Whenever we see a genius who has many talents--Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin, for instance,--we call that person a Renaissance man. Blaise Pascal of France was a Renaissance man. He was a prominent mathematician, physicist, inventor, and Christian writer. He made important contributions to geometry, calculus, and helped develop the theory of probability. Pascal's law is the basis for hydraulic operations. At l9, he invented the world's first mechanical calculator. The computer language known as PASCAL was named after him.
Pascal grew up accepting the Bible as God's word, but in a rather abstract way. He looked into Jansenism, a Catholic reform movement that emphasized the Augustinian (and Calvinist) concept of grace. Nonetheless, he lived with a sense of spiritual desperation. Disgusted with himself he once wrote: "If one does not know himself to be full of pride, ambition, concupiscence, weakness, pettiness, injustice, one is very blind. And if, knowing this, a man does not desire to be delivered, what can one say to him?"
On this day, November 23, 1654, Pascal's horses bolted and plunged off a bridge. Pascal was thrown into the roadway. He saw this as a warning directly from God. That night he experienced a Christian conversion that would cause his outstanding scientific work to take second place in his pursuits. Light flooded his room. He recognized Jesus, the Word. For the rest of his life Pascal carried around a piece of parchment sewn into his coat--a parchment inscribed with ecstatic phrases:
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars...Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy...'This is life eternal that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.' Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ...May I not fall from him forever...I will not forget your word. Amen."
From that day forward, Blaise Pascal realized even more deeply that he must live primarily for God. He started out by giving much more to the poor.
Pascal closely associated himself with the Jansenists, a group of Catholics that emphasized morality in all aspects of life. In 1657 Pascal published his Provincial Letters which criticized the moral teaching of the Jesuits, the rationalism of Descartes, and Montaigne's skepticism; and which urged a return to Augustine's doctrines of grace. Voltaire described the collection as "the first work of genius to appear in France," (meaning the first such in French colloquial literature); it continues to be recognized as such.
Pascal also wrote that we come to know God's truth not only by reason, but even more through the heart by faith. It is through our heart that we come to know God and to love Him. It is by faith that we can come to know Christ--and God alone gives us faith.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Bell, Eric Temple. Men of Mathematics. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1937.
- Cailliet, John A. The Clue to Pascal. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1943.
- Coleman, Robert E. "Blaise Pascal" in Chosen Vessels: portraits of ten outstanding Christian men; edited by Charles Turner. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Vine Books, 1985.
- D'Souza, Dinesh. The Catholic Classics. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1986.
- Pascal, Blaise. Pensées de M. Pascal sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets 1670 (The Pensees; many English versions).
- Pascal, Blaise. Provincial Letters. (Various editions).
- "Pascal, Blaise." Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Editor Charles Coulston Gillispie. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
- "Pascal, Blaise." Edwards, Paul, editor. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York, Macmillan, 1967.
- Rosenberg, Jerry M. The Computer Prophets. London: Macmillan, 1969.
- Runes, Dagobert D. A Treasury of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945.
- Wolff. Breakthroughs in Physics, p. 130.
Last updated July, 2007.