Pascal lived from 1623 to 1662 in France and is a singularly unique figure in science, mathematics, physics, theology and literature. We studied his triangle in high school and his law on pressure in college but he offers us much more, especially in our heavily distracted, secular, democratic and “scientific” world.
Scientific Temper Tempered : Had Pascal been a mathematician or a scientist, he would have been remembered in the domain ( like Euler – a brilliant mathematician) but fortunately for us, he was a tortured soul – immensely gifted – he was a child prodigy and a mathematical genius of first order but he was also a believer. This conflict and its candid and sober expression make him immediately someone with whom we can relate to. He was an architect of the scientific age but at the same time he was deeply contemplative to reconcile the world of science and the world deep inside us, shaped by many other non-science traditions. He did not provide a blanket solution but was a truly thinking reed. He concludes human situation without any iota of false hope or resigned fatalism : Man is a reed but a thinking reed.
Wisdom in Reflection : Pascal asserts and in all seriousness : the greatest problem of man is that he cannot remain happy while in a room with a place to recline and reflect. In the restlessness of our time, we must hear from him about the beauty, grace and the charm of a life of reflection. Our contemporary professors and intellectuals who are busy, traveling, in that seminar or that, crossing half of the globe – they must listen to the calm voice and the deep anxiety washed in a sublime light of realized feeling in Le Pensees : “.the universe can kill a man effortlessly, a vapour, a drop of poison will do the job, the greatest consolation of man is that he feels and knows the pain but the Universe knows nothing of it.”
With this single sentence above, Pascal re-affirmed the nobility of Man without becoming either a sterile disbeliever or a obnoxious fanatic. This is an important pathway – a road for us who are in an increasingly secular world but lament the lack of beauty and direction. A hundred years before Immanuel Kant, Pascal arrived at something more important for us – for all the beneficiaries and victim of the Age of Reason, Science and Un-reason : Great Thoughts come from the Heart. All this he arrives by reflection – in a room with a chair and perhaps something to recline upon and a window that opens to sky and a medieval town. Pascal redirects our thoughts to that room where we can sit with ourselves and he says this as if in a whisper, courteously in a conversational tone not because he needs to but he carried this anxiety and torture by being at the front-line of the greatest event of last thousand years : Who is running the Cosmic Machine if GOD appears to be superfluous ? We do not find the import of this question so much today but in Pascal’s time, the greatest minds were busy with this chasm that was opening and Pascal was very few who suffered for all of us. You can observe this in all his portraits and even in his death mask – genius has the countenance tortured with anxiety and suffering and a balanced resignation – The heart has a reason which Reason will never comprehend.
The Consolations of Intellectual Maturity : Most of the scientific / mathematical geniuses radiate a deep masculine prowess – to extract the secret from Mother Nature by the power of the self in the form of reason, method, process, formula, model and so forth. In their youth, these geniuses announce their grand claims and objectives and this sentiment reached its peak by 1900s when to discover a fundamental law of Nature was considered a life well lived ( Max Planck ) and before some time – revolutions ( Tom Paine was happy to have played part in two revolutions). But Nature or the physical Nature itself started becoming something else – Heisenberg formally announced the demise of the certainty in the objective itself. We do not find this in Pascal. Instead, in his works and in his soft and almost feminine face, we find an persona of the Uncertainty Principle.
He teaches us – especially the intellectuals of post-industrial society something very important : Reflection is end and means of wisdom and this pure reflection includes scientific thinking in a wholesome manner.
Every young man or woman who aspire to have a career in science must read and reflect on The Pensees. If he does not, he/she will remain immature.