How many seventeenth-century Christians have modern-day computer languages named after them? Only one—Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).1
Inventor of the first digital calculator, Pascal is described by many historians as one of the founding fathers of modern science. He is widely known as one of science’s most creative and intuitive thinkers, an intellectual pioneer who helped achieve major breakthroughs in theoretical mathematics and physics, as well as in practical invention.
What makes Blaise Pascal even more outstanding, for our purposes, is the vast amount of work he did as a Christian philosopher, prose writer, and above all as an imaginative and controversial defender of the Christian faith.
Pascal’s scientific achievements mark him as one of the most advanced thinkers of his time.2 As a Christian thinker and writer, Pascal provided a penetrating and provocative analysis of Christianity’s broader world-and life-view.3 And he did this all within a brief earthly lifespan of 39 years.
Even in the twenty-first century, we have much to gain from surveying Pascal’s extraordinary life, scientific accomplishments, and his major philosophical, theological, and apologetics ideas. This six-part series (originally published as an article in RTB’s former magazine Facts for Faith) aims to provide just such a survey, starting with a brief history of Pascal’s formative years.
Blaise Pascal was born at Clermont in Auvergne, France, on June 19, 1623. Blaise’s mother, Antoinette Begon, died when he was three years old, leaving him and his two sisters in the sole care of their father, Étienne.
At that time, Étienne was a gifted mathematician who served as a royal treasurer and tax official for the French government. But Étienne, a loving and wise man, soon resigned his position in order to stay home and educate his children. Thus, one of the great thinkers of Western civilization was educated exclusively at home by his father.4
Hoping to expose his offspring to as much cultural and intellectual stimulation as possible, Étienne moved his family to Paris. There, he created an intellectual incubator for his children by putting them into social situations with many of France’s leading intellectuals. Blaise, in particular, was taken to a weekly discussion group that featured many of the foremost scientists and mathematicians of the time.
While Blaise studied Latin and Greek as a child, he quickly invested his mental powers in mathematics. At age 16, he published an essay on the projective geometry of the cone. Young though he was, his intellectual genius was soon widely recognized—even the great French rationalist philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) acknowledged Blaise’s precocious accomplishments.5
This youthful achievement was just the beginning of Blaise Pascal’s extraordinary career. Next week I will delve into his mathematical and scientific accomplishments.
1. Good introductory articles on Pascal’s life and thoughts can be found in New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Pascal”; and Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. “Blaise Pascal.”
2. An excellent analysis of Pascal’s mathematical and scientific achievements can be found in two of Richard H. Popkins’ articles in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, reprint ed. (1972), s.v. “Blaise Pascal”; and Great Thinkers of the Western World, ed. Ian P. McGreal (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), s.v. “Blaise Pascal.”
3. Two excellent works by contemporary Christian philosophers that have taken Pascalian themes and developed them into book-length apologetics treatments are Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992); and Peter Kreeft, Christianity For Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
4. Morris, Making Sense of It All, 3–14.
5. New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 452.