A Summer with Pascal by Antoine Compagnon (Translated from French by Catherine Porter) - review by Jonathan Egid

Jonathan Egid

Algebra & Other Idle Pursuits

A Summer with Pascal


Harvard University Press 184pp £19.95

I am precisely the target audience for this small book on the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Although I work on 17th-century philosophy (in a quite different part of the world, in my defence), I knew next to nothing about Pascal save for those things named after him – the unit of pressure, the triangle of binomial coefficients, the famous wager – before starting Compagnon’s elegant, unconventional ‘beach read’.

Years ago, I bought a copy of Pascal’s Pensées in one of those beautiful old Penguin Classics editions, but the image of his stark white plaster death mask set against an all-black background rather scared me off opening it up. A similarly foreboding impression was provided by the one sentence of his that I remembered, from an epigraph in A W Moore’s The Infinite: ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.’

What a phrase. Victor Cousin called it ‘a lugubrious cry surging up all of a sudden from the depths of the soul, in the desert of a world without God!’ This desert was one of inert matter, or pure and infinite mathematical extension. Such a conception of the world was inconceivable before the revolution in thought initiated by Galileo and Descartes and the concomitant growth of atheist, ‘libertine’ thought across Europe. A world without God was an empty world, inanimate, bare and silent. And it is the silence of infinite spaces that seems their most crucial characteristic, contrasting with the music of the heavenly spheres.

‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces’ is thus an image of the lot of man without God. For modern readers this image – perhaps best exemplified by the figure of the astronaut losing contact with the Space Shuttle and finding himself drifting endlessly through the void (recall the tagline for Alien: ‘in space no one can hear you scream’) – stirs up existential dread, even cosmic horror. Certainly, Pascal felt the contrast between faith and the desert of unbelief, and drew it as starkly as it has ever been drawn. But Compagnon convincingly argues that this angst was not Pascal’s.

Rather it was the angst of the libertine, the atheist, the person that Pascal was trying to convince – or, as Compagnon puts it, to ‘humiliate’ or ‘bully’ – into belief. Pascal’s intention was to ‘destroy the narcissism of his interlocutors’, to paint the predicament of the libertine in such a hopeless light as to make him realise his own impotence and his utter dependence on God. Pascal does aim to edify his readers, even to convince them, but his method is a strange one, relying on the constant application of contradiction and paradox:

If he exalts himself, I humble him.
If he humbles himself, I exalt him.
And I continue to contradict him
Until he comprehends
That he is an incomprehensible monster. 

The aim here is to ‘eradicate their trust in themselves’, to make them see themselves as they are and realise that whatever happiness is possible for them is possible only through God.

To modern ears, this can sound repulsive. Pascal’s was a different world, that of the ancien régime, and he defended many aspects of it that seem intolerable today. He is separated from us by the Enlightenment, which was as awed by his scientific talent as it was ashamed of his religious intensity, and by the Romantics, who held him up as a paragon of the sickly genius, the divine, suffering prodigy. Pascal does not wish for us to place ‘religion within the bounds of reason’ or to ‘dare to think for ourselves’, but neither does he believe that we can abandon ourselves to poetic intuition and mystical irrationality. He does not oppose the heart and the mind but, in another wonderful aphorism, combines the two: ‘the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.’ His considered position is almost always intermediary: ‘too much and too little wine. Don’t give him any, he can’t find the truth. Give him too much, the same.’

Pascal emerges as a thinker of compromise and contradiction. A great scientist, he sought to convince scientists of the vanity of their pursuits. Compagnon summarises his view: ‘scientific research is a diversion of the same sort as hunting or gambling, for it distracts from what is essential, the search for supernatural truth.’ Pascal compares the life spent in pursuit of scientific truth to that of the prisoner in a cell who, instead of trying to work out whether his execution warrant has been signed and attempting to get his death sentence revoked, spends his final hour playing cards.

Yet this is precisely how Pascal spent so much of his own life. Compagnon points out that the picture often painted of Pascal – of the scientific genius who renounced worldly pursuits for religion in his later years – is a rather crude caricature. Decades after mocking those who ‘sweat in their offices to show the scholars that they have solved an algebra problem that couldn’t have been solved before’ and deep into his ‘religious period’, Pascal sweated a great deal over algebra. The appeal of Pascal, as presented by Compagnon, lies not just in the ironies of his writing, but also in the performative contradictions of his life. The man was not immune to the paradoxes he wryly noted in other humans.

In a fragment entitled ‘Contradiction’, Pascal writes, ‘To understand the meaning of an author, one must reconcile all the contradictory passages … Every author has a meaning with which all the contradictory passages are in harmony, or he has no meaning at all.’ We might see Compagnon’s project in this book as a harmonisation of contradictions – those of the man himself and of his thought. It thus serves as a guide to understanding Pascal himself, a thinker whom the intervening centuries have made it difficult to understand on his own terms.

Compagnon’s book should send readers back to Pascal’s Pensées itself. Those who return to the writings will find themselves face to face with a singular and intensely challenging thinker. They will find themselves, as Chateaubriand put it, ‘suspended among these sentiments as in the midst of infinity’.

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