In a new Apostolic Letter, ‘Sublimitas et miseria hominis’ (The Grandeur and Misery of Man), released on Monday, 19 June, the day Blaise Pascal would have turned 400, Pope Francis praises the “brilliant and inquisitive mind” of the French thinker.
Blaise Pascal “was a little genius. But he did not live outside of reality. He was not a ‘nerd’, as we would say today. He was a restless youth who was well aware of the material needs of the society in which he lived”, said Christiane Murray, Vice-director of the Holy See Press Office, as she introduced the press conference for the presentation of Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Letter, Sublimitas et miseria hominis, dedicated to the French philosopher. During the press conference, co-presided by Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, Prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, and François-Xavier Adam, Director of the Institut Français — Centre Saint Louis in Rome, some of Pascal’s works that belong to the Vatican Library were displayed for the occasion.
Believers and non-believers alike were fascinated by Pascal, said Cardinal Tolentino de Mendonça: “Charles Péguy wrote that he was ‘le plus grand génie que la terre ait jamais porté’ [the greatest genius that the world has ever produced]; Friedrich Nietzsche considered him the most profound man in modern times. Pascal’s influence was undoubtedly enormous: from Giacomo Leopardi to Arthur Schopenhauer, from Alessandro Manzoni to Martin Heidegger. There were very few thinkers and philosophers from the 17th century onwards, who did not engage with his anthropology”.
The Cardinal suggested an interpretation that highlights some lesser-known aspects of the philosopher, such as charity towards the poor and the sick. “This behaviour of his, which he did not tout, was certainly affected by his own experience of suffering and sickness — suffice it to think about his 1659 prayer for ‘the proper use of sickness’ and his search to find a way to concretely express his gratitude for the Divine Grace that had undeservedly entered into what he considered to be his smallness as a human being. This demonstrates that Pascal never separated faith in God from concrete gestures towards his brothers and sisters”, the Cardinal continued.
According to Pascal, philosophy, even in its more admirable expressions, was useful, but not capable of providing an adequate explanation for the tragedy of man. Stoicism tended towards pride, scepticism led to desperation, dogmatism to isolation, and even the most sublime expressions of philosophy, at most led to a reasonable, albeit vague, deism. He was convinced that one could never overlook the human being and the tragedy of humanity: “Nothing is so important to man as his own state; nothing is so formidable to him as eternity”, Pascal wrote. Indeed, for him nothing was more dangerous than disembodied thought: “whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast”.
In this sense Pascal was a true realist, and a forerunner of existentialism, who knew how to face the contradictions of the human being, the Cardinal continued, adding that this honesty is what makes Pascal, still today, a reference point for facing the complexities of modern man, split between scientific and theological truth, who finds in the essence of his nature, enlightened by faith, that certainty that he ardently defended in Pensées: “You would not seek me if you had not found me”.
To celebrate 400 years since the birth of the philosopher, scientist and mystic (on 19 June) the Institut Français — Centre Saint Louis in Rome organized a round table discussion with the title “La grandeur de l’ame humaine” [the greatness of the human soul], moderated by journalist Loup Besmond de Senneville, vaticanist for the French weekly newspaper “La Croix”. Among the speakers were Jean de Saint-Cheron, of the Institut Catholique de Paris, columnist with “La Croix”; Benedetta Papasogli of Libera Università Maria Santissima Assunta (Lumsa); Laurence Plazenet, Director of the Centre international Blaise Pascal of Clermond-Ferrand; and Tony Gheereart, who teaches at the University of Rouen. “The theme is the greatness of the human soul”, said Adam, adding that it is not by chance “that the place where the encounter is taking place is the Centre founded by Jacques Maritain, the man of integral humanism. Pascal’s objective is to bring man back to what he is when he is alone, when he is himself, helping him not to divert his gaze from the fleeting duration of what he desires”, from the more pressing and uncomfortable thoughts, such as the prospect of eternity. The answer to the wretchedness of man but also to man’s thirst for greatness, had to be found in an individual revelation of a personal God.
Pascal already believed in God before the night of fire, the Cardinal continued, but on that night he recognized sin as a symbol of the lack of desire for God. That experience gave rise to many of his concepts on pride and humility and especially the category of the “order of the heart” which was particularly dear to him.
There is a personal account of that night on 23 November 1654, in a letter entitled mémorial which was discovered after his death, sown inside the lining of his coat. It was an experience that transformed his life and spurred him to dedicate himself to prayer with renewed trust, making his Christian faith the absolute centre of his life and dedicating all his efforts to philosophical and theological reflection on man and God.
For non-believers too, Blaise Pascal continues to be a point of reference. In the scientific world, he is known above all for his contribution to mathematics, both in the field of projective geometry — the branch of geometry that paved the way from the analytical geometry of Descartes to the algebraic geometry of the 20th century — and in probability calculus, which he developed in collaboration with Pierre de Fermat, laying down the basis for the theory of probability.
Pascal is also known for his contributions in the field of applied and theoretical sciences. He built the first mechanical calculator, the Pascaline, a precursor to modern calculators, he devised the first public transportation system, he invented the syringe, he explained the concept of the void and atmospheric pressure, inspired by the work of Evangelista Torricelli, and he influenced the establishment of the modern scientific method.