Pascal was born six years after Shakespeare died. Yet it is possible, as I have found, to 'discover' him today as though he were a contemporary whose work, by chance, had not before come to one's notice. To me he has been a source of delight and enlightenment. His sublime intelligence, so wide in its range, so firm in its grasp of our human condition, at once so subtle and so simple, seems to me to combine the cool appraisal of a scientist with the imaginative understanding of a poet and the humility of a saint.
My own study of Pascal, such as it is, has been confined simply to reading him; particularly, of course, the Pensees, but also, less carefully, the Lettres Provinciales, and other occasional letters and compositionsfor instance, the fascinating Entretien avec M. de Saci. I have for the French text the excellent Pleiade edition edited by Jacques Chevalier, and for an English translation Martin Turnell's likewise excellent edition of the Pensees (Harvill Press).
M. Chevalier and Mr Turnell, I am sure for the best possible reasons, use quite different arrangements of the Pensees. It would be nice for ignoramuses like myself, to have an edition with the equivalent English and French texts on facing pages. Pascal's French is so luminous (the nearest I know is Rousseau's), his sentences shine so brightly, that one scarcely needs to know the language to read them. All the same, facing texts would be helpful.
Now this desultory reading has been reinforced by two capable studies of Pascal and his work, by the late Abbe Steinmann, and by Dr Broome of Keele University. Both I have found extremely helpful. Abbe Steinmann's is, from a biographical point of view, fuller and more informative. I accept the judgment of Mr Turnell (who translated it from the original French) that it is the best of its kind available to the general reader. As originally published, it seems, it was a good deal longer, and the text has been subjected to cuts and some editing. My suspicious Protestant mind makes me wonder whether efforts may have been made to prune out some of the more controversial aspects, especially in connection with the Jansenist controversy, which got the Abbe into trouble with his ecclesiastical superiors when he was alive. Dr Broome, from my point of view, is more workmanlike and sensible, though he does not attempt to deal other than factually with episodes like Pascal's first conversion, which Abbe Steinmann handles with great skill and understanding.
Before reading Abbe Steinmann and Dr Broome, I had only read, in the way of biographical studies, the enchanting memoir of Pascal by his sister Gilberte Perier, and the briefer recollections of him by her daughter, Marguerite Perier. Also the interesting, but somewhat suspect, account of Pascal's death by Pere Beurrier, the local priest who administered the last rites.
Dr Broome, I am sure, is right when he points out that Gilberte's memoir is more hagiography than biography. Even so, I have to say that, for me, there emerged from her pious, elegant sentences a living man, by no means faultless, but uniquely gifted with understanding, with a dauntless ardour for truth and a quenchless love for his fellows, both those who were nearsisters, friends, relativesand all men, especially the poor and the maimed in body or in mind. I find it particularly touching when Gilberte expresses regret that her brother, because of ill-health, should have left his great design, his apologia for the Christian faith, undone, with only some scattered notes to show what it might have been. Dear Gilberte, she need not have worried. Four centuries later we can still make do with the notes!
Jacqueline, Pascal's other sister, had a sterner and more resolute disposition. Against her family's wishes, she became a nun at Port-Royal, the centre of Jansenism, and there came to play an important part in her brother's spiritual development. Yet her grace, charm and beauty (though she caught smallpox and her face was pitted) likewise reach one across the centuries. All the trio seem caught in some special light which abolishes time; one's sense of their presence is so actual that one feels one must have met them yesterday over a meal or out on a walk. Jacqueline died ten months before her brother, probably also of tuberculosis. He, at the time of his death, was in his fortieth year.
In that short lifetime Pascal invented the computer (la machine arithmetique), started the first public passenger service in Paris, mastered the problem of the vacuum, expounded his scientific and mathematical studies with such brilliance that it was considered by no means inappropriate to compare him with Aristotle, engaged in vituperative and extremely effective theological polemics with the Jesuits, and finally, in spite of appalling ill-health and pain, attained a serene relationship with God and with his fellows, in the process producing one of the great masterpieces of all timethe Pense'es, a work of Christian apologetics before which the most sceptical mind, indulgent flesh and arrogant spirit stand defenceless.
Not bad in thirty-nine years and two months! Unlike Lord Snow, Pascal reached the conclusion that what is now our great sacred cowsciencewas a cul-de-sac. The mathematics he had fallen in love with as a child (to the point that, forbidden Euclid as too self-indulgent, he invented the early propositions for himself) proved a broken instrument. His proud, defiant mind had to be humbled before it could know anything at all:
It is vain, O men, that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your insight only leads you to the knowledge that it is not in yourselves that you will discover the true and the good. The philosophers promised them to you, and have not been able to keep their promise.... Your principal maladies are pride, which cuts you off from God; sensuality, which binds you to the earth; and they have done nothing but foster at least one of these maladies. If they have given you God for your object, it has only been to pander to your pride; they have made you think that you were like him and resembled him by your nature. And those who have grasped the vanity of such a pretension have cast you down into the other abyss by making you believe that your nature was like that of the beasts of the field, and have led you to seek your good in lust, which is the lot of animals.
Paul Valery considered such sentiments intimations of a sick mind. If so, let me be sick! 'Those who believe' Pascal also wrote, 'that man's good lies in the flesh, and evil in the things that induce him to turn his back on the pleasures of the senses, deserve to become glutted with them and to die of them'a proposition which, if he had lived a little longer, Valery would have seen well on the way to being fulfilled.