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Pensées des Pensées

A little bit on Blaise Pascal.

Okay, you caught me.  French class is over, because that is all the French I know.  Now it’s time for your history lesson.  I think this one will be of particular interest to my law student friends.

“Love or hate alters the aspect of justice. How much greater confidence has an advocate, retained with a large fee, in the justice of his cause! How much better does his bold manner make his case appear to the judges, deceived as they are by appearances! How ludicrous is reason, blown with a breath in every direction!”

Allow me to introduce you to Blaise Pascal: physicist, writer, philosopher.  He was an all-around fascinating dude.  His Pensées (Thoughts) have inspired me so much over the past couple of years that I thought it might be appropriate to ponder his genius a little.  I mean, we named a unit of measure after the guy!

Blaise Pascal

"I set it down as a fact that if all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world."

Pascal was a brilliant man who, like many brilliant men, began as a child prodigy.  His father Étienne was a tax collector; his mother died when he was just three years old.  Étienne never remarried, choosing instead to dedicate his life to teaching Blaise and his two sisters, Jacqueline (younger) and Gilberte (elder).  (Jacqueline herself was also a prodigy.  She wrote a five-act comedy at the age of eleven.)  When Blaise Pascal was only sixteen, he wrote a treatise on what was called the “mystic hexagram.”

At the time, Descartes (yep, totally a friend of  Étienne’s) laughed at the idea that someone so young could produce such prodigious work and attributed the treatise to Blaise’s father.  (I’m not sure, but this could be part of the reason that Pascal slams Descartes so much in his Pensées.)

 “To write against those who made too profound a study of science: Descartes.  I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.  Descartes useless and uncertain.”

These days, Pascal is mainly known for his awesome triangle, which he didn’t actually invent.  However, he was the first to arrange all the information in a tidy little box as well as develop many applications for it.

Who knew a triangle could be so... so... French?

This existed a while before, but we still give him credit. He deserves it.

Move over, Leonardo da Vinci!  Pascal was also an inventor.  Perhaps the most important thing he helped develop was the syringe.  Not for medical use, more as an application for another one of his wacky theories.

“Thought constitutes the greatness of man.”

My favorite invention of Pascal’s has to be the “Pascaline,” though.

How does this thing work?

The Pascaline.

What is it?

A rudimentary calculator.  That’s right.  It’s the 1640s, people are dying of smallpox left and right, and Blaise Pascal has already conceived of something we didn’t really put into common use until the last century.

For anyone who wants to dip their feet into some interesting philosophy without wading too deep into some theoretical quagmire, I recommend Pascal’s Pensées.  He was a Catholic philosopher, so there is a lot of religious discussion in there, but I think there is truth and relevance for everyone buried within.  If you don’t agree with this, I have nothing more for you…

“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

“All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”


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