Blaise Pascal

[Blaise Pascal] Scientist and religious philosopher, born Clermont-Ferrand, France, 19 June 1623; died Paris, France, 19 August 1662. When eighteen years of age he invented a calculating machine, and before he was twenty-three conducted conclusive experiments on atmospheric pressure. He was then inclined toward Jansenism and for a while frequented the salons and associated with libertines. During the night of 23 November 1654, he had a sort of ecstatic vision which completely changed the course of his life, and he retired to Port-Royal where he became a staunch defender of the Jansenists. It was then that he published his famous "Provincial Letters," which are not only a defense of Jansenism but a severe indictment of the moral and political theories of the Jesuits. But his chief work was the composition of an apology for the Christian religion; it was begun in 1650, but never completed. The notes he left were published after his death under the title of "Pensees sur la Religion," and after the discovery of the original manuscripts in 1843, new editions succeeded each other rapidly to the present day. Pascal's last years were passed in dreadful agony; he died in the Church. The "Provincial Letters" are now hailed as the first prose masterpiece of the French language and they contain many passages remarkable for their wit and eloquence, but for the most part they are biased, unjust, and devoid of any doctrinal value, except in the eyes of the Church's enemies. The "Pensees" have had, and still have, tremendous influence on French religious thought. Pascal is a poet who has spoken of God and Christ and of the greatness and littleness of man in unforgettable accents.

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