Front Page Titles (by Subject) PREFACE. - The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
PREFACE. - Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal 
The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated from the text of M. Auguste Molinier by C. Kegan Paul (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901).
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
Those to whom the Life of Pascal and the Story of Port Royal are unknown, must be referred to works treating fully of the subject, since it were impossible to deal with them adequately within the limits of a preface. Sainte-Beuve’s great work on Port Royal, especially the second and third volumes, and “Port Royal,” by Charles Beard, B.A., London, 1863, may best be consulted by any who require full, lucid, and singularly impartial information.
But for such as, already acquainted with the time and the man, need a recapitulation of the more important facts, or for those who may find an outline map useful of the country they are to study in detail, a few words are here given.
Blaise Pascal was born at Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne, on June 19, 1623. He sprung from a well-known legal family, many members of which had held lucrative and responsible positions. His father, Etienne Pascal, held the post of intendant, or provincial administrator, in Normandy, where, and at Paris previously, Pascal lived from the age of sixteen to that of twenty-five; almost wholly educated by his father on account of his precarious health. His mother died when he was eight years old. Etienne Pascal was a pious but stern person, and by no means disposed to entertain or allow any undue exaltation in religion, refusing as long as he lived to allow his daughter Jaqueline to take the veil. But he had the usual faiths and superstitions of his time, and believing that his son’s ill-health arose from witchcraft, employed the old woman who was supposed to have caused the malady to remove it, by herbs culled before sunrise, and the expiatory death of a cat. This made a great impression on his son, who in the “Thoughts” employs an ingenious argument to prove that wonders wrought by the invocation of the devil are not, in the proper sense of the term, miracles. At any rate the the counter-charm was incomplete, as the child’s feeble health remained feeble to the end.
Intellectually, Blaise Pascal grew rapidly to the stature and strength of a giant; his genius showing itself mainly in the direction of mathematics; at the age of fifteen his studies on conic sections were thought worthy to be read before the most scientific men of Paris, and in after years of agonizing pain mathematical research alone was able to calm him, and distract his mind from himself. His actual reading was at all times narrow, and his scholarship was not profound. In 1646, his father, having broken his thigh at Rouen, came under the influence of two members of the Jansenist school of thought at that place, who attended him in his illness, and from that time dated the more serious religious views of the family. Jaqueline was from the first deeply affected by the more rigorous opinions with which she came in contact. Forbidden to enter the cloister, she lived at home as austere a life as though she had been professed, but after her father’s death won her brother’s reluctant consent to take the veil at Port Royal, and became one of the strictest nuns of that rigid rule.
Blaise Pascal went through a double process of conversion. When the family first fell under Jansenist influence he threw himself so earnestly into the study of theology that he seriously injured his frail health, and being advised to refrain from all intellectual labour, he returned to the world of Paris, where his friends the Duc de Roannez, the Chevalier de Méré and M. Miton were among the best known and most fashionable persons. His father’s death put him in possession of a fair fortune, which he used freely, not at all viciously, but with no renunciation of the pleasures of society. There is some evidence of a proposal that he should marry the Duc de Roannez’ sister, and no doubt with such a scheme before him he wrote his celebrated “Discours sur les Passions de l’Amour.” This, however, resulted only in the conversion of the duke and his sister, the latter of whom for a time, the former for the whole of his life, remained subject to the religious feelings then excited.
In the autumn of 1654, whether after deliverance in a dangerous accident, or from some hidden cause of which nothing can now be even surmised, there came a second sudden conversion from which there was no return. That hour wrought a complete change in Pascal’s life; austerity, self-denial, absolute obedience to his spiritual director, boundless alms-giving succeeded to what at most had been a moderate and restrained use of worldly pleasure, and he threw himself into the life, controversy and interests of Port Royal, with all the passion of one who was not only a new convert, but the champion of a society into which those dearest to him had entered even more fully than he. He became, for a time, one of the solitaries of Port Royal before the close of that same year.
The Cistercian Abbey of Port Royal des Champs was situated about eighteen miles from Paris. It had been founded early in the thirteenth century, and would have faded away unremembered but for the grandeur of its closing years. The rule of the community had been greatly relaxed, but it was reformed with extreme rigour by Jaqueline Arnauld, its young abbess, known in religion as La Mère Angélique. The priest chosen as Director of the community was Jean du Vergier de Hauranne, Abbé de St. Cyran, a close friend of Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Ypres. They had together devoted themselves to the study of Saint Augustine; and the “Augustinus,” the work to which Jansen gave his whole life, was planned with the assistance of St. Cyran. Certain propositions drawn from this work were afterwards condemned, and the controversy which raged between the two schools of the Jesuits and the Jansenists divided itself into two parts, first, whether the propositions were heretical, and secondly, whether as a fact they were contained in, or could fairly be deduced from, Jansen’s book. The strife, which raged with varying fortunes for many years, need not here detain us.
After the reform of Port Royal, and when the Society, however assailed and in danger, was at the height of its renown, the whole establishment consisted of two convents, the mother house of Port Royal des Champs, and one in Paris to which was attached a school for girls. To Port Royal des Champs, as to a spiritual centre, and to be under the guidance of the three great directors, who in succession ruled the abbey, M. de St. Cyran, M. Singlin, and M. de Saci, there came men and women, not under monastic vows, but living for a time the monastic or even the eremetical life. The women, for the most part, had rooms in the convent, the men built rooms for themselves hard by, or shared between them La Grange, a farm belonging to the abbey. It need scarcely be said that in so strict a community the sexes were wholly separate; a common worship, and the confidence of the same confessor, together with similarity of views in religion, were the ties which bound together the whole society.
When Pascal formally joined Port Royal, the Abbey and all that was attached to it greatly needed aid from without. A Bull in condemnation of Jansen had been gained from the Pope, and a Formulary, minimizing its effect as far as possible, was drawn up by the General Assembly in France, which was ultimately accepted by Port Royal itself. But if the Port Royalists minimized the defeat, and, with great intellectual dexterity, showed that the condemned propositions were not in precise terms what they had held, and were not in Jansen’s book, their enemies exaggerated the victory. A confessor in Paris refused absolution to a parishioner because he had a Jansenist living in his house, and had sent his grand-daughter to school at Port Royal. Antoine Arnauld, known as Le Grand Arnauld, brother of La Mère Angélique, himself in danger of condemnation by the Sorbonne, drew up a statement of the case intended to instruct the public on the points in dispute. On reading this to the Port Royal solitaries before printing it, he saw that it would not do, and turning to Pascal, who had then been a year under M. Singlin’s direction, he suggested to him as a younger man with a lighter pen to see what he could do. The next day Pascal produced the first of the “Provincial Letters,” or to give it the correct title, “A Letter written to a Provincial by one of his friends.” In these Letters Pascal formed his true style, and took rank at once among the great French writers. They contributed largely to turn the scale of feeling against his adversaries; they, and an occurrence in which he saw the visible finger of God, saved Port Royal for a time. But the history of the “Provincial Letters” must be read elsewhere, as must also in its fulness the miracle of the Holy Thorn, on which a few words are needed.
The “Provincial Letters” were in course of publication, but M. Arnauld had been condemned by the Sorbonne just as the first was issued, and his enemies said he was excommunicated, which was not technically true; he was in danger of arrest, and was in hiding; the solitaries of Port Royal were almost all dispersed; the schools were thinned of their pupils, and on the point of closing, the confessors were about to be withdrawn and the nuns sent to various other convents, when the miracle took place. Marguerite Perier, a child of ten years old, daughter of Pascal’s elder sister, was one of the pupils at Port Royal in Paris, not as yet dismissed to her home. She was tenderly nursed by the nuns for an ulcer in the lachrymal gland, which had destroyed the bones of the nose, and produced other horrors of which there is no need to speak. A relic of the Saviour, one of the thorns of his crown of mockery, which had been intrusted to the nuns, was specially venerated during a service in its honour, and as it would seem was passed from hand to hand in its reliquary. When the turn of the scholars came, Sister Flavia, their mistress, moved by a sudden impulse said, “My child, pray for your eye,” and touched the ulcer with the reliquary. The child was cured, and the effect on the community was immediate. The remaining solitaries were not dispersed, some of those who had gone returned, the confessors were not removed, the school was not closed, and Port Royal was respited.
The miracle was to Pascal at once a solemn matter of religion and a family occurrence; he took henceforward as his cognizance an eye encircled with a crown of thorns and the motto Scio cui credidi, he jotted down various thoughts on the miracle, and the manner in which as it seemed to him God had by it given as by “a voice of thunder” his judgment in favour of Port Royal, and he sketched a plan of a work against atheists and unbelievers. In the year between the spring of 1657, and that of 1658, the last year of his good health, if that can be called good which was at best but feeble, he indicated the plan, and wrote the most finished paragraphs of his intended work. The detached thoughts which make up the bulk of it were scribbled, as they occurred to him during the last four years of his life, on scraps of paper, or on the margin of what he had already written, often when he was quite incapable of sustained employment. Many were dictated, some to friends, and some to a servant who constantly attended him in his illness.
Towards the end of his life he was obliged to move into Paris again, where he was carefully nursed by his sister Madame Perier, to whose house he was moved at the last, where he died on August 9th, 1662, at the age of thirty-nine, having spent his last years in an ecstasy of self-denial, of charity, and of aspiration after God.
Not for six years after his death were his family and friends able to consider in what form his unfinished work should be given to the world. Then Port Royal had a breathing space, what was known as the Peace of the Church was established by Clement IX., and it was considered that the time had come to set in order these precious fragments. The duty of giving an author’s works to the world as he left them was little understood in those days, and the Duc de Roannez even suggested that Pascal’s whole work should be re-written on the lines he had laid down. Some editing was, on all hands, allowed to be needful; thus the arrangement of chapters, and the fragments to be included in chapters, were matter for fair discussion. But the committee of editors went further, and even when the text had been settled by them, it had to undergo a further censorship by various theologians. Finally, in January, 1670, the “Pensées” appeared as a small duodecimo, with a preface by the Perier family, and no mention of Port Royal in the volume.
For a full account of this and other editions, the reader must be referred to the preface to M. Molinier’s edition, Paris, 1877-1879, and to that of M. Faugère, Paris, 1844.
M. Victor Cousin was the first to draw attention to the need of a new edition of Pascal in 1842. He showed that great liberties had been taken with and suppressions made in the text, and the labour to which he invited was first undertaken by M. Prosper Faugère. M. Havet adopting his text departed from his arrangement, reverted in great measure to that of the old editors, and accompanied the whole by an excellent commentary and notes, 2nd edition, Paris, 1866. M. Molinier has again consulted the MSS. word for word, and while in a degree following M. Faugère’s arrangement has yet been guided by his own skill and judgment. It must always be remembered that each editor must necessarily follow his own judgment in regard to the position he should give to fragments not placed by the writer. But provided that an editor makes no changes merely for the sake of change, and that he loyally enters into the spirit of his predecessors, each new comer, till the arrangement is finally fixed, has a great advantage. Such an editor is M. Molinier, and in his arrangement the text of Pascal would seem to be mainly if not wholly fixed; so that for the first time we have not only Pascal’s “Thoughts,” but we have them approximately arranged as he designed to present them to his readers.
The course of an English translator is clear; his responsibility is confined to deciding which text to follow, he has no right to make one for himself. In the present edition, therefore, M. Molinier’s text and arrangement are scrupulously followed except in two places. In regard to one, M. Molinier has himself adopted a different reading in his notes made after the text was printed, the second is an obvious misprint. Pascal’s “Profession of Faith,” or “Amulet,” is transferred from the place it occupies in M. Molinier’s edition to serve as an introduction to the work, striking as it does the key-note to the “Thoughts.”
Pascal’s quotations from the Bible were made of course from the Vulgate, but very often indeed from memory, and incorrectly, while he often gave the substance alone of the passage he used. No one version of the Bible therefore has been used exclusively, but the Authorized Version and the Douai or Rheims versions have been used as each in turn most nearly afforded the equivalent of the quotations made by Pascal.
The notes are mainly based on those of MM. Faugère, Havet, and Molinier.