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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Not a Waste: the Short Life of Blaise Pascal

   It has been about six months since I last wrote a short biography in this series.  Researching the life of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was more formidable than I expected.  He lived during a tumultuous era in France when kings and cardinals were both rising in power. Since the king cared about religion, and the religious leaders who advised him cared about power, there were bound to be some compromises.

 
   The life of Blaise Pascal was full of seeming contrasts.  He was a mathematical genius who never attended school.  He embraced a lively faith in God at a time when the "wise men" of his time were dispensing with the supernatural entirely.  While Pascal was firmly devoted to the Roman Catholic Church, he wrote a series of anonymous open letters defending beliefs about grace and free will that were being denounced by influential Jesuit priests and the Pope himself as "crypto-Calvinist" [1].  He struggled with illness and weakness throughout his short life of 39 years; however, he refused to give in to self-pity.  One example of his focus on others and their needs was that he invited a homeless family to live in his house with him during his final months.
   Blaise Pascal was home schooled by his father √Čtienne, who recognized the boy's academic brilliance from the time he could speak.  Originally the elder Pascal was going to wait until Blaise was 16 years old before teaching him any formal mathematics, but when the 12 year old  showed an interest in geometry and then figured out on his own that the angles of any triangle add up to 180 degrees, his father changed the curriculum to include math after all.  At the age of 21, Pascal invented a calculator that could add, subtract, multiply and divide up to eight-digit numbers.  He saw the practical value of an adding machine to save the tiresome work of tax collectors and landlords. Although scholars agree about Pascal's genius, it was matched with perseverance.  He made fifty prototypes of his "pascaline" before he was satisfied enough to present it to the public.  He also did thorough investigations about vacuums and added to the branch of math we call calculus.
   Blaise Pascal is a delightful example of a person was intellectually gifted and yet recognized the limits of reason. His experience of Jesus Christ came via being immersed in Old and New Testament Scripture and the church fathers, including St. Augustine.  He had two distinct experiences one might call conversions--times when he had a memorable encounter with God that led to a change in his focus--one at age 23 and the second at age 31.  He rejected a faith that was merely academic, and he criticized the Jesuit order for becoming so worldly that it could justify moral practices clearly forbidden in the Bible.  Ambitious to the end, Pascal desired to write a work elevating vibrant faith in the eyes of the well educated and moral men of his day.  These incomplete bits and fragments were published after his death under the name of Pens√©es (Thoughts).
   One of Pascal's works, a "Prayer to ask God to make good use of sickness," I quote here in part.  It demonstrates his submission to God and acknowledgment that He determines our life span and the ultimate value of our work:
Lord, whose spirit is so good and so sweet in all things, and who are so merciful that not only the blessings but also the misfortunes that come upon your elect are the fruit of your mercy, grant me the grace not the question as a heathen might the state to which your justice has reduced me.  You gave me health so that I might serve you, and I made a wholly profane use of it.  Now you send me sickness in order to correct me; do not allow me to use this as an excuse to irritate you by my impatience....And since the corruption o my nature is so profound that it spoils even your favors, see to it, oh my God, that your all-powerful grace makes your chastisement salutary for me.  See to it, oh my God, that I worship in silence your adorable providence upon the conduct of my life; that your scourges console me; and that, having lived undisturbed in the bitterness of my sins, I taste the heavenly sweetness of your grace during the beneficial illness with which you have afflicted me.
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[1] Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart by Marvin C. O'Connell.  Published in Grand Rapids by Eerdmans in 1997, page 146. The doctrine under debate was related to a published work by Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1510-1576) entitled Augustinus, which highlighted St. Augustine's ideas of grace. It led some Roman Catholics to be worried about the spread of what they saw as a Protestant idea. Jansenism, as it was called, was firmly rejected in France in 1661 when all priests, nuns and monks had to sign a statement condemning it or be stripped of their office.

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