Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Genius in Science and Literature

Pascal:  from Science to Literature:
A Sacrifice of Reason?

“It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”

Pascal’s Pensées, Dutton, 1958, Introduction by T.S. Eliot; translated into English by W.F. Trotter

Pascal’s phrase is a microcosm of philosophical cosmology. Not a bad description of the universe for the 17th century[i], it is both general and accurate enough to translate well. This classic piece of diction, much quoted, can stand alone for all that it was woven into the extended text of Fragment 72: a set of paragraphs on Man’s disproportion. Fragment 72 is itself part of an aggregated collection of concise essays on “The Misery of Man without God.”[ii] True to his mission to convince skeptics of God’s existence, Pascal arranges his arguments in concentric circles. The maxim at the core of his thought serves to advance and summarize his discourse.

Blaise Pascal’s style lends itself to maxims. Man’s disproportion continues:

Let us then take our compass; we are something, and we are not everything. The nature of our existence hides from us the knowledge of first beginnings; and the littleness of our being conceals from us the sight of the Infinite. (72)

Pascal’s Pensées are predicated on the author’s belief in the fortuity of human existence and the fallibility of human reason. These themes were common among 17th century theologians whose growing acceptance of the infinite extent of the universe heightened awareness of the littleness of the human being.[iii] During the last ten years of his life, the period in which he composed the Pensées, Pascal’s sense of the uncertainty of human life inspired his moralistic attacks on human pretension and self-love (l’amour-propre). When he speaks as s a moralist, Pascal’s pronouncements are often not far from cynicism:

All men naturally hate one another. They employ lust as far as possible in the service of the public weal. But this is only a false image of love; for at bottom it is only hate. (451)

It is perverted judgment that makes every one place himself above the rest of the world, and prefer his own good, and the continuance of his own good fortune and life, to that of the rest of the world! (456)

Each one is all in all to himself; for he being dead, all is dead to him. Hence it comes that each believes himself to be all in all to everybody. We must not judge nature by ourselves, but by it. (457)

Men, not being accustomed to form merit, but only to recompense it where they find it formed, judge of God by themselves. (490)

There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners, who believe themselves righteous. (533)

What made Pascal so cynical?  Conflict between his faith and his scientific work caused him to abandon science. This renunciation of the significance of his discoveries about the physical world was likely exacerbated by illness and loneliness. The pain of such self-abnegation may have made him a cynical moralist, as hard on mankind as he was on himself. To illustrate the scope of Pascal’s renunciation of scientific work, one might compare his sacrifice to that of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist. Following a religious conversion, Tolstoy renounced his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Pascal’s Two Religious Conversions

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) experienced two religious conversions in his short life. In 1646, Pascal was introduced to the doctrines of Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) who argued that man’s desire for knowledge was a form of concupiscence. Influenced by Jansenist doctrine, Pascal began a strict observance of Christianity, but continued important experimental work in science. In November of 1654, Pascal had an ecstatic experience that led to his second conversion and with it a complete transformation of his way of life.

After his second conversion, Pascal terminated his correspondence with mathematician Pierre Fermat, and cancelled the publication of a treatise on the vacuum.[iv] By the time he began the Pensées, Pascal had all but renounced a rich life of inquiry for a life of religious advocacy and reflection.

When first exposed to Jansen’s derogation of knowledge as vanity, and of scientific investigation as a prideful pursuit, Pascal was already, at the age of twenty-three, a mathematician who had written a treatise on projective geometry. He was also the inventor of a calculating machine, and a scientist engaged in experimentation on hydrostatic pressure. Pascal continued to correspond with Fermat regarding probabilities theory in the summer of 1654, and around that time he wrote, but did not publish, a treatise on probabilities (Traité du triangle arithmétique). In 1657-8, Pascal wrote, but did not publish, a treatise on geometry (De l’Esprit géométrique). This treatise, published posthumously, is considered a significant contribution to the philosophy of mathematics.

Legacy in Science and Mathematics

Today, Pascal’s work in probabilities is recognized as a key component of his diverse but profound legacy. Blaise Pascal is also recognized as a foundational thinker and inventor in the fields of computer science and physics, and as a key figure in the history of science for his discoveries in geometry and calculus.


 Science Versus Literature?

Pascal’s movement away from science towards religion––and literature–– has been regarded differently in each era since his death. His sister, Gilberte Périer, author of La Vie de Monsieur Pascal (1684), has been alternately accepted as credible and accused of writing a hagiography. Placing his trust in Gilberte’s account, 17th century playwright Jean Racine developed the story of Pascal’s rupture with society, and his renunciation of science, from an idealizing Jansenist point of view. Enlightenment thinker Pierre Bayle saw Pascal as a human paradox. Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), himself a passionate advocate of empiricism as represented by the promulgators of the scientific thinking of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), was censorious of Pascal for abandoning science, and hence the betterment of humanity through progress. For Voltaire, to abandon science was to abandon mankind. Thus in his Lettres Philosophiques (commonly translated as Letters Concerning the English Nation), Voltaire labeled the Pascal of the second conversion “a sublime misanthrope.”

Pascal did move away from the natural sciences to radical religion. The question is when and how?

The main source on Pascal’s life is his sister Gilberte’s La Vie, a document written both to recount details of Pascal’s life and to testify to the greater glory of God. Key to evaluating Gilberte’s credibility is her statement that Pascal terminated all scientific work after 1646. Historical evidence shows that Pascal’s movement away from science was a more gradual process. Pascal continued scientific work, and continued to be involved in scientific debate, until around 1654. During the interim between 1646 and 1654, Pascal was as likely to display his animus in an argument with another scientist as with a theological opponent. During the time between his two conversions, Pascal also remained a personage in society, even appearing at court on occasion. This is not to say that Pascal left science behind without conflict. Covertly devout, he possessed a self-flagellation device (but even the worldly Molière wore a hairshirt, as was discovered at the time of his death).

Should we continue to accept the Enlightenment point of view, which highlights the magnitude of Pascal’s sacrifice at the time of his second conversion? Perhaps the Enlightenment view is biased excessively in favor of science and reason. Pascal did not leave science and reason behind, as Voltaire suggested, for a life of misanthropy. Pascal reoriented his thought from inquiry into the natural sciences to the study of man: man alone, and man in the presence of God. Just as the Pascal of the treatises on physics and geometry was a great scientist, so the Pascal of the Pensées was a literary genius, working at height of his powers. 

That Pascal’s renunciation of reason was never quite complete can be seen in Section VI of the Pensées, which aggregates Pascal’s commentary on the pagan Philosophers. Here Pascal revisits his passion for science. Reflecting on philosophy, Pascal revives his earlier optimism about reason. Pascal uses his own invention, the calculating machine, to formulate a maxim on the will:

The arithmetical machine produces effects which approach nearer to thought than all the actions of animals. But it does nothing which would enable us to attribute will to it, as to the animals. (340)

In this context of philosophical discourse, Pascal posits reason as man’s necessary guide.

Reason commands us far more imperiously than a master; for in disobeying the one we are unfortunate, and in disobeying the other we are fools.  (345)

Pascal’s commentary on Stoicism inspires a maxim modeled on stoical philosophy:

The strength of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life. (352)

Contemplating the tradition of pagan philosophy, particularly Stoicism, which teaches man to live calmly in the face of pain and death, Pascal develops his concept of the human condition as a fragile status supported by the dignity of reason. Just as Pascal uses the maxim to describe the dimensions of the universe, he uses it to define the human condition in the light of reason:

Man is a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. (347)

Pascal develops his thought by compressing it, then expanding, elaborating:

…A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies…

Elsewhere, in Section V, which aggregates Pascal’s thoughts on justice, the Jansenist view that man is corrupt predominates. Man’s reason, corrupted by human nature, is inadequate to assist him in constructing reliable principles of justice:

A custom determines what is agreeable, so also does it determine justice. (309)

Justice is what is established; and thus all our established laws will necessarily be regarded as just without examination, since they are established. (312)

In Section IV: “Of the Means of Belief”, Pascal describes the workings of mind and heart, unified by reason. Fragment 277 begins with an enigmatic maxim:

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.

Pascal’s much-quoted saying is not about the conflict between head and heart, but about a heart torn between self-love and self-transcending love. The philosopher explains the maxim and interrogates his imaginary reader:

I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them, and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?

Blaise Pascal: French mathematician, writer and philosopher of the 17th century, creator of Pascal’s triangle, theoretician and experimenter in physics and the natural sciences, inventor of the hydraulic press, began to write the Pensées in 1660, two years before his death. His closest ally was the heart ruled by reason. Reason itself, however, is as susceptible to distortion by human perception as by innately corrupt human nature. In Fragment 82, Pascal projects an image of the sway of imagination over the reasonable man:

If the greatest philosopher in the world finds himself on a plank wider than actually necessary, but hanging over a precipice, his imagination will prevail, though his reason convince him of his safety.

Legacy in Literature

Pascal’s contribution to literature and philosophy – stolen, perhaps, from mathematics and science – was stylistic as well as conceptual. Whether he wrote in the guise of theologian or moralist, it was Pascal’s ability to pen concise paragraphs and maxims that made his thoughts memorable. Pascal found his way to literature through personal suffering and an almost exclusive commitment to faith. His legacy in literature includes a permanent place in French Letters and world literature, and undoubted significance as a  model and inspiration for great writers from Racine to T.S. Eliot.

[i] This was, also, not a bad description of the universe for the Middle Ages; the following aphorism, quoted
 by Alan of Lille, Meister Eckhart and others, is to be found in a 12th century book on twenty-four definitions of God: “God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (The Book of Twenty-four Philosophers, Hermes Trimegistus)
[ii] Pascal’s Pensées, Introduced by T.S. Eliot, translated by W.F. Trotter, Dutton, 1958. (The Pensées were published posthumously in 1670. Pascal had bundled his notes, and given each bundle a title, before he died. Organization and numbering of the notes varies by publisher.) 
[iii] Blaise Pascal, by Desmond Clarke, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007; 2011
[iv] Blaise Pascal, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011

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