Intro. Biographical Sketch of Blaise Pascal Pt.2
The historical study of Blaise Pascal offers several fascinating accounts of the young Pascal as a child. Take for instance the curious report as told by Blaise’s niece, Marguerite Perier, involving a witch:
“When Blaise was about a year old, he began to manifest a strange languor accompanied by strong, almost violent, reaction to the sight of water and, “even more astonishing, to the sight of his parents in physical proximity to one another. He enjoyed the caresses of each of them individually, but when they approached him together he would cry out and twist and turn violently.”
As these episodes continued to worsen, even becoming life threatening, the Pascal family aggressively sought medical attention. Over the course of time no remedy through the use of medicine seemed to help the situation. However, a rumor surfaced that one of the women who came frequently to visit Madame Pascal was in fact a witch. As Blaise’s condition worsened, the Pascal’s approached this woman for an answer, and O’Connell provides an account of the confrontation, “She blandly told them that the Devil had a grip on the infant and that a cure could be effected only by transferring his malady to a scapegoat and then killing it.” This explanation did not appease the Pascal parents, and there is even a reported incident in which Etienne became so infuriated with the purported witch, that he shoved her down the stairs of his house. As Blaise’s condition worsened still, a frantic Antoinette threw two cats out of a high window to their deaths in hopes of fulfilling the suggested advice of the woman. Madame Pascal’s action seemed to motivate the alleged witch to apply an herbal concoction to the stomach of young Blaise Pascal which appeared to heal him entirely. Though this report is bizarre in nature, whatever one concludes as pertaining to its truthfulness, the niece of Blaise Pascal thought it to be true. However, as will be discussed shortly, Blaise Pascal did lead a life of ill health and this may be a better explanation of why he as a child suffered in this way.
While being raised as a child it became apparent to everyone that young Blaise Pascal was gifted with a brilliant mind. O’Connell mentions a testimony concerning Blaise as told from his older sister, Gilberte, pertaining to how brilliant this young Frenchman was, “His sister Gilberte, writing after his death, recalled how precocious the little boy was, how strikingly appropriate was his conversation, and how the questions he asked surprised everybody by their acuity.” The brilliance of young Blaise Pascal can only be attributed to his father, Etienne. Blaise never attended any school or university, but rather was educated at home by his father. Historical testimony concludes that the young Pascal was not at a disadvantage by not attending an official school, but that Etienne was an excellent educator. Again, O’Connell cites Gilberte’s testimony concerning her father’s skill with education, “The principal maxim of his methodology was to keep the pupil always at a level above the work he was doing.” Etienne kept young Pascal on close in his education. Etienne’s plan was to cultivate the young boy’s imagination and answer all of Blaise’s questions in hopes of stimulating deeper thinking. Blaise would not begin the study of classical languages until the age of twelve, and would not be educated in the area of mathematics until the age of sixteen. Until this time, Blaise would be given instruction in the general rules of grammar that is common to all languages. By understanding the general rules of grammar, the young Frenchman would be able to understand the specifics of other languages. Though Etienne put together a system of fine education, it would not stop young Blaise Pascal form inquiring about other fields of study, specifically mathematics.
Another very intriguing aspect of Blaise Pascal’s life is that he was a superb mathematician. Early in the development of young Pascal’s education, mathematics was a subject that Etienne did not want Blaise accustomed to until a later age. O’Connell quotes Gilberte for an explanation of Etienne’s reasoning:
“Yet because Etienne wanted Blaise to learn the classical languages before turning his attention to mathematics, ‘and because he knew mathematics is something so fulfilling and satisfying to the mind, he did not want my brother to be distracted by an acquaintance with it, for fear that it would make him negligent in studying Latin and other languages which he, my father, wanted him to perfect’.”
As a result, Etienne kept silent in reference to any mathematical discussions while in the presence of young Blaise Pascal. Etienne even took the liberty to lock all written references to mathematics away in order to keep Blaise from inquiring into the riches of the mathematical world. It seems however, that the union of mathematics and young Blaise Pascal was inevitable. Blaise would constantly pursue his father with a barrage of questions in hopes of gaining information about the field of mathematics, and this would lead to Etienne providing Blaise with a minute insight into the mathematical world:
Blaise, however, his precocious curiosity piqued by this resistance,” pestered his father until the latter relented enough to explain that, ‘in general, mathematical science provided the means to make accurate figures and to determine the proportions that prevailed among them.’ Etienne would say no more, but what he had said was sufficient to set his son’s mind whirling.”
By this time, young Pascal was an unstoppable force in pursuit of mathematical knowledge. There is testimony that the Blaise was so enticed by the study of math that he began to draw figures and shapes on the floor, plunging his mind deep into the depths of geometry. There is indication that during this time, while lacking any mathematical terminology, that Blaise was inventing names for these geometric figures he was drawing. Eventually, Etienne would happen to walk in on young Blaise during one of his mathematical inquiries; Etienne was both shocked and full of joy at the same time. O’Connell comments on this occurrence, “The father realized that his son, scarcely twelve years old, had indeed arrived, by his own unaided efforts, at Euclid’s conclusion that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles.” Blaise Pascal’s fascination with the mathematical realm would have far reaching implications for his own life. Blaise would involve himself in the development of his version of the calculator and also partake in vigorous studies into the nature of vacuums which is simply defined as a space containing the absence of matter. Blaise Pascal found himself lost in the enjoyment of mathematics, and as a result, he has had much influence on the study of mathematics for many generations.
Though the mathematical satisfaction of the young Blaise Pascal is essential to grasp, a biographical treatise on Pascal would not be complete without a discussion of his experience with the Christian faith. The Pascal family was particularly known for being devoted Roman Catholics who participated in Roman Catholic affairs of the church, but the depth of their practicing faith was indeed shallow. Blaise Pascal’s interaction with the Christian faith is generally described in terms of two conversion experiences. In January of 1646, Etienne Pascal inured himself after slipping on a patch of ice resulting in a dislocated thigh bone. In order to nurse his wounded body back to health, Etienne enlisted the aid of two brothers simply known as the Deschamps brothers. These two men were a strange combination as they were known for being violent men with a tainted reputation. However, these brothers came under the influence of a theological system known as Jansenism. In consequence of this sway, the Deschamps brothers came to know a life of charity and wanted to extend help to those who were of ill-health. In order to accomplish their goal, they had themselves trained in the practice of medicine which was convenient for Etienne Pascal. During Etienne’s healing process, the Pascal family soon realized that the Deschamps brothers were more concerned with spiritual healing rather than a physical. As a result of their spiritual impression on the Pascal family, especially on young Blaise, the whole family began to notice a change. The two brothers began to probe Blaise with questions such as, “What does it prosper a man to understand all the mysteries of mathematics and all the riddles of the physical universe if he does so at the cost of his immortal soul?” In effect of this influence experienced from the brothers Deschamps, O’Connell explains the change that took place within the Pascal family:
“It did not mean, of course, a passage from unbelief or unbridled free thought, nor did it suggest—at least consciously—the slightest deviation from Catholic orthodoxy. Rather, it imposed upon the converted a depth of religious seriousness that was entirely new to them; a seriousness about the mandates and counsels of the gospel, about their participation in the sacramental life of the Church, about prayer and fasting and works of charity, about the enormity of sin and the consequent urgency for a divinely induced inner purging so that, following Jesus’ admonition, they could address God their Father in the silent recesses of their hearts and be heard by him.”
Thus, this account of Blaise Pascal’s first conversion is immensely important in understanding his second. It is in the description of Pascal’s second conversion that the experience of his first conversion comes to maturity.
Identified by the phrase, “night of fire”, Blaise Pascal’s alleged second conversion experience is truly a fascinating story to consider. Since the time of Pascal’s first conversion, he had taken to heart the truths learned from the mouths of the Deschamps brothers. Although acknowledging the profound mysteries of God from his new way of thinking, Pascal began to feel an uneasy discomfort with the world and the way his life was unfolding. O’Connell explains the situation in this way, “The contrast between his sister’s serenity and his own restlessness served as stark notice that acceptance of God by the human intellect did not necessarily entail an embrace of him by the human heart.” Blaise Pascal was quickly becoming aware that being in submission to the God of the universe was much more than an intellectual pursuit. As described in vividly charismatic fashion, Pascal’s “night of fire” was a dramatic and intense encounter with the God of Scripture. O’Connell describes well Pascal’s realization:
“I am the God, not of the philosopher nor of those who deal in complex dialectic and in subtle abstraction, but of the holy people I have marked out from Abraham’s time forever, as numerous as the sands on the seashore—the God who has chosen to dwell within the history of humankind.”
Until that day on November 23, 1654, Pascal had not realized the extent to which God must be served. To have a relationship with the covenantal God of Abraham more than just a factual knowledge must be attained. The knowledge of God must influence the heart which produces orthodox thinking and living. Thus, Blaise Pascal came to understand that this second conversion experience was the most important event in his life; an occurrence that he would not soon forget. The importance of the night of fire was clearly noticeable after the death of Blaise Pascal. Sewn into Pascal’s doublet was a sheet of paper describing Pascal’s “night of fire” in his own words. This was a constant reminder for Pascal about the encounter with God that had so violently shaken his soul. Thus, Blaise Pascal had finally been introduced to the God, not of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, the covenantal Lord.
Though Blaise Pascal lived a life of great intellectual success and religious fervor, his life was also plagued with poor health. Perhaps the odd story of Pascal’s encounter with the witch is an early sign of his dwindling physical condition. Nevertheless, Pascal did experience intense health issues throughout his life. For example, there were instances when Pascal would develop severe headaches and stomach pains along with periodic paralysis in his legs thought to be cause by his stressful life. There are even rumors that Pascal’s health declined so rapidly that he had to be given drops of warm soup and drink to satisfy his hunger. O’Connell captures the extent of Pascal’s deteriorating health in a quote from Gilberte Pascal regarding her brother, “My poor brother suffered from continual illness, which only increased as time went by.” Pascal’s health would always be a major factor for him throughout his life. However, it was through this experience of suffering along with other horrific circumstances throughout his life that Pascal developed his thought and theology about the greatness of God and the wretchedness of human nature.
Pt. 3 to follow soon…
1. All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible unless otherwise noted.
2. All historical references and quotes from the Pascal family are taken from O’Connell, Marvin R. Blaise Pascal Reasons of the Heart. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1997.