For Pascal, It’s No Mystery

REVIEW: ‘A Summer with Pascal’ by Antoine Compagnon

Portrait of Blaise Pascal by Francois Quesnel (Wikimedia Commons)
June 30, 2024

Morris Bishop, the man who arranged for Vladimir Nabokov’s job at Cornell, and eventually became his best friend, begins his biography of Blaise Pascal by writing, "Blaise Pascal was, simply, one of the greatest men that have ever lived." The abbé Jean Steinman, in his 1954 study of Pascal, claimed that "outside the Bible there is no book that I have read more assiduously than the Pensées," adding that "I read and re-read the Provincial Letters, amused at seeing them come to life under my own eyes. I made a habit of re-reading them almost every year in order to cleanse my mind with a dose of irony." Scientist, inventor, theologian, master polemicist, inventive prose stylist, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was one of the most extraordinary intellectual figures of the 17th, or for the matter of any other, century.

Pascal suffered the disadvantage of having lost a parent, in his case his mother, in infancy. He had two sisters, Gilberte and Jacqueline, the first three years older, the second two years younger, than he. Jacqueline became a nun of the highest devotion, Gilberte married and would later be her brother’s chief chronicler. Pascal’s father, Etienne, early recognizing his son’s intellectual potential, encouraged and cultivated the boy.

Born into the noblesse de robe, for his father held high office in the French government, Pascal, in his Pensées, wrote: "To be of noble birth is a great advantage. In eighteen years it places a man within the select circle, known and respected as another would have merited in fifty years. It is a gain of thirty years without trouble." In Pascal’s case this saving of time was all the more crucial, for he suffered illness—now thought to be from intestinal tuberculosis—all his days, and died at 39.

Pascal’s brilliance showed up early. At 22 he invented the calculating machine. Contra Descartes, he argued that nature does not abhor a vacuum, and demonstrated by elaborate experiment that vacuums are part of nature. "Nature has no repugnance for the Void; she makes no effort to avoid it," he concluded. He did important work in geometry and physics. Later in life he organized the first public carriage, or horse-drawn public transportation system in France. If Pascal was not a first-rank scientist—up there with Galileo, Newton, Darwin—he stands, as Morris Bishop has it, "first in the second rank. … But his scientific work may be regarded not only as the product of his genius, but as an aspect of his genius."

If Pascal was soon to abandon science, "perhaps," in Morris Bishop’s words, "it was because he realized it was not by this path would he see God." Specifically his mission in the latter part of his short life was to find, explain, and bring others to God. Blaise Pascal’s true call on the attention of the modern reader is as a writer about religion. As Chateaubriand wrote:

There was a man who at twelve years old, with bars and rounds, created mathematics; who, at sixteen, wrote the most learned treatise on conics which had been seen since antiquity; who, at twenty-three, demonstrated the phenomenon of the weight of air, and destroyed one of the great errors of ancient physics, who, at that age when other men are just being born, having completed the circuit of human sciences, perceived their nothingness, and turned his thoughts to religion; who, from that moment until his death, which came in his thirty-ninth year, always infirm and suffering, fixed the language which Bossuet and Racine spoke, and gave the model of both perfect wit and strongest reasoning; finally who, in the short intervals of his illnesses, resolved, by abstraction, one of the highest problems of geometry, and threw onto paper thoughts that held as much to God as to man: this frightening genius was named Blaise Pascal.

Along with Morris Bishop, Jean Steinman, and Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Sainte-Beuve, and Paul Valery among others have written about Pascal. Antoine Compagnon now joins this distinguished company in A Summer with Pascal, a small and slender volume that serves as an excellent introduction to a complex yet intellectually enticing writer. Compagnon, who teaches at both Columbia and at the College de France, has written similar Summer with volumes on Montaigne, Baudelaire, and Colette along with longer works on Proust and on French literary history. His Summer with Pascal is a distillation of Pascal’s two chief works, his Pensées and his Provincial Letters.

In 40 brief chapters, none exceeding four pages, Professor Compagnon takes up Pascal’s themes, strengths, interesting oddities. He claims, for example, that the Marxists "learned how to fight political combat from the Provincial Letters, Pascal’s attacks on the casuistries of the Jesuits." (Accuse a Jesuit of killing seven men and a dog, an old joke has it, and he produces the dog.) He is excellent on Pascal on the subject of diversion, which human beings need because, as Pascal had it, "they have not been able to cure death, misery, ignorance, to make themselves happy they have decided not to think at all." Here Compagnon quotes one of Pascal’s best known aphorisms: "I have often said that all the unhappiness of mankind comes from just one thing, which is not knowing how to remain at rest in a room."

The other two most famous of Pascal’s aphorisms have to do with his wager on the existence of God—Better to bet on the existence of God, for "if you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is"—and his insistence on the limitations of reason and the value of intuition in finding God: "The heart has its reasons of which reason cannot know." Pascal’s own full discovery of God came on the night of November 23, 1654, when he was 21 years old. Compagnon recounts it in a chapter he titles "Joy, Joy, Joy, Tears of Joy." For roughly two hours that night, Pascal experienced what he described as "Certainty, certainty, joy, peace." He wrote down what he experienced on a bit of parchment that he carried on his person for the remainder of his days:

Forgotten, the world and everything apart from God.

He is found only through the paths found in the Gospel.

Greatness of the human soul.

Just father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy!

Total, sweet renunciation.

Once he had found God—or as he might have preferred to think, God had found him—Pascal, in the hope of bringing others around to the importance of faith, concentrated his efforts at setting out the emptiness of life without religion. Part diary, part self-help book, notes for an autobiography, anthology of irony, wit, humor, the overriding theme of the Pensées, much of which was written in 1658, when its author was 35, is the ultimate emptiness of life without religion.

Pascal’s own religion was of course Christian, but with his own emphases and touches added. He never mentions the Trinity, and in his theology the Virgin Mary gets little attention. As Morris Bishop writes, "he had no need for any intercessor in his dealings with God." Jesus is at the center of Pascal’s religion. Morris Bishop again: In Jesus Christ is found "the clue to all the mysteries, the answer to all the questions, the proof of all the assertions. In Christ the prophecies are accomplished; they are not so much the proof of his divinity as he is proof of their genuineness. In him and through him, we know God."

If further proof of God were needed, Pascal adduces miracles. He notably cites the cure, after all else failed, of an eye infection of his niece, when a thorn supposedly from the crown of Jesus was held up to the eye. For those of us without iron-clad faith, this nor any other miracle is likely to be persuasive, but that is an argument for another time.

Where Pascal is utterly persuasive is in his depiction of the thinness of life without belief in a greater plan, a higher power. Here Pascal carries the day because he was so superior a writer—"true eloquence," he wrote, "disdains eloquence, true morality disdains morality"—and so penetrating a psychologist. "All that counts in psychology," the abbé Steinman wrote, "from Nietzsche to Proust, from Stendhal to Dostoyevsky, from Kafka to Malraux and Camus, develops, elaborates and extends the intuitions of Pascal."

Reading Pascal brings with it a longing for faith of the kind he himself possessed, faith that persuasively explains life, its meaning and purpose. "May God not abandon me" are said to have been his last words. A grave error on God’s part it would have been if He had, for God never had a more powerful spokesman than Blaise Pascal.

A Summer with Pascal
by Antoine Compagnon, translated by Catherine Porter
Belknap Press, 184 pp., $22.95

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books).