Pascal was a brilliant guy. At just 19 years of age he invented an adding machine to help his dad with his work collecting taxes for Louis XVIII. His little box full of gears and levers became known as the Pascaline, the first functional calculator. In honor of his invention a programming language was named after him in the 1960’s. Pascal’s machine was a small commercial success, 20 of them would be made, but Pascal’s interest shifted to a scientific controversy that raged in his day: “Can a vacuum exist in nature?” His opponents, the Scholastics, reasoned that a vacuum could not exist based on certain assumptions about the nature of the world. But Pascal wasn’t convinced. Why did the Scholastic’s use reason to explain a natural phenomena that should be explained by physical means? With this in mind, Pascal conducted a series of experiments that conclusively proved that a vacuum could exist. (He had his brother-in-law carry a barometer up a mountain to prove the air has mass just like anything else) Today, units of atmospheric pressure are called ‘pascals’ in recognition of his discovery. Pascal is also famous for ‘Pascals triangle’ – as every high school student knows from algebra class. Pascals work on conics contributed to the discovery of calculus and his theories of probability, along with those of others, led to the formation of the first insurance agency. He also developed the first public transit system for Paris.
By his early thirties, Pascal was a star in the salons of Paris. But he had grown disillusioned with the empty and vain lifestyle of the honnet homme, the educated gentleman. Lonely, physically sick and having nearly driven his carriage off of a bridge, Pascal began to think more seriously about spiritual matters. One night while reading John 17, he had an experience that would bring about a profound change in his life. The impression was so vivid that Pascal scribbled some lines on a scrap of paper which he sowed into a shirt pocket. It was later found by accident after his death and would become known as Pascal’s Memorial. It offers a unique glimpse into the soul of Pascal during a difficult period in his life.
The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, Feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the martyrology, From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Thy God shall be my God.
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth
I will not forget thy word. Amen
(Pascal, Pensees 913)
The Memorial wasn’t meant to be understood by anyone other than himself. But it is clear that over a period of two hours that night, Pascal exchanged human wisdom and philosophy for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He had read the likes of Montaigne and the French deists but emphatically turned his back on them. In place of the theoretical God of Descartes, the unmoveable First Mover of Aristotle, Pascal chose Jesus Christ, “the object of all things, the center towards which all things tend.” (Pensees 449)