“More than 350 years ago, in the city of Paris, the scientist Blaise Pascal was deathly ill and approaching his horizon. He was still a young man and though wracked with pain was busily taking notes on scraps of paper for what would be his final work…
Pascal was one of the greatest scientific minds that ever lived. Yet, he looked into the eye of the universe and could not find an answer. Without a Creator to make sense of it, Pascal wrote, a human life is ‘intolerable.’
So what are we to do? Although Pascal was able to unlock the mysteries of the physical universe better than almost any man who ever lived, and although he solved mathematical puzzles for all time, it is his attempt to answer this question that we most remember him by.
As a mathematician, Pascal invented the world’s first calculator and was a pioneer of probability theory. Using this theory, he devised formulas for winning games of chance that are still employed today. It was only natural that he should attempt to analyze the spiritual uncertainties that surround us in the same clinical way he went about his scientific studies…
Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 in the region of Clermont-Ferrand in France… After his mother’s death, Pascal’s family moved to Paris and his father, a learned man, took up the education of his prodigy son. By the time he was twelve years old, Pascal had proved Euclid’s 32nd theorem by himself. By the time he was twenty-eight, he had completed most of the scientific work for which he is remembered. In the same year, his father died and his beloved sister Jacqueline renounced the world and withdrew to a convent.
Three years after his father’s death, Pascal had a religious vision, which is as famous as his scientific laws. He called it his ‘night of ﬁre.’ Between eleven and midnight Pascal encountered, in his words, ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not of the philosophers.’ No one knows exactly what he meant by this, but it has been assumed ever since that he was referring to the actual presence of God and not just the idea of Him. After this experience, Pascal became even more remote, and wrote of his ‘extreme aversion for the beguilements of the world.’ Unlike his sister, he did not completely retreat from the company of others, but began to focus his genius more and more on religious questions and, in particular, the problem of last things.
Pascal’s body was as weak as his mind was strong. Since infancy, he had been afflicted by poor health and as an adult experienced stomach disorders and migraines that blurred his vision and made it difficult for him to work. By the time he reached his thirty-fifth year, he was in such pain that he had to suspend his intellectual effort. In the midst of this agony, he wrote another literary fragment, which he titled A Prayer to Ask God to Make Good Use of Sickness, and returned to work.
To distract himself from his physical pain, Pascal took up the problem of the cycloid, and wrote a hundred-page paper that made signiﬁcant contributions to the theory of integral calculus. But his main effort was a book of religious philosophy in which he intended to justify the Christian faith. While pain made him so pitiable that his sister Gilberte wondered if his existence could be truly called a life, he went about jotting down his thoughts on scraps of paper, cutting them with scissors and binding them with thread.
As the days of his sickness gathered, neither his failing condition nor his spiritual intensity showed any signs of abating, while his life became steadily more stoic and austere. He gave away his possessions to the poor, and gradually withdrew from the friends who loved him. ‘It is unjust that men should attach themselves to me,’ he wrote in fragment number 471, ‘even though they do it with pleasure and voluntarily. I should deceive those in whom I had created this desire. For I am not the end of any, and I have not the wherewithal to satisfy them. Am I not about to die?’
He was. In June 1662, Pascal took in a family that was homeless. Soon after their arrival, they developed symptoms that revealed they had smallpox. But rather than put them back on the street, Pascal left his own house and moved in with his brother-in-law. Shortly after the move, he was seized with a violent illness, and on August 19 he died. He was thirty-nine years old.
The last words that Blaise Pascal uttered were these: ‘May God never abandon me.’ They reflect how helpless, uncertain and alone this passionate and brilliant and famous man felt as he passed to his own horizon.”
From David Horowitz’s philosophical memoir The End of Time.
Into this discussion of Pascal, Horowitz sneaks a candid and poignant appraisal of his own life. It’s one of my favorite paragraphs in the book, and it showcases Horowitz’s adeptness in building historical references into larger reflections on his personal life:
As my own death approaches, I weigh the life I have lived against what it might have been. I ask myself: Could I have been wiser? Could I have done more? When I look at my life this way from the end, I can take satisfaction that I mostly gave it my all and did what I could. Perhaps I might have achieved greater heights; certainly I could have spent fewer days in pain. But I have no cause to think that, given who I was, my life could have turned out much better. Considering the bad choices I sometimes made, it could have been a lot worse. It is the certainty of death that finally makes a life acceptable. When we live as fully as we can, what room is left for regret? The poet Eliot observed that there are no lost causes because there are no won causes. Everything falls to the same imperfection. One day, without exception, we will follow the same arc to earth.