrote his most famous works, the eighteen Lettres provinciales (original title: Les Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte, à un Provincial de ses amis, & aux R.R. PP. Pères Jésuites : Sur le fujet de la Morale, & de la Politique de ces Peres, 1656/57) and the Pensées (actually named Apologie de la religion Chrétienne, 1657-1663).

The instantly successful Provinciales, published under a pseudonym, intended to defend the cause of Antoine Arnauld, an advocate of Jansenism. They represent a harsh critique of the Catholic Church, criticizing it for its double moral standards and casuistry. The book was burned in 1660, yet, only a couple of years later Pope Innocent XI condemned the very casuistry criticized by Blaise Pascal. Apart from their religious importance, it is often argued that the Provinciales marked the beginning of French prose and had a great impact on the thinking of both François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

During the last years of his life, Blaise Pascal mainly devoted himself to religious issues continuing to defend the Jansenist cause against the Jesuits. As a result, he began his work on the Apologie de la religion Chrétienne, which, having remained fragmentary, was published under the title Pensées in 1670. As the title suggests, the work represents an apology for Christianity, which for Blaise Pascal represents truth alone, and which, highly influenced by his studies of the mathematics of gambling, contains the famous “wager argument,” intended to provide support for the belief in God.

Blaise Pascal demands to wager whether or not he is, concluding that there is no loss in such an attempt. Even if, as he does, wager that God does not exist, one can conclude that one should wager that he is, for it is rational to believe and irrational to not believe:

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”

According to Blaise Pascal, human reason cannot sufficiently explain whether or not God exists. This assumption is also reflected in his famous dictum:

For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either. The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.

Among his last works was another defense of Jansenism: Écrit sur la signature du formulaire (1661), though he continued to work in mathematics. From 1658 on, Blaise Pascal dedicated himself to the examination of cycloid curves and in the same year he published his last text on Jansenism, he also finished the mathematical-philosophical treatise De l'Esprit géométrique (Of the Geometrical Spirit), where he affirms that truths should be based on already existing truths. Though such first principles are actually impossible to achieve, he argues in favour of geometry as being the method that comes closest to such perfection. Here he also comes to the conclusion that such a first principle can be obtained only through intuition, a proposition that would later have a great impact on Henri Bergson.

Shortly before his death, Blaise Pascal designed a public transit system for Paris, which was put into operation in 1662. In the same year, and having suffered from poor health throughout most of his life, Blaise Pascal died at the early age of 39 in Paris, most likely from a stomach ulcer.

In his short life Blaise Pascal produced a great body of work. In mathematics, his major publications (mostly published after his lifetime) include Lettre sur le sujet de la machine inventée par le sieur B.P. pour faire toutes sortes d’opération d’arithmétique (1645) and Histoire de la roulette, appellée autrement trochoïde ou cycloïde (published in 1658 under a pseudoynm). In theology and philosophy, his most notable works are Abrégé de la vie de Jésus-Christ (ca.1654/1655), Projet de mandement contre l’Apologie pour les casuistes (written 1658, printed 1779), Ecrits sur la grâce (written between 1656 and 1658, published from 1779 onward) and Prière pur demander à Dieu le bon usages des maladies (1659). In physics, his major works include Récit de la grande expérience de l'équilibre des liqueurs (1648) and Traites de l’équilibre des liqueurs et de la pesanteur de la masse de l’air (1651).

Blaise Pascal was a mathematician, physicist, theologian, and philosopher. (June 19, 1623 – August 19, 1662)