Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, was born four hundred years ago, on June 19, 1623. He is among those modernist thinkers who are difficult even to categorize. At the age of 16, Blaise published his first work on conic sections. At 19, he built his mechanical calculator, called Pascalina, which anticipated our computers. At 24, he succeeded in experimentally proving the existence of the vacuum, thus challenging thought about the ether. A few years later he became interested in the calculus of probability. After his father’s death and his sister Jacqueline’s entry into the Cistercian convent of Port-Royal, he frequented refined Parisian society, where he became acquainted with Cartesian philosophy. In Madame de Sablé’s salon he met, among others, the essayist François de La Rochefoucauld.
On the night of November 23, 1654, Pascal had an experience that would mark him for the rest of his life. He later described in writing what had happened to him, an account which he then carried with him always sewn into the lining of his jacket. The so-called Mémorial begins by referring to Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, recounted in Exodus: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and wise men.” This sentence is significant for Pascal as a philosopher of religion. On the one hand, it reports a direct experience of God and expresses a deep sense of religious awe; on the other hand, the author reflects on the content of his experience. He contrasts the God of philosophical or scholarly thought with the God of the Old and New Testaments. The conclusion is clear: this God of the philosophers does not kindle any fire of enthusiasm; no one sheds “tears of joy” for this God, and those who live “separated from him” need not repent.