Blaise Pascal’s Text by Frank W. Boreham
June 19, 1623 – August 19, 1662 | Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne, France
The conversion of Blaise Pascal is one of the shining events in the stately history of the Christian Church. Seldom has so mighty an intellect submitted with such perfect grace to the authority of the Savior. Pascal is not only one of the world’s epoch-makers; he is one of the architects of civilization. Every day of our lives we all of us do things that, but for Pascal, we could never have done. Every day of our lives we enjoy comforts and privileges that, but for him, could never have been ours. His commanding personality and triumphant reason dominate human life at every turn. He is one of history’s quiet conquerors; he does not advertise himself; his work does not lend itself to parade or display; yet, put him among the giants of the past, and most of them are instantly dwarfed by his presence. Few names, as Principal Tulloch says, are more classical than his. “Though cut off at the early age of thirty-nine, there is hardly any name more famous at once in literature, science, and religion.” For three centuries every thinker of note has been profoundly influenced by him. The annals of France glitter with a multitude of brilliant personalities; but none of them shine with a luster that is comparable to that of Pascal.
He was only a youth when he shook the dust of the world from his feet and entered upon the life of a lay solitary (one who lives apart from the world in a cloistered community) at Port Royal (Port-Royal-des-Champs); yet the amazing thing is that, by that time, he had established a reputation for mathematical audacity, philosophical originality, and scientific ingenuity which no record in the world’s long history can rival. He was Bossut says, endowed by Nature with all the gifts of understanding; a geometer of the first rank; a profound logician, a lofty and eloquent writer. If, Bossut maintains, we scan a list of his inventions and discoveries, and then reflect that, in addition, he wrote one of the most perfect works that has ever appeared in the French language, and that in all his books there are passages of unrivaled eloquence and depth of reflection, we shall come to the conclusion that a greater genius never existed in any country or in any age. Again and again, while Pascal was a mere boy, Paris was electrified by his dazzling discoveries. As one reads the romantic and almost incredible story of those early years, it is impossible to repress a conjecture as to the part that he would have played in the history of the world, and the sensational changes that he would have effected, if he had persisted in the career to which he devoted his earlier years, and if he had been spared to old age in the pursuit of those researches.
The bent of his mind betrayed itself as soon as he was out of his cradle. Like John Stuart Mill, he was educated by his father. Like the elder Mill, the elder Pascal had ideas of his own concerning the intellectual development and ultimate career of his boy. But there is an essential difference between the two cases. John Stuart Mill loyally adopted his father’s ideas and dutifully followed the path that had been prepared for his feet. Blaise Pascal, on the contrary, rebelled against the program mapped out for him, and eventually brought his father to his own way of thinking.
The elder Pascal was obsessed by one all-mastering prejudice. He was determined, come what might, that his boy should have nothing to do with mathematics. He was himself a mathematician; and experience had taught him that the study of mathematics captivates and monopolizes the mind to the exclusion of all other themes. He therefore set himself to guard his son’s mind from all contact with mathematical lore. Every book that touched on mathematical problems was carefully concealed; in the presence of the boy the father rigidly abstained from discussing mathematical topics with his friends; and, to make matters absolutely secure, the father set his son such difficult lessons in Latin and other languages as would leave him neither time nor energy nor inclination for the speculations that he so ardently desired him to eschew. But, in all this, the elder Pascal resembles nothing so much as an anxious hen frantically endeavoring to teach her brood of ducklings to avoid the water towards which all the instincts of their nature are impelling them.
As a child Pascal was characterized by an extraordinary and insatiable curiosity. It was not merely the passive curiosity that smiles, wonders, and passes on: it was the active curiosity that insists on investigating the why and the wherefore of each arresting circumstance and phenomenon. He was little more than an infant when he noticed that a plate, struck with a knife, emits a loud and lingering sound; but that, as soon as a hand is laid upon it, the sound instantly ceases. Every child has noticed this, and has been interested and amused by it: but the matter has ended there. Pascal, however, immediately initiated a series of experiments based upon this curious happening. Why did the knife awaken the sound? Why did the fingers silence it? The boy was soon working out a philosophy of sounds. His father had forbidden his meddling with geometry in any form; but the temptation was too great. In the secrecy of his own room he kept a supply of charcoal and a few boards. On these he practiced making circles that should be perfectly round, triangles whose angles should be exactly equal, and other figures of the kind. Working away by himself, he came, quite independently, to many of the conclusions elaborated by Euclid. On one such occasion, the father crept into the room on tiptoe. The boy was so engrossed in his demonstrations that for some time he was unaware of his father’s presence. The father stood for a while dumbfounded. He felt as the hen may be supposed to feel when she sees the ducklings well out on the pond. He recognized that the boy was in his element. Startled by the brilliance of his son’s genius, he left the room without saying a word. And, with a wisdom that does him credit, he strode off to the city to secure for the youth teachers who would be able to assist him along the line for which he had so obvious a bent.
At the age of sixteen Pascal wrote his famous treatise on Conic Sections. The most brilliant Frenchmen of the time were staggered. With one accord they declared that it was the most powerful and valuable contribution that had been made to mathematical science since the days of Archimedes. While still in his teens, Pascal made up his mind that Science, to fulfill its destiny, must relate itself to the industry and commerce of the workaday world. Acting on this principle, he began by inventing a calculating machine and finished by inventing, on his deathbed, the commonplace but useful vehicle that we now call an omnibus. The difficulties involved in the construction of the calculating machine prevented its being of much use to his own generation; but, later on, those obstacles were overcome, and the contrivance of Pascal paved the way for all the cash registers and adding machines of our modern shops and offices. But perhaps the greatest triumph of Pascal’s genius was his discovery that atmosphere has definite weight, and that the level of the mercury varies in different altitudes and in different weather. Sir David Brewster has given us a vivid and amusing description of the experiments made by Pascal first at the base, and then at the summit, of the Puy-de-Dome on the memorable day on which he established his historic conclusions. On that day – Saturday, September 19, 1648 – Pascal virtually gave us the barometer, and thus made a contribution to the science of meteorology which it is impossible now to overvalue. This triumph led him to his prolonged series of researches concerning the equilibrium of fluids; and there are those who regard his treatise on this subject as his crowning achievement. But, however that may be, there he stands! He is still in his twenties; yet all the world knows him as a thinker of unsurpassed brilliance and audacity; as a scientist who knows how to harness the most profound erudition to the most practical ends; and as a writer who can express the most abstruse ideas in language that a little child can understand.
The greatest day in Pascal’s life was the day of his conversion. Except in the light of that momentous happening, his biography is unintelligible. As Dean Church puts it, the religion of Pascal is essentially the religion of a converted man. He was thirty-one at the time; and so overwhelming was the floodtide of divine grace that came surging into his heart that, to the day of his death, he wore stitched into his doublet a piece of parchment on which he had recorded the exact hour of that unforgettable experience. It was in the year of grace 1654, on Monday the twenty-third of November, from half-past ten in the evening until half an hour after midnight.
Yet while in one sense, that conversion of his was so sudden and cataclysmic that he can chronicle with the utmost definiteness the precise moment at which it took place, there is another sense in which it was very gradual. I can trace its slow development. Eight years earlier, in 1646, a number of excellent books had fallen into his hands. This course of reading so affected him, his sister tells us, that he came to the conclusion that, to be a Christian, a man ought to live only for God and to seek no object but His pleasure. “This became so evident to my brother, and so imperative, that he relinquished for a time all his scientific researches and set himself to seek that one thing needful of which our Lord has spoken.”
Having once applied himself to this sublime quest, he kept his eyes wide open. The most arresting object on his horizon was the exquisite beauty of his sister’s life. In earlier days, his studious ways had rebuked her frivolity and led her to seriousness: now her devotion shames his worldliness. She led a life of such sweetness, unselfishness, and charm that her very presence was a perpetual benediction on everybody in the house. It was a poignant grief to her to see her brother, to whom she felt that she owed the grace that she herself enjoyed, bemoaning the destitution of his own soul. She saw him frequently, pitied him increasingly, and pleaded with him to abandon everything that clogged his spirit and to yield himself without reserve to the Savior.
The momentous crisis was precipitated at length by accident. “One day,” says Bossut, “when he went to take his daily drive to the bridge of Neuilly in a carriage and four, the two leading horses became restive at a point at which the road was bounded by a parapet over the river. They reared and plunged and eventually to the horror of the onlookers, flung themselves over the stonework into the Seine. Fortunately, the first strokes of their feet broke the traces which bound them to the pole, and the carriage hung suspended on the brink of the parapet. The effect of such a shock on a man of Pascal’s feeble health may be imagined. He swooned away, and was only restored with difficulty. His nerves were so shattered that, long afterwards, during sleepless nights and moments or weakness, he seemed to see a precipice at his bedside over which he was on the point of falling.” This happened in October, 1654: a month later he found joy and peace in believing. “On the night of the twenty-third of November,” says Madame Duclaux, “he found himself unable to sleep, and lay in bed reading the Scriptures. Suddenly his eyes dazzled; a flame of fire seemed to envelop him. Such a moment of marvelous euphoria could never be forgotten, and, in mortal words, could never be expressed. It found natural utterance in floods of tears and in that fragmentary speech which, like so many sobs, Pascal employs in that mystic Memorial which thenceforth he ever wore in secret, sewn into his clothes like a talisman.” Here it is:
Certainty! Joy! Peace!
I forget the world and everything but God!
Righteous Father, the world hath
Not known Thee, but I have known Thee!
Joy, Joy, Joy! Tears of Joy!
I separated myself from Him; renounced and
They have forsaken ME, the fountain of living waters!
I separated myself from HIM!
May I not be separated from Him eternally!
I submit myself absolutely to
JESUS CHRIST MY REDEEMER.
In that hour, Blaise Pascal, the mightiest thinker of his time, was converted! “All in a moment,” as Viscount St. Cyres puts it, “he was touched by God. He was caught in the grip of a mysterious Power. Some strange spiritual chemistry blotted out his former tastes and inclinations and left him a new being.” He himself called it his conversion; and, in order that others might share with him the rapture of so radiant an experience, he sat down almost at once and wrote his treatise On the Conversion of the Sinner. And, if ever we are tempted to suppose that his fire-baptism was simply one moment of frenzy punctuating a life of scholarly frigidity, we are confronted by the significant circumstance that, to his dying day, he wore the Memorial next to his heart. He was loyal to his vision to the end. “And so,” he wrote, when nearing his goal, “and so I stretch forth my hands to my Redeemer, who came to earth to suffer and to die for me.” In that faith – so simple yet so sublime – so personal yet so profound – Pascal rested serenely to the last.
My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. This is the passage that was running in Pascal’s mind that November midnight; and he inscribed it across the very center of his historic Memorial.
“His eyes had been opened,” says Dean Church. “He felt himself touched and overcome by the greatness and the reasonableness of things unseen. He consciously turned to God, not from vice, but from the bondage of the interest of time, from the fascination of a merely intellectual life and from the frivolity which forgets the other world in this.”
Here then are the cisterns, the broken cisterns that can hold no water – “the bondage of the interests of time: from the fascination of a merely intellectual life; the frivolity which forgets the other world in this!”
And here is the fountain of living waters that he for so long forsook! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus Christ my Redeemer! From that November midnight, Jesus was everything to Pascal – everything! “His whole argument,” says Viscount St. Cyres, “centers in the person of the Redeemer.” “To him,” says Principal Tulloch, “Christ was the only solution of all human perplexities.” From the age of thirty-one to the day of his death, at the age of thirty-nine, he had but one desire: he lived that he might turn the thoughts of men to his Savior.
It may be that, during those last years of his brief life, he devoted less time to science, although, as his biographers are careful to show, he by no means relinquished it. But, as against this, we must remember that, during those closing years, he wrote a book that will be treasured as long as the world stands. Lord Avebury included it in his list of the best books ever written. And nobody has read Pascal’s Thoughts without being lifted by it into a clearer atmosphere, and helped to a loftier plane.
Blaise Pascal was endowed with a soul of singularly delicate texture. He had a mind that was amazingly sensitive to all those vibrations by which truth reveals itself to men; he had an eye that was quick to see beauty in whatever form it presented itself; he had a heart that insistently hungered for the sublime. In his early days he saw the High and it entranced him; but on that never-to-be-forgotten November night, he saw the Highest. Without reserve and without delay he laid all his marvelous faculties of heart and brain at the feet of the Savior who, that night, had revealed Himself in such a bewildering wealth of power and grace.
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