Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal  "perhaps the most brilliant intellect that ever lighted on this lower world," was born at Clermont, in the province of Auvergne, on the 19th of June, 1623. He was descended from one of the best families in that province. As soon as he was able to speak, he discovered marks of extraordinary capacity. This he evinced, not only by the general pertinency and acuteness of his replies, but also by the questions which he asked concerning the nature of things, and his reasonings upon them, which were much superior to what is common at his age. His mother having died in 1626, his father, who was an excellent scholar and an able mathematician, and who lived in habits of intimacy with several persons of the greatest learning and science at that time in France, determined to take upon himself the whole charge of his son's education.

One of the instances in which young Pascal displayed his disposition to reason upon everything, is the following. He had been told that God rested from his labors on the seventh day, and hallowed it, and had commanded all mankind to suspend their labor and do no work on the Sabbath. When he was about seven years of age, he was seen, of a Sabbath morning, measuring some blades of grass. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he was going to see if the grass grew on Sunday, and if God ceased working on the Sabbath, as he had commanded mankind to do!

Before young Pascal had attained his twelfth year, two circumstances occurred, which deserve to be recorded, as they discovered the turn, and evinced the superiority, of his mind. Having remarked one day, at table, the sound produced by a person accidentally striking an earthenware plate with a knife, and that the vibrations were immediately stopped by putting his hand on the plate, he became anxious to investigate the cause of this phenomenon; he employed himself in making a number of experiments on sound, the results of which he committed to writing, so as to form a little treatise on the subject, which was found very correct and ingenious.

The other occurrence was his first acquisition, or, as it might not be improperly termed, his invention of geometry. His father, though very fond of mathematics, had studiously kept from his son all the means of becoming acquainted with this subject. This he did, partly in conformity to the maxim he had hitherto followed, of keeping his son superior to his task; and partly from an apprehension that a science so engaging, and at the same time so abstracted, and which, on that account, was peculiarly suited to the turn of his son's mind, would probably absorb too much of his attention, and stop the progress of his other studies, if he were at once initiated into it.

But the activity of an inquisitive and penetrating mind is not to be so easily restrained. As, from respect to his father's authority, however, the youth had so far regarded his prohibition as to pursue this study only in private, and at his hours of recreation, he went on for some time undiscovered. But one day, while he was employed in this manner, his father accidentally came into the room, unobserved by Pascal, who was wholly intent on the subject of his investigation. His father stood for some time unperceived, and observed, with the greatest astonishment, that his son was surrounded with geometrical figures, and was then actually employed in finding out the proportion of the angles formed by a triangle, one side of which is produced; which is the subject of the thirty-second proposition in the First Book of Euclid.

The father at length asked his son what he was doing. The latter, surprised and confused to find his father was there, told him he wanted to find out this and that, mentioning the different parts contained in that theorem. His father then asked how he came to inquire about that. He replied, that he had found out such a thing, naming some of the more simple problems; and thus, in reply to different questions, he showed that he had gone on his own investigations, totally unassisted, from the most simple definition in geometry, to Euclid's thirty-second proposition. This, it must be remembered, was when Pascal was but twelve years of age.

His subsequent progress perfectly accorded with this extraordinary display of talent. His father now gave him Euclid's Elements to peruse at his hours of recreation. He read them, and understood them, without any assistance. His progress was so rapid that he was soon admitted to the meetings of a society of which his father, Roberval, and some other celebrated mathematicians were members, and from which afterwards originated the Royal Academy of Sciences, at Paris.

During Pascal's residence with his father at Rouen, and while he was only in his nineteenth year, he invented his famous arithmetical machine, by which all numerical calculations, however complex, can be made by the mechanical operation of its different parts, without any arithmetical skill in the person who uses it. He had a patent for this invention in 1649. His studies, however, began to be interrupted when he reached his eighteenth year by some symptoms of ill health, which were thought to be the effect of intense application, and which never afterwards entirely quitted him; so that he was sometimes accustomed to say, that from the time he was eighteen, he had never passed a day without pain. But Pascal, though out of health, was still Pascal; ever active, ever inquiring, and satisfied only with that for which an adequate reason could be assigned. Having heard of the experiments instituted by Torricelli, to find out the cause of the rise of water in fountains and pumps, and of the mercury in the barometer, he was induced to repeat them, and to make others, to satisfy himself upon the subject.

In 1654, he invented his arithmetical triangle, for the solution of problems respecting the combinations of stakes, in unfinished games of hazard; and long after that, he wrote his Demonstrations of the Problems relating to the Cycloid; besides several pieces on other subjects in the higher branches of the mathematics, for which his genius was probably most fitted. Pascal, though not rich, was independent in his circumstances; and as his peculiar talents, his former habits, and the state of his health, all called for retirement, he adopted a secluded mode of life. From 1655, he associated only with a few friends of the same religious opinions with himself, and lived for the most part in privacy in the society of Port Royal.

At this period, the Catholics being divided into Jesuits and Jansenists, Pascal, being of the latter, published his famous Provincial Letters. These are so distinguished for their admirable wit, their keen argument, and their exquisite beauty of style, as to have even extorted praise from Voltaire and D'Alembert. He also wrote other pieces against the Jesuits, marked with great talent.

Pascal's health, however, continued to decline; and it is probable that his mind suffered in consequence. Though his life had been singularly blameless, still he seemed to be pained with a sense of inward sin. He was accustomed to wear an iron belt around his waist, in which were sharp points, upon which he would strike his elbows, or his arms, when any unholy passion crossed his mind. He continued to practise charity toward all mankind, and severe austerities to himself, until at last he was attacked with sickness, and on the 19th of August, 1662, he died. His last words were, "May God never forsake me!"

The latter part of his life was wholly spent in religious meditations, though he committed to paper such pious thoughts as occurred to him. These were published after his death, under the title of "Thoughts on Religion and other Subjects." They have been greatly admired for their depth, eloquence and Christian spirit.