English and Literature
Submitted By dsuarez88
Considered one of the most advanced thinkers of his time in the areas of science and mathematics, Blaise Pascal is admired today mostly for his spiritual insights, argumentative style and form, and mastery of the French language (Bold, 1). His skepticism into matters both worldly and religious involved a uniform methodology, the creation of mathematical proofs, and focused especially on the difference of opinion between reason and faith. Modern critics and scholars agree that Pascal's influence and participation in some of the most outstanding intellectual debates of his time, as well as his writings on such dissimilar subjects on science and religion, make him an important contributor to the history of ideas (Bold, 1).
Blaise was born to Etienne and Antoinette Pascal, members of the petite noblesse, in the rural town of Clermont-Ferrand, France in 1623 (Day, 2). Pascal's mother died when he was only years of age, in 1626, leaving his father alone to raise him and his two sisters, Gilberte and Jacqueline. In 1631 his family moved to Paris, where Pascal was educated entirely by his father, a mathematician (Day, 2). Etienne prevented Pascal from studying mathematics until he had first mastered the languages of Latin and Greek (Anderson, 5). The fact that mathematics was a forbidden topic made the subject even more interesting to Blaise Pascal, who at the age of twelve, began exploring geometry on his own (Goldstine, 2). Pascal even made up his own terminology, not having learned the official terms at the time (Goldstine, 2). The prodigy quickly managed to discover that the sum of a triangle's angles to be equal to two right angles. His father, Etienne, was very impressed. After realizing his son’s fasciation and understanding of math, Etienne permitted him to read books written by Euclid, a Greek mathematician, who is now referred to as the "Father of Geometry (Day, 5). Etienne also allowed Blaise to accompany him to meetings at the mathematics academy in Paris (Goldstine, 7). In 1638, Pascal's father fled Paris because of what was believed to be disputes over policy issues with Cardinal Richelieu (Day, 1) He was acquitted one year later and appointed as a tax commissioner in Rouen, a city north of France and capital of the region of Upper Normandy. In 1639, Pascal began writing his first major work, Essai pour les Coniques (Anderson, 4). Pascal's interest in conic sections most likely came about from his love of geometry and his association with Desargues, who was a great contributor to the study of conics. Written in Essai, Pascal expressed his gratitude to the teachings and writings of Desargues. Pascal's study of conics followed from the theory of Desargues and used many of the theorems introduced in Desargues writings (Bold, 1). In 1642, he invented the machine “arithmetique,” a device that performed basic mathematical functions to help his father in his tax work (Day, 15). This device is now known as a mathematical calculator. Pascal also pursued geometry, number theory, probability theory, and undertook a series of important experiments concerning the behavior of liquids in equilibrium all before the age of nineteen (Bold, 11). These experiments were published in Expériences Nouvelles Touchant le Vide (1647). He discovered an important law related to physics. Pascal's law, which stated that pressure exerted anywhere in a confined incompressible fluid is transmitted equally in all directions throughout the fluid such that the pressure variations remain the same, was seen in hydraulic machines (Goldstine, 5).
Sadly, Pascal’s father fractured his hip when he slipped on an icy road in 1646 (Tyner, 11). For three months, he was under the care of two doctors, who were followers of a man named Cornelius Jansen, a Dutch theologian whose ideas about Catholicism were based on the teachings of St. Augustine. Pascal's association with the Jansenists inspired him to practice his own Catholicism more faithfully (Goldstine, 6). Pascal returned to Paris one year later for treatment of severe headaches, stomach pains, and partial paralysis of the legs. Dealing with the death of his father in 1651, Pascal decided to abandon his religious interests. (Goldstine, 18). This desertion lasted only a few years because on the evening of November 23, 1654, Pascal claimed to have had an experience so profound that he vowed, thereafter, to devote himself completely to religion. He claimed to have been in the presence of the "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned." Pascal documented this religious experience in a series of notes called the Memorial, which he was believed to have sewn into the lining of his coat and carried around with him to serve as a reminder (Tyner, 9). In 1655, Pascal made several visits to two Jansenist convents and became acquainted with Antoine Arnauld, a prominent Jansenist accused of heresy by the Jesuits (Tyner, 9). With the help of Arnauld, Pascal wrote Lettres provinciales, a series of eighteen published letters that attacked Jesuit beliefs. (Tyner, 10).
By 1659, Blaise Pascal's health had deteriorated so much that he was unable to write for extended periods of time (Tyner, 13). He spent the last years of his life praying, reading the Bible, and helping the poor (Anderson, 9). Blaise Pascal died on August 19, 1662. He was only thirty-nine years of age. An autopsy performed after his death revealed problems with his stomach and other organs of his abdomen, along with damage to his brain (Tyner, 16). Despite the autopsy, the cause of his poor health was never precisely determined, though speculation focuses on tuberculosis, stomach cancer, and a combination of the two. Pascal left behind a collection of unfinished writings with his death, later published as the Pensées de M. Pascal sur la Religion et sur Quelques Autres Sujets, (Thoughts) that was perceived as an apology for Christianity (Tyner, 2). He hoped it would dismiss the widespread skepticism and hostility toward religion he had witnessed among the upper classes of French society (Anderson, 6).
Blaise Pascal’s major works contributed to history with greatness (Anderson, 1). His religious writings, especially the Provincial Letters and the Pensées, are read worldwide to present day, and his mathematical and scientific writings continue to interest specialists in these fields (Anderson, 2). Literary and religious scholars are studying Pascal's mathematical and scientific works to understand not only his concepts of truth and knowledge, but to gain further understanding into his religious beliefs. Pascal developed many of the ideas concerning the human condition in the Pensees that he had previously expressed in the Provincial Letters (Anderson, 13). He explained, that shortcomings in man's rational capacities require that these first principles are instinctual or heartfelt. According to Pascal, man's questionable understanding of the truth naturally makes him skeptical, but this skepticism can be overcome through divine revelations he receives once he submits to God. Man's limitations and dependence on God are also an important theme of the Provincial Letters. In many of the letters Pascal attempted to disprove the Jesuits' beliefs of sufficient grace, the power of humans to either accept or reject God's graces, thereby shaping their own destiny. Rather, Pascal advocated efficacious grace, the Jansenist notion that God's graces always ensure salvation, but only for those who have been predestined for a life of Christian virtue. We know this to be Pascal’s theory. In other letters, Pascal attacked the indifference of the Jesuits' system of moral fallacy, and sought to discredit their moral and theological views by uncovering errors in their reasoning (Anderson, 15).
In conclusion, Pascal's inventions and discoveries have been crucial to developments in the fields of geometry, physics and computer science. His exploration of binomial coefficients influenced Sir Isaac Newton, leading him to uncover his "general binomial theorem for fractional and negative powers (Goldstine, 20).”
In the 1970s, the Pascal (Pa) unit was named after Blaise Pascal, in honor of his contributions to the understanding of atmospheric pressure and how it could be estimated in terms of weight. The Pascal is a unit of pressure that constitutes the force of a single newton acting on a square-meter surface. It is measured using the meter-kilogram-second system, which relies on an extended version of the metric system to calculate pressure (Goldstine, 17).
In 1972, computer scientist Nicklaus Wirth invented a computer language and insisted on naming it after Pascal (Tyner, 16). This was Wirth's way of memorializing Pascal's invention of the Pascaline, one of the earliest forms of the modern computer. Additionally, Pascal is also credited with building the foundation of probability theory (Day, 21). Thus, the influence of Blaise Pascal lives on today.