Blaise Pascal and his Pensees

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An essay on the famous Enlightenment scientist, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal and his famous philosophical work 'Pensees'. Pascal was the inspiration for my online journal/blog named 'Pensees' and this was the first essay published there in January 2011.

Submitted: March 19, 2014

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Submitted: March 19, 2014



‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ – John 1:1


Pensées literally means ‘thoughts’ in French. Today, the word is more well known to the non-French speaking world as the title of the ‘magnum opus’ of one of the greatest scientists, philosophers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Blaise Pascal. Pascal perfectly represents the kind of intellectual figure that characterised the scientific and philosophical revolution which occurred in Western Europe during the 1600s and 1700s. The products of this prolific period of human activity (scientific discoveries, inventions, political and moral ideas, philosophical models, etc.) have greatly influenced every subsequent generation of scientists, artists, philosophers and writers. The achievements of that era established the foundations for the development of the Modern World.

Pascal himself was a child of the Enlightenment. A mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher; he managed to excel in all those fields. A true Homo Universalis. Among his many important contributions some stand out: 

  • In projective geometry he discovered Pascal’s Theorem
  • He described Pascal’s triangle
  • He was one of the founders of the mathematical theory of probabilities, along with Pierre de Fermat.
  • He invented the mechanical calculator, known as ‘Pascaline’.
  • His work and research in the fields of hydrodynamics and hydrostatics was revolutionary, especially on the principles of hydraulic fluids.
  • As a direct result of this work he invented the hydraulic press and the syringe.

Following a mystical experience in late 1654, he abandoned his scientific work, and devoted himself to philosophy and theology. His two most famous works date from this period: the Lettres provinciales’ and the Pensées’.

Pensées is widely considered to be a masterpiece and a landmark in French prose. In it, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace. Rolling these into one he develops the famous Pascal’s Wager.

The truly amazing fact about this remarkable thinker is that he was far from the exception in the Europe of his time. Pascal’s era was dominated by a vast number of geniuses in every conceivable area of human activity: artists, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, political thinkers, theologians and natural philosophers. Assisted by the newly invented printing press, their radical new ideas spread rapidly across Europe and the power of their influence culminated in the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

Today, a new technological innovation is rapidly changing the way humans communicate, exchange and record ideas. The Internet is the most important revolution in the recording and distribution of human knowledge since the development of the printing press in 1440. Already, the World Wide Web is the largest depository of human knowledge ever created and its many applications (blogs, sites, forums, social networks, etc.) have become the main hub for the exchange of new and radical ideas.

The immense influence of these tools in the everyday lives of millions of people is undeniable. All over the planet, strangers get connected, organise, and demonstrate demanding changes, new ideas and the abandonment of the old ways. The anti-war movement, the gay rights movement, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the environmental movement, even the new ways of artistic expression like flash mobs and viral videos are all products of the Internet Revolution.

Today, the blogs have replaced the newsletters and journals of the past, the tweets have replaced the pamphlets, Wikipedia is the new Encyclopédie’and the online forums are the digital salons and learned academies of the new Enlightenment.

What still remains is for the new Pascals, Newtons and Voltaires to make their appearance and start changing the world.

© Copyright 2017 AmbroseWoodward. All rights reserved.

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