BLAISE PASCAL, REASONS OF THE HEART, by Marvin R. O'Connell. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. 202 pages, index. Softcover; $16.00.
Written from the viewpoint of a Catholic theologian, this Pascal biography spends little time on his philosophical and scientific accomplishments, focusing instead on the factors which led him into his fervent Christian convictions. When Pascal's sister, Jacqueline, wrote of him in 1647, that he was "no longer a mathematician," she meant by this that while Pascal might still pursue the sciences, those pursuits no longer defined him; he now belonged to Jesus Christ, and in Him found his primary identification. Seven years later, on November 23-24, 1654, Pascal experienced a second conversion, a "night of FIRE," and much of this excellent book centers around that experience, particularly Pascal's written testimony to it, two copies of which were found inside his jacket when he died, eighteen years later.
Lives of great men (and women) remind us of goals we should set, and lives we ought to live. Pascal's life is so remarkable and uplifting that it is difficult to think of any other person within the last 500 years with whom to compare him. This biography looks at his life from a narrow view -- yet a view which Pascal, himself, would certainly say was primary.
One of the most challenging of all Pascal's PENSEES was "le pari," the WAGER, elements of which appear throughout his work. Many scholars, William James among them, have criticized this discourse. But, in the words of O'Connell (page 188), "Pascal's retort was that the wager embodied a moral decision, not an intellectual demonstration or even an argument." PENSEES numbers 418 and 835 expand on this point.
Blaise Pascal wrote a testimony on that pivotal night in 1654; he later recopied it on parchment, and carried both copies with him to the day of his death. O'Connell writes, "The paper text -- written hurriedly, smudged, crowded with excisions and insertions, scarcely legible in places -- was composed first, composed indeed at the very moment of illumination . . . the words tumbled forth with a fiery intensity." Part of these words follow:
The year of grace 1654.
Monday, 23 November, . . .
From about half-past ten in the evening
until about half past midnight.
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.
Not of the philosophers and intellectuals.
Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace . . .
joy, joy, joy, tears of joy, . . .
O'Connell's book has the full text. Powerful stuff. I recommend the book highly. When you purchase a copy, you will, I believe, make it a "keeper" in your personal library.
John W. Burgeson
Published in PERSPECTIVES, the quarterly journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). Volume 50, #1, March 1998.
ASA's web site is
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