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Saturday, March 26, 2005


Title: Blaise Pascal , By: Edmund J. Campion, Salem Press
Database: MagillOnLiterature Plus

Author: Blaise Pascal
Born: June 19, 1623; Clermont-Ferrand, France
Died: August 19, 1662; Paris, France

Principal Works

Lettres provinciales, 1656-1657 (The Provincial Letters, 1657)
Pensées, 1670 (Monsieur Pascal’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, 1688; best known as Pensées)

Author Profile

Although Blaise Pascal was a very important mathematician and physicist, he has remained famous above all for his eloquent writings on the moral obligations that accompany a commitment to Christianity. Pascal believed that an acceptance of divine authority enables people to develop an objective foundation for moral values. The problem of ethical subjectivity disappears once one accepts the revealed and liberating truths to be found in the Bible and in the exegetical works of respected Church Fathers such as Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. Because of the clarity and the depth of his analysis of ethical questions, Blaise Pascal has remained one of the most influential and controversial French writers, even several centuries after his death in 1662.

The Provincial Letters

Beginning in 1646, Pascal and his sister Jacqueline Périer became very interested in the Catholic religious movement associated with the monastery, convent, and school at Port-Royal. The priests and nuns at Port-Royal were referred to as Jansenists because a major influence on their view of Christian spirituality had been a 1640 book on Saint Augustine by a Dutch theologian named Cornelius Jansen. The Jansenists encouraged personal spiritual development and denounced all attempts to allow worldly values to interfere with the purity of a total commitment to Christian values. Books by such important Jansenist theologians as Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole provoked an intense controversy with French Jesuits, who were then very influential at the court of King Louis XIV and with French bishops and priests. The basic disagreements between the Jesuits and the Jansenists dealt with the theological concept of grace and the use of casuistry, which is the practice by which a priest applies general moral standards to individual cases in order to determine if a specific action was sinful or if a repentance was sincere.

Between January, 1656, and March, 1657, Pascal published eighteen anonymous letters that were addressed “to a Jesuit provincial by one of his friends.” Ever since its creation in the 1540’s by Saint Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit order has been administratively divided into broad geographical areas called provinces whose spiritual leaders are called provincials. The eighteen Provincial Letters are masterpieces of polemic rhetoric. Pascal sought to diminish the growing influence of French Jesuits by attributing to the entire order rather extreme positions taken by certain Jesuit theologians such as Antonio Escobar y Mendoza and Luis de Molina, who had argued that specific actions that most Christians would consider to be patently wrong would not be considered sinful if the motivations of the people who did those things were taken into account. Pascal believed that such an approach to ethics was very dangerous because it could lead people to justify actions that were clearly incompatible with God’s teachings. In his seventh Provincial Letter, for example, Pascal denounced efforts by Escobar y Mendoza and Molina to justify dueling. A duelist might well claim that his intention was not to kill his adversary but to defend his own honor, but Pascal ridiculed such convenient and insincere excuses designed to disregard God’s straightforward commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Although Pascal was clearly unfair in associating all Jesuits with the radical positions of such theologians, his Provincial Letters did denounce very effectively the danger of moral laxism and the pernicious belief that “the end justifies the means.”


During the last few years of his life, Pascal was writing “an apology for the Christian religion,” but extremely poor health required him to rest frequently and this prevented him from writing for extended periods of time. He was, however, able to compose eight hundred fragments that were discovered and edited after his death by his nephew Étienne Périer, who called these fragments Thoughts (Pensées). Despite the uncompleted nature of Thoughts , it contains profound insights into the myriad relationships between ethical and religious problems. Unlike his fellow mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, who had argued in his 1637 book Discourse on Method that logic alone sufficed to explore moral problems, Pascal was convinced that only an acceptance of the revealed truths of Christianity could enable him to recognize the moral foundation for a just society.

Pascal stated that there were basically two ways of dealing with moral problems. By means of “the spirit of geometry” (“l’esprit de géométrie”) one examines in a purely logical manner the many steps that are involved in resolving ethical questions. “The spirit of insight” (“l’esprit de finesse”) helps one to recognize intuitively that certain actions are morally wrong whereas others are morally correct. Although he did not deny the importance of logical reasoning for discussions of ethical problems, Pascal sensed that most moral decisions are inspired by intuitive feelings that are formed by one’s religious training and by the diversity of one’s experiences. In Thoughts , Pascal appealed to the deep emotional and psychological reactions of his readers in order to persuade them that an acceptance of “the grandeur of man with God” and “the misery of man without God” will lead people to embrace those religious and ethical values that are presented in the Bible.

Essay by: Edmund J. Campion


Davidson, Hugh. Blaise Pascal. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Krailsheimer, A. J. Pascal. New York: Hill & Wang, 1980.

MacKenzie, Charles. Pascal’s Anguish and Joy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1973.

Mortimer, Ernest. Blaise Pascal. New York: Harper, 1959.

Nelson, Robert. Pascal, Adversary and Advocate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées and The Provincial Letters. Translated by W. F. Trotter and Thomas M’Crie. New York: Modern Library, 1941.

Topliss, Patricia. The Rhetoric of Pascal. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1966.

Cross References

Blaise Pascal (Censorship)

Blaise Pascal (Cyclopedia of World Authors)

Blaise Pascal (Philosophy)

Pensées (Masterplots Classics)

Pensées (Philosophy)

Copyright of this work is the property of Salem Press, Inc. and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Ethics (Ready Reference series) © 1994 by Salem Press, Inc.
Accession Number: 0210000181

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