'The Provincial Letters, Pensees & Scientific Treatise' (Great Books of the Western World, Volume 33)
By Blaise Pascal (Author)
The Lettres Provinciales (Provincial letters) are 18 letters written by French philosopher & theologian Blaise Pascal under the pseudonym Louis de Montalte. Written in the midst of the formulary controversy between the Jansenists & the Jesuits, they are a defense of the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld from Port-Royal-des-Champs, a friend of Pascal who in 1656 was condemned by the Faculte de Théologie at the Sorbonne in Paris for views that were claimed to be heretical. The 1st letter is dated 1/23/1656 & the 18th 3/24/1657. There's a fragmentary 19th letter. Intended as a systematic & coherent defense of the Christian faith, Pascal's Thoughts (Pensées) were assembled after his death from the scattered & unfinished writings he'd been working on. Among other things, the author advances a proposition now known as Pascal's Wager: the idea that a rational person should behave as tho God exists.
The Penseés is a collection of philosohical fragments, notes and essays in which Pascal explores the contradictions of human nature in pscyhological, social, metaphysical and - above all - theological terms. Mankind emerges from Pascal's analysis as a wretched and desolate creature within an impersonal universe, but who can be transformed through faith in God's grace.
This volume also includes Pascal's scientific treatises on mathematics and physics.
French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal was a contemporary of René Descartes and was ten when Galileo Galilei was forced to recant his belief that the earth circled the sun. He and Thomas Hobbes lived in Paris at the same time (1640) including the year Hobbes published his famous Leviathan (1651). Together with Pierre de Fermat, Pascal created the calculus of probabilities.
A near-fatal carriage accident in November 1654 — less than eight years before his death — persuaded him to turn his intellect finally toward religion. The story goes that on the proverbial dark and stormy night, while Pascal was riding in a carriage across a bridge in a Paris suburb, a fright caused the horses to bolt, sending them over the edge. The carriage bearing Pascal survived. Pascal took the incident as a sign and devoted himself to theology. It was at this point that he began writing a series against the Jesuits in 1657 called the Provincial Letters.
Pascal is perhaps most famous for his Wager ('Pascal's Wager'), which is not as clear in his language as in this summary: "If Jesus does not exist, the non Christian loses little by believing in him and gains little by not believing. If Jesus does exist, the non Christian gains eternal life by believing and loses an infinite good by not believing.”
Sick throughout his life, Pascal died in Paris, probably from a combination of tuberculosis and stomach cancer at age 39. At the last he was a Jansenist Catholic. No one knows if Pascal won his Wager.