Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was an influential mathematician, physicist and Catholic philosopher. His scientific contributions include important work on pressure, vacuums, and fluids, as well as inventing the mechanical calculator and the hydraulic press. He developed probability theory, and his work is still influencing modern economics and social sciences. In 1654, following an intense religious vision, he abandoned his scientific work and focused exclusively on theology and philosophy.
Besides his scientific contributions, Pascal is one of the most important authors from the French Classical Period and is considered a master of French prose. In 1656, he published Provincial Letters, a criticism on casuistry which was influential in church thinking at the time. While his arguments were very controversial and the cause of much trouble, the work proved popular and later influenced the works of writers such Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, it is his Pensees, which translates to “thoughts”, that is his most influential theological work.
Pensees was actually compiled after his death, from numerous papers found in his belongings. It was first published in 1670. Pensees is an examination and defense of the Christian religion. Pascal looks at a number of philosophical paradoxes, such as infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life; analyzing them using contradictory philosophies to highlight the despair that must be reached by any reasoned conclusion other than one which embraces God.
Pensees contains the famous “Pascal’s Wager“. The wager in Pensees is stated as:
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….
…”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.
Pensees quickly became, and has remained since, a masterpiece of reflection, theology and literature, as well as a landmark of French prose.
About the Edition
This is an extremely nice ‘regular’ edition from Folio Society. The paper has a nice, sturdy feel. The color plates are nicely reproduced, and are very apropos for the work. The introductions are extensive, as is the index. I am not sure, however, that I “get” the cover (pictured below) in terms of how it relates to Pascal’s work.
- Text based on the 1995 revised Penguin edition
- Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer
- Introduction by T.S. Eliot
- Illustrations, paintings by Philippe de Champaigne
- Bound in buckram
- Set in Janson
- Printed on Abbey Wove paper at Martins the Printers Ltd., Berwick-upon-Tweed
- Bound by Hunter & Foulis, Edinburgh
- Blocked with a design by Gavin Morris and drawn by Neil Gower
- 9″ x 6 1/4″, 424 pages
- Frontispiece of Pascal and 16 pages of colour plates
(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided to highlight and visualize the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is encouraging healthy sales of fine press books for the publishers and fine retailers that specialize in these types of books (of which Books and Vines has no stake or financial interest). Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)