Portrait of Pascal, Humble Genius
BY Louise Perrotta
February 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/8/98 at 1:00 PM
(Eerdmans, 1997, 210 pp., $16)
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a genius with the precociousness of a Mozart and the breadth of interest of a Da Vinci. He lived in a time and society vastly different from our own, yet his profound reflections on universal issues remain vital and compelling. Thinkers like T.S. Eliot, Simone Weil, Peter Kreeft, and Bells of Nagasaki author Takashi Nagai are in his debt. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, says his early philosophical questions fell into place “when I read Pascal.”
Marvin O'Connell's chronological account of Pascal's life masterfully unveils the genius of this evergreen thinker while also revealing him as a family man and a fellow pilgrim on the road to holiness.
Pascal never married, but family ties “of unusual strength” united him with his father and two sisters (his mother died when Pascal was three). His father, a lawyer and amateur scientist with a gift for teaching, took charge of the boy's education—an experience of home-schooling at its best. Pascal's astonishing aptitudes surfaced early. Denied access to geometry until he was 16 (his father did not want him seduced away from studying grammar), Pascal explored it in secret. At 12, reported his sister, unassisted and not even knowing the word for circle or line, he had advanced “to the point where he could propound, without knowing it was so, the 32nd proposition of the first book of Euclid.”
This spirit of inquiry characterized Pascal's entire life. It yielded groundbreaking contributions in conic projection, modern computation (he invented a sophisticated calculating machine), hydrostatics (a famous experiment proved the existence of the vacuum), probability theory, and integral calculus. Pascal also devised a speed reading method, launched a plan for mass transport in Paris, and left a legacy of writings on theological and philosophical issues.
Never a Christian with his mind on hold, Pascal saw no conflict between faith and reason. But, O'Connell explains, he made a critical distinction: in the realm of nature, he sought truth through a relentless, sometimes iconoclastic application of reason and experience; in the realm of faith, he sought truth in Jesus Christ, revealed in the authority of Scripture and the tradition of the Catholic Church.
What exactly Church tradition taught, especially about certain hot-button issues, was fiercely debated in this France of the counter-Reformation. A Catholic revival was in full swing and the average educated layperson took serious interest in theology's practical implications. In rulers this interest could turn sinister. Under Louis XIII and the iron-fisted Richelieu, and later under Louis XIV, religious figures and ideas seen as somehow subversive were routinely quashed. Prominent among these suspects were the Jansenists.
Jansenism began as a movement to counter laxity and the trend to exalt natural virtue and ignore sin. St. Augustine had demolished the fifth-century version of this trend, Pelagianism. Recapturing Augustine's thought, Jansenists hoped, would do likewise for 17thcentury French Catholics. Problem was, Augustine's teaching as explained by Jansen and others could sound like a Catholic Calvinism, with free will downplayed, the pull of grace overplayed, and predestination resulting.
O'Connell has scouted out this terrain thoroughly and provides expert guidance through a thicket of complexities. Augustine's views and their interpretation by Jansenist, Jesuit, and Protestant exponents are cogently explained. Terms are clearly defined. Major players come to life: founders Cornelius Jansen and Saint-Cyran; opponents like the Jesuits Luis de Molina and François Annat; the brother and sister team of Mère Angélique and Antoine Arnauld, charismatic leaders of the reformed religious communities at the two abbeys of Port-Royal, which were Jansenism's nerve centers.
O'Connell gives a behind-the-scenes look at the maneuvering that resulted in the condemnation of Jansenist views by the Church and the state. He admits Jansenism's weaknesses—its gloomy view of human nature, discouragement of frequent communion, borderline predestination. At the same time, his basically sympathetic presentation does not leave the reader mystified as to why someone of Pascal's stature would find the movement attractive, even becoming its bestknown defender.
Like other men and women drawn into renewal, Pascal embraced Jansenism because he saw in its followers living examples of holiness in Christ. Two noblemen, reformed brawlers turned doctors, were his first contacts; their witness touched off the gradual conversion of the entire Pascal family from a dutiful to a fervent practice of the faith. This first awakening to grace left 23-year-old Pascal only half-converted, however, with an aversion to worldly amusements but no attraction to God.
It took eight years, but Nov. 23, 1654, Pascal's hesitancies vanished in a dramatic personal encounter with God. Pascal told no one about this life-changing “night of fire,” but during the experience he scrawled a onepage testament that he carried concealed thereafter. A sharp-eyed servant found it after Pascal's death, sewn into a jacket lining. With this encounter, Pascal moved from mere mental assent to loving surrender to “the God of Abraham … Isaac … Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals…. The God of Jesus Christ.” The experience brought “certitude, feeling, joy, peace … tears of joy…. Renunciation total and sweet.”
O'Connell's portrait of Pascal reveals a winning combination of genius and intellectual humility that deepened into holiness. Toward the end of his life, Pascal was reaching out with works of mercy as well as written works. He took in a homeless family, made lavish charitable contributions, visited the poor and sick in their frightful slums. “May God never abandon me!” were his last words.
O'Connell has presented a compelling life that delivers on his opening assessment of Blaise Pascal as “a remarkable human being and luminous Christian believer” and makes readers want to pursue the acquaintance. Ronald Knox once said, “There will always be room for more books about Pascal.” There is certainly room for this one.
Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minn.
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