Blaise Pascal

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Pascal, Blaise

(blĕz päskäl`), 1623–62, French scientist and religious philosopher. Studying under the direction of his father, a civil servant, Pascal showed great precocity, especially in mathematics and science. Before he was 16 he wrote a paper on conic sections which won the respect of the mathematicians of Paris; at 19 he invented a calculating machine. Credited with founding the modern theory of probability, Pascal also discovered the properties of the cycloid and contributed to the advance of differential calculus. In physics his experiments increased knowledge of atmospheric pressure through barometric measurements and of the equilibrium of fluids (see Pascal's lawPascal's law
[for Blaise Pascal], states that pressure applied to a confined fluid at any point is transmitted undiminished throughout the fluid in all directions and acts upon every part of the confining vessel at right angles to its interior surfaces and equally upon equal
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). As a young man, Pascal came under the influence of Jansenism, and in 1651 his sister Jacqueline, who had also embraced Jansenist beliefs, entered the convent at Port-Royal, the center of the movement. As a result of the death of his father and of his own narrow escape from death, Pascal in 1654 experienced what he called a "conversion" and thereafter turned much of his attention to religion. When Antoine Arnauld, a noted Jansenist, was attacked by the Jesuits, Pascal championed him in his Lettre escrite à un provincial (1656). Those Provincial Letters, rendered into Latin, quickly circulated throughout Europe, and they still hold a leading place in the literature of polite irony. Pascal's religious writings were posthumously published as Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets (1670). For a modern edition see Thoughts: An Apology for Christianity (tr. 1955). In the Pensées, famous both as a religious and philosophical classic, Pascal states his belief in the inadequacy of reason to solve man's difficulties or to satisfy his hopes. He preached instead the final necessity of mystic faith for true understanding of the universe and its meaning to man.


See biographies by A. J. Krailsheimer (1980), H. H. Davidson (1983); studies by E. Cailliet (1944, repr. 1973), R. Hazelton (1974), S. E. Melzer (1986), and G. Hunter (2013).

Pascal, Blaise


Born June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand; died Aug. 19, 1662, in Paris. French religious philosopher, writer, mathematician, and physicist.

Pascal’s father was a highly educated jurist and an accomplished mathematician, and in rearing his children he was influenced by the pedagogical ideas of Montaigne. Pascal demonstrated outstanding mathematical aptitude at an early age and appears in the history of science as a classic example of an adolescent prodigy.

Pascal’s first mathematical treatise, Essai pour les coniques (Essay on Conics), was written in 1639 and published in 1640. It was a development of the works of G. Desargues and contained one of the basic theorems of projective geometry—Pascal’s theorem. In 1641 (according to some data, 1642) Pascal constructed a calculating machine. In 1654 he completed a number of works on arithmetic, number theory, algebra, and probability theory; these works were published in 1665. The range of Pascal’s mathematical interests was broad. He discovered a common algorithm for testing the divisibility of any integer by any other integer (On the Character of the Divisibility of Numbers). He is often credited with the discovery of Pascal’s triangle, which is a means of calculating binomial coefficients, and he formulated a number of basic theses of elementary probability theory (Traité du triangle arithmetique, published 1665, and his correspondence with P. Fermat). In these works, Pascal was the first to define precisely the method of mathematical induction and to use that method for proofs. His studies of the cycloid were an important step in the development of the analysis of infinitesimals. Pascal used geometric form to describe an integral calculus for determining areas of figures, volumes of solids, and areas of surfaces and to solve other problems connected with cycloids. His theorem on the characteristic triangle was one of the sources for G. von Leibniz’ differential and integral calculus.

Along with Galileo and S. Stevin, Pascal is considered a founder of classical hydrostatics. He established the fundamental law of hydrostatics, now called Pascal’s law, and discovered the operating principle of the hydraulic press. Pascal pointed out the common nature of the basic laws of equilibrium of liquids and gases. An experiment carried out in 1648 under his direction confirmed E. Torricelli’s hypothesis of the existence of atmospheric pressure.

[Preceding section based on the 2nd edition of the Bol’shaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia]

Pascal’s work in the exact sciences dates mainly from the 1640’s and 1650’s. Later he grew disappointed with the abstract nature of these sciences and turned to religious interests and philosophical anthropology. Becoming closely associated with the Jansenists, he began leading a semimonastic way of life in the Jansenist Convent of Port-Royal des Champs in 1655. He conducted an energetic polemic against the Jesuits on questions of religious ethics. The fruit of this polemic, his Lettres provinciales (Provincial Letters), was published in 1657 and is a masterpiece of French satirical prose. In the last years of his life, Pascal’s concerns centered on an attempt at an apology for Christianity through philosophical anthropology. This work was never finished; aphoristic notes for it were posthumously published in 1669 in “amended” form under the title Pensées de M. Pascal surla religion et sur quelques autres sujets (Thoughts of M. Pascal on Religion and on Some Other Subjects). Only with the textological work of the 19th and 20th centuries has it become possible to restore the authentic text of the Pensées.

Pascal’s place in the history of philosophy lies in his being the first thinker to pass through the experience of 17th-century mechanistic rationalism and to formulate clearly the question of the boundaries of the scientific. He drew attention to the “reasons of the heart,” as opposed to the “reasons of the mind,” and thus anticipated the later irrationalist current in philosophy—ranging from F. H. Jacobi and romanticism to the existentialists. Pascal’s view of Christianity was based on its traditional synthesis with cosmology and Aristotelian or Neoplatonic metaphysics and with the political ideology of monarchism (the alliance of throne and altar); nevertheless, Pascal refused to construct an artificially harmonized theological model of the world. His perception of the cosmos was expressed in the words “this eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me.” His view of man was dynamic: “Man’s state is inconstancy, melancholy, and uneasiness.” Pascal does not tire of speaking of the tragic nature and the frailness of man. At the same time, he stresses man’s worth, which lies in the act of thinking. Man, Pascal says, is a “thinking reed,” and “in space, the universe embraces and swallows me up; in thought I embrace it.” Pascal’s concentration on anthropological problems anticipates S. Kierkegaard’s and F. M. Dostoevsky’s conception of the Christian tradition.

Pascal played an important role in the formation of French classicist prose. His influence extended to La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Mme. de Sévigné, and the Comtesse de La Fayette.


Oeuvres, vols. 1–11. Paris, 1908–14.
Pensées, vols. 1–3. Paris, 1951.
In Russian translation:
Pis’ma k provintsialu. St. Petersburg, 1898.
Mysli. Moscow, 1905.
Nachala gidrostatiki: Arkhimed, Stevin, Galilei, Paskal’. Moscow-Leningrad, 1933.
In F. de La Rochefoucauld, Maksimy; B. Pascal, Mysli; J. de La Bruyère, Kharaktery. Moscow, 1974.


Filippov, M. M. Paskal’, ego zhizn’ i nauchno-filosofskaia deiatel’nost’. St. Petersburg, 1891.
Boutroux, E. Paskal’. St. Petersburg, 1901. (Translated from French.)
Kotsiubinskii, S. D. “Literaturnoe nasledie Paskalia.” Uch. zap. LGU: Ser. filologicheskikh nauk, 1941, issue 8.
Kliaus, E. M., I.B. Pogrebysskii, and U. I. Frankfurt. Paskal’. Moscow, 1971.
Maire, A. Bibliographie générale des oeuvres de B. Pascal, vols. 1–5. Paris, 1925–27.
Mesnard, J. Pascal: L’homme et l’oeuvre. Paris, 1951.
Cresson, A. Pascal, sa vie, son oeuvre. Paris, 1956.
Pascal présent, 1662–1962 (Recueil d’articles). Clermont-Ferrand [1962].


Pascal, Blaise


The French philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was born in Clermont, Auvergne, of a minor noble family. His father, a government official, taught him mathematics, to which Pascal made major contributions throughout his life, working on probability theory, number theory, and geometry. At the age of sixteen, Pascal wrote his first major work, Essai pour les coniques, and in 1642 he invented the calculating machine, which was considered one of the first applied achievements of the “new science.” He gave up serious concern with mathematics, however after his religious conversion in 1654, when, on the night of November 23, he had a profound experience that led him to dedicate the rest of his life to religious and philosophical interests and activities.

Pascal was deeply involved with the Jansenist movement, which was originated in the seventeenth century by Flemish bishop Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585–1638), who espoused the doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace. Until 1659 Pascal worked on a variety of subjects defending Jansenism, including Écrits sur la grâCE, De I’art de persuader, and his important work on the philosophy of mathematics, which was probably written around 1657 to 1658 as a preface to a textbook in geometry for the Jansenist school in Port-Royal. This work was left unfinished, like Pascal’s Pensées, the definitive edition of which was published in France in 1952.

Pensées deals with the problem of knowledge, which is considered a religious one, since the human being can find truth “not only by reason but more so by the heart,” and can achieve completely certain knowledge through acceptance of God’s revelation. In a chapter dedicated to the weakness of man and to the uncertainty of natural knowledge, Pascal discusses dreams. According to Pascal, if man dreamed the same thing every night, it would probably affect his life as much as the objects that he sees every day,

but because our dreams are all different, and varied, what we see in them affects us much less than what we see when awake, owing to the continuity of the latter, though that is not so constant and equable as never to change: but it does so less abruptly, except in some remarkable cases, as when traveling, and then we say, “Methinks I am dreaming”; for life is a dream, a little more regular than other dreams. (1985, p. 105—see Sources)

Pascal also asserted that, since half of human life is passed in sleep, humanity has no idea of truth, whatever we may suppose, and as we often dream that we dream, it might be that life itself is but a dream from which we awake at death.

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