His father, Étienne Pascal, was president of the Court of Aides at Clermont-Ferrand in south-central France. His mother died three years after his birth, leaving also an elder sister, Gilberte, and a younger sister, Jacqueline. When Blaise was eight the family moved to Paris. Étienne was a student of geometry and physics, sufficiently advanced to gain him the friendship of Gassendi, Mersenne, and Descartes. Blaise eavesdropped on some of their meetings, and became, in the first period of his life, a devotee of science. At the age of eleven he composed a short treatise on the sounds of vibrating bodies. The father thought that the boy’s passion for geometry would injure his other studies, and forbade his further pursuit of mathematics for a while. But one day (story tells), Étienne found him writing on the wall, with a piece of coal, the proof that the three angles of a triangle equal two right angles; 21 thenceforth the boy was allowed to study Euclid. Before he was sixteen he composed a treatise on conic sections; most of it is lost, but one theorem was a lasting contribution to that science, and still bears his name. Descartes, shown the manuscript, refused to believe that the composition was not by the father but by the son.
In that year, 1639, his pretty sister Jacqueline, then thirteen years old, played a dramatic part in the life of the family. The father had invested in municipal bonds; Richelieu reduced the rate of interest paid on these bonds; Étienne criticized him; the Cardinal threatened to arrest him; Étienne hid in Auvergne. But the Cardinal liked plays and girls; Scudéry’s L’Amour tyrannique was performed before him by a group of girls including Jacqueline; he was especially pleased by her acting; she took the opportunity to ask him to forgive her father; he did, and appointed him intendant at Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Thither the family moved in 1641.
It was there that Blaise, now nineteen, contrived the first of several computing machines, some of which are still preserved in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers at Paris. Their principle was a succession of wheels, each divided into nine digits and zero, each geared to turn one tenth of a revolution for each full revolution of the wheel at its right, and each showing its uppermost figure in a slot at the top. The machine could only add, and was not commercially practicable, but it stands near the head of a development that now astonishes the world. Pascal sent one of his computers to Christina of Sweden, with a very eloquent letter of adulation. She invited him to her court, but he felt himself too frail for that heroic climate.
The eager young scientist was intensely interested in the experiments that Torricelli had published on the weight of the atmosphere. Independently of Torricelli, but probably on a suggestion from Descartes, 22 Pascal conceived the idea that the mercury in a Torricelli tube would rise to different heights in different places according to variations in atmospheric pressure. He sent a request to his brother-in-law in Auvergne to carry a tube of mercury to a mountaintop, and observe any difference, at diverse levels, in the height of the mercury in the closed portion of a tube whose other end was open to the pressure of the atmosphere. Florin Périer did as asked: on September 19, 1648, with several friends, he ascended the Puy de Dôme, a mountain five thousand feet above the town of Clermont-Ferrand; there the mercury rose to a level of twenty-three inches in the tube, whereas at the base of the mountain it rose to twenty-six inches. The experiment was hailed throughout Europe as finally establishing the principle and value of the barometer.
Pascal’s fame as a scientist brought him (1648) a stimulating appeal from a gambler to formulate the mathematics of chance. He accepted the challenge, and shared with Fermat in developing the calculus of probabilities, which now enters so profitably into insurance tables of sickness and mortality. At this stage of his growth there was no sign that he would ever transfer his devotion from science to religion, or lose his faith in reason and experiment. He continued for ten years to work at scientific problems, chiefly mathematical. As late as 1658 he offered, anonymously, a prize for the quadrature of a cycloid—the curve traced by a point on a circle rolling in a straight line on a plane. Solutions were offered by Wallis, Huygens, Wren, and others; then Pascal, under a pseudonym, published his own solution. A controversy followed in which the competitors, including Pascal, behaved less than philosophically.
Meanwhile two basic influences had come to the fore in his life: sickness and Jansenism. As early as his eighteenth year he suffered from a nervous ailment that left him hardly a day without pain. In 1647 a paralytic attack so disabled him that he could not move without crutches. His head ached, his bowels burned, his legs and feet were continually cold, and required wearisome aids to circulation of the blood; he wore stockings steeped in brandy to warm his feet. Partly to get better medical treatment he moved with Jacqueline to Paris. His health improved, but his nervous system had been permanently damaged. Henceforth he was subject to a deepening hypochondria, which affected his character and his philosophy. He became irritable, subject to fits of proud and imperious anger, and he seldom smiled. 23
His father had always been a devout, even an austere, Catholic amid his scientific avocations, and had taught his children that religious faith was their most precious possession, something far beyond the reach or judgment of the frail reasoning powers of mankind. At Rouen, when the father was seriously injured, a Jansenist physician treated him successfully; through this contact a Jansenist tinge colored the family’s faith. When Blaise and Jacqueline moved to the capital they frequently attended Mass at Port-Royal-de-Paris. Jacqueline wished to enter the convent as a nun, but her father could not bring himself to let her go out of his daily life. He died in 1651, and soon thereafter Jacqueline became a nun in Port-Royal-des-Champs. Her brother tried in vain to dissuade her.
For a time they engaged in a dispute over the division of their patrimony. When this was settled Blaise found himself both rich and free—a condition hostile to sanctity. He took a sumptuously furnished home, staffed it with many servants, and drove about Paris in a coach behind four or six horses. 24 His temporary recovery gave him a deceptive euphoria, which turned him from piety to pleasure. We must not grudge him his few years “in the world” (1648–54), when he enjoyed the company of Parisian wits and games and belles, and for an exciting while pursued in Auvergne a lady of beauty and learning, the “Sappho of the countryside.” 25 About this time he wrote a Discours sur les passions de l’amour, and apparently he contemplated marriage—which he was later to describe as “the lowest of the conditions of life permitted to a Christian.” 26 Among his friends were some libertins, who combined free morals with free thought. Perhaps through them Pascal became interested in Montaigne, whose Essais now entered deeply into his life. Their first influence probably inclined him to religious doubt.
Jacqueline, hearing of his new frivolity, reproached him, and prayed for his reform. It was characteristic of his emotional nature that an accident reinforced her prayers. One day, as he was driving over the Pont de Neuilly, the four horses took fright, and plunged over the parapet into the Seine. The carriage almost followed them; fortunately the reins broke, and the coach hung half over the edge. Pascal and his friends emerged, but the sensitive philosopher, terrified by the nearness of death, fainted away, and remained unconscious for some time. On recovering he felt that he had had a vision of God. In an ecstasy of fear, remorse, and gratitude he recorded his vision on a parchment which henceforth he carried sewn in the lining of his coat:
The year of grace 1654.
Monday, Nov. 23rd, . . . from about half past six in the evening to half an hour after midnight.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars.
Certainty, certainty, feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ . . .
He is not to be found except by ways taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
Just Father, the world has never known you, but I have known you.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy . . .
My God, will you abandon me? . . .
Jesus Christ . . .
I was separated from Him, I fled Him, renounced Him, crucified Him.
May I never be separated from Him . . .
Reconciliation sweet and complete. 27
He resumed his visits to Port-Royal and Jacqueline, gladdening her heart with his new mood of humility and penitence. He listened to the sermons of Antoine Singlin. In December, 1654, he became a member of the Port-Royal community. 28 In January he had a long conversation there with Sacy, who undertook to convince him of the superficiality of science and the futility of philosophy. Arnauld and Nicole discovered in the new recruit an ardor of conversion, and a skill in literary expression, that seemed a providential instrument placed in their hands to defend Port-Royal against its enemies. They begged him to devote his pen to answering the Jesuits who were trying to make Jansenism a sin. He responded with such brilliance and force that to this day the Society of Jesus feels his sting.
2. The Provincial Letters
On January 23 and 29, 1656, Pascal published the first and second of what he called Lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte à un provincial de ses amis, et aux RR. PP. Jésuites, sur la morale et la politique de ces Pères—“Letters written by Louis de Montalte” (a fictitious name) “to a provincial friend, and to the reverend Jesuit Fathers, on their ethics and politics.” The framework was clever: it pretended to be the report of a Parisian to a friend in the provinces on the moral and theological issues then exciting the intellectual and religious circles in the capital. Arnauld and Nicole helped Pascal with facts and references; Pascal, combining the fervor of a convert with the wit and polish of a man of the world, provided the style that reached a new level in French prose.
The first letters sought public support for those Jansenist views on grace and salvation which Arnauld had defended; they were designed to influence the Sorbonne against the motion to expel Arnauld. In this they failed; Arnauld was solemnly degraded and expelled (January 31). The failure stimulated Pascal and Arnauld to attack the Jesuits as undermining morality by the laxity of their confessors and the loopholes of their casuistry. They explored the tomes of Escobar and other Jesuits, and denounced the doctrines of “probabilism,” “direction of intention,” and “mental reservation”; even the Jesuit missionaries’ accommodation of Christian theology to Chinese ancestor worship was condemned 29—though they made no explicit charge that the Jesuits justified means by ends. As the letters proceeded, and Arnauld revealed more and more of Escobar’s casuistry to Pascal, the convert’s passion rose. After the tenth letter he abandoned the fiction of a Parisian writing to a provincial; he spoke now in his own person, and addressed the Jesuits directly with indignant eloquence and sarcastic wit. Sometimes he gave twenty days to composing one letter, then rushed it off to the printer lest the public interest should cool. He gave a unique apology for the length of Letter XVI: “I had no time to make it shorter.” 30 In the eighteenth and final letter (March 24, 1657) he defied the Pope himself. Alexander VII had issued (October 16, 1656) another denunciation of Jansenism; Pascal reminded his readers that the papal judgment might err, as (he felt) it had done in the case of Galileo. 31 The Pope condemned the letters (September 6, 1657), but all educated France read them.
Were they fair to the Jesuits? Were the excerpts from Jesuit writers correctly quoted? “It is quite true,” says a learned rationalist, “that qualifying phrases have at times been improperly omitted, a few phrases have been wrongly translated, and the condensing of long passages into short sentences has in a few instances the effect of an injustice”; but, he adds, “these cases are relatively few and unimportant”; 32 and the essential accuracy of the extracts is now generally acknowledged. 33 It must be admitted, however, that Pascal took out of their context the most alarming and questionable passages of some casuists, and led a part of the public to the exaggerated view that these theological jurists were conspiring to destroy the morality of Christendom. Voltaire praised the excellence of the Letters as literature, but thought that “the whole book rested on a false basis. The author skillfully ascribed to the whole of the Society the extravagant ideas of a few Spanish and Flemish Jesuits,” 34 from whom many other Jesuits had differed. D’Alembert regretted that Pascal had not lampooned the Jansenists too, for “the shocking doctrine of Jansen and Saint-Cyran afforded at least as much room for ridicule as the pliant doctrine of Molina, Tambourin, and Vásquez.” 35
The influence of the Letters was immense. They did not immediately lessen the power of the Jesuits—certainly not with the King—but they so shamed the excesses of the casuists that Alexander VII himself, while continuing his opposition to Jansenism, condemned “laxism,” and ordered a revision of casuistical texts (1665–66). 36 It was the Letters that gave the word “casuistry” its connotation of specious subtleties defending wrong actions or ideas. Meanwhile a masterpiece of style had been added to French literature. It was as if Voltaire had lived a century before Voltaire—for here were the gay wit, the cutting irony, the skeptical humor, the passionate invective of Voltaire, and, in the later letters, that warm resentment of injustice which redeemed Voltaire from being an encyclopedia of persiflage. Voltaire himself called the Letters “the best-written book that has yet appeared in France”; 37 and the most penetrating and discriminating of all critics held that Pascal “invented fine prose in France.” 38 Bossuet, being asked what book he would rather have written had he not written his own, answered, the Provincial Letters of Pascal. 39
3. In Defense of Faith
Pascal returned to Paris in 1656 to superintend the publication of the Letters, and lived there through his six remaining years. He had not abandoned the world; in the very year of his death he shared in organizing a regular coach service in the capital—the germ of the present omnibus network. But two events occurred which renewed his piety, and led to his culminating contribution to literature and religion. On March 15, 1657, the Jesuits secured from the Queen Mother an order closing the schools of the Solitaries and forbidding the admission of new members to Port-Royal. The order was peacefully obeyed; the children, now including Racine, were sent to the houses of friends, and the teachers sadly dispersed. Nine days later (the date of the last of the Provincial Letters) an apparent miracle occurred in the chapel of the troubled nunnery. Pascal’s ten-year-old niece, Marguerite Périer, suffered from a painful lachrymal fistula that exuded noisome pus through eyes and nose. A relative of Mère Angélique had presented to Port-Royal what he and others claimed to be a thorn from the crown that had tortured Christ. On March 24 the nuns, in solemn ceremony and singing psalms, placed the thorn on their altar. Each in turn kissed the relic, and one of them, seeing Marguerite among the worshipers, took the thorn and with it touched the girl’s sore. That evening, we are told, Marguerite expressed surprise that her eye no longer pained her; her mother was astonished to find no sign of the fistula; a physician, summoned, reported that the discharge and the swelling had disappeared. He, not the nuns, spread word of what he termed a miraculous cure. Seven other physicians who had had previous knowledge of Marguerite’s fistula subscribed a statement that in their judgment a miracle had taken place. The diocesan officials investigated, came to the same conclusion, and authorized a Te Deum Mass in Port-Royal. Crowds of believers came to see and kiss the thorn; all Catholic Paris acclaimed a miracle; the Queen Mother ordered all persecution of the nuns to stop; the Solitaries returned to Les Granges. (In 1728 Pope Benedict XIII referred to the case as proving that the age of miracles had not passed.) Pascal made himself an armorial emblem of an eye surrounded by a crown of thorns, with the inscription Scio cui credidi—“I know whom I have believed.” 40
He now set himself to write, as his last testament, an elaborate defense of religious belief. All that he found strength to do was to jot down isolated thoughts and group them into a tentative but telling order. Then (1658) his old ailments returned, and with such crippling severity that he was never able to give these notes coherent sequence or structural form. After his death his devoted friend the Duc de Roannez and the scholars of Port-Royal edited and published the material as Pensées de M. Pascal sur la réligion, et sur quelques autres sujets (1670). They feared that as Pascal had left these fragmentary “thoughts” they might lead to skepticism rather than to piety; they concealed the skeptical pieces, and modified some of the rest lest King or Church should take offense; 41for at that time the persecution of Port-Royal had ceased, and the editors deprecated a renewal of controversy. Not till the nineteenth century were the Pensées of Pascal published in their full and authentic text.
If we may venture to impose an order upon them, we may place their starting point in the Copernican astronomy. We feel again, as we listen to Pascal, the tremendous blow that the Copernican-Galilean astronomy was dealing to the traditional form of Christianity.
Let man contemplate Nature entire in her full and lofty majesty; let him put far from his sight the lowly objects that surround him; let him regard that blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the world; let the earth appear to him but a point within the vast circuit which that star describes; and let him marvel that this immense circumference is itself but a speck from the viewpoint of the stars that move in the firmament. And if our vision is stopped there, let imagination pass beyond. . . . All this visible world is but an imperceptible element in the great bosom of nature. No thought can go so far. . . . It is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. 42 This is the most perceivable feature of the almightiness of God, so that our imagination loses itself in this thought.
And Pascal adds, in a famous line characteristic of his philosophical sensitivity, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” 43
But there is another infinity—the infinitely small, the endless theoretical divisibility of the “uncuttable” atom: no matter how tiny the minim to which we reduce anything, we cannot but believe that it too has parts smaller than itself. Our reason wavers perplexed and appalled between the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute.
He who sees himself thus will be frightened by himself, and, perceiving himself sustained . . . between these two abysses of infinity and nothing, will tremble . . . and will be more disposed to contemplate these marvels in silence than to explore them with presumption. For in the end, what is man in nature? A nothing in respect to the infinite, everything in respect to the nothing, a halfway between nothing and all. Infinitely far from comprehending the extremes, both the end and the beginning or principle of things are invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he has been drawn, and the infinite in which he is engulfed. 44*
Science, therefore, is a silly presumption. It is based on reason, which is based on the senses, which deceive us in a hundred ways. It is limited by the narrow bounds within which our senses operate, and by the corruptible brevity of the flesh. Left to itself, reason cannot understand—or offer a solid base to—morality, the family, or the state, much less perceive the real nature and order of the world, not to speak of comprehending God. There is more wisdom in custom, even in imagination and myth, than in reason, and “the wisest reason takes as her own principles those which the imagination of man has everywhere rashly introduced.” 46 There are two kinds of wisdom: that of the simple and “ignorant” multitude, who live by the wisdom of tradition and imagination (ritual and myth); and that of the sage who has pierced through science and philosophy to realize his ignorance. 47 Therefore “there is nothing so conformable to reason as to disavow reason,” and “to make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” 48
So Pascal thought it unwise to rest religion on reason, as even some Jansenists tried to do. Reason cannot prove God, nor immortality; in either case the evidence is too contradictory. Nor can the Bible serve as the final basis of faith, for it is full of passages ambiguous or obscure, and the prophecies which piety interprets as pointing to Christ may have had quite other significance. 49 Moreover, God in the Bible speaks through figures, whose literal sense is misleading, and whose real meaning is perceived only by those blessed with divine grace. “We understand nothing of the works of God unless we take it as a principle that He wishes to blind some and to enlighten others.” 50 (Here Pascal seems to take literally the story of Yahveh hardening Pharaoh’s heart.)
Everywhere, if we rely on reason, we find the unintelligible. Who can understand, in man, the union and interaction of an obviously material body and an obviously immaterial mind? “There is nothing so inconceivable as that matter should be conscious of itself.” 51 Philosophers who have mastered their passions—“what matter could do that?” 52 And the nature of man, so mingled of angel and brute, 53 repeats the contradiction of mind and body, and reminds us of the Chimera, which, in Greek mythology, was a she-goat with a lion’s head and a serpent’s tail.
What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, and imbecile norm of the earth; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe. Who shall unravel this confusion?54
Morally man is a mystery. All kinds of wickedness appear or lie hidden in him. “Man is only a disguise, a liar, and a hypocrite, both to himself and to others.” 55 “All men naturally hate one another; there could not be four friends in the world.” 56 “How hollow is the heart of man, and how full of excrement!” 57 And what bottomless, insatiable vanity! “We would never travel on the sea if we had no hope of telling about it later. . . . We lose our lives with joy provided people talk about it. . . . Even philosophers wish for admirers.”58 Yet it is part of man’s greatness that out of his wickedness, his hatred, and his vanity he evolved a code of law and morals to control his wickedness, and drew out of his lust an ideal of love. 59
The misery of man is another mystery. Why should the universe have labored so long to produce a species so fragile in its happiness, so subject to pain in every nerve, to grief in every love, to death in every life? And yet “the grandeur of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable.” 60
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed.* The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, suffice to kill him. But when the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing. 61
None of these mysteries finds an answer in reason. If we trust to reason alone we shall condemn ourselves to a Pyrrhonism that will doubt everything except pain and death, and philosophy could be at best a rationalization of defeat. But we cannot believe that man’s fate is as reason sees it—to struggle, to suffer, and to die, having begotten others to struggle, to suffer, and to die, generation after generation, aimlessly, stupidly, in a ridiculous and superabundant insignificance. In our hearts we feel that this cannot be true, that it would be the greatest of all blasphemies to think that life and the universe have no meaning. God and the meaning of life must be felt by the heart, rather than by reason. “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” 62 and we do right to listen to our hearts, to “place our faith in feeling.” 63 For all belief, even in practical matters, is a form of will, a direction of attention and desire.” (The “will to believe.”) The mystical experience is profounder than the evidence of the senses or the arguments of reason.
What answer, then, does feeling give to the mysteries of life and thought? The answer is religion. Only religion can restore meaning to life, and nobility to man; without it we flounder ever more deeply into mental frustration and mortal futility. Religion gives us a Bible; the Bible tells us of man’s fall from grace; only that original sin can explain the strange union, in human nature, of hate and love, of bestial wickedness and our longing for redemption and God. If we let ourselves believe (however absurd it may seem to the philosophers) that man began with divine grace, that he forfeited this by sin, and that he can be redeemed only by divine grace through the crucified Christ, then we shall find a peace of mind never granted to philosophers. He who cannot believe is cursed, for he reveals by his unbelief that God has not chosen to give him grace.
Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? “You must wager; it is not optional. . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God exists . . . If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.” 64 If at first you find it difficult to believe, follow the customs and rituals of the Church as if you did believe. “Bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you” (cela vous fera croire, et vous abêtira)—will quiet your proudly critical intellect. 65 Go to confession and communion; you will find it a relief and a strengthening. 66
We do injustice to this historic apologia by letting it end on so unheroic a note. We may be sure that Pascal, when he believed, did so not as a gambler but as a soul baffled and buffeted by life, humbly recognizing that his intellect, whose brilliance had astonished friends and foes, was no match for the universe, and finding in faith the only way to give meaning and pardon to his pain. “Pascal is sick,” said Sainte-Beuve; “we must always remember this in reading him.” 67 But Pascal would have replied: Are we not all sick? Let him who is perfectly happy reject faith. Let him reject it who is content with no more meaning in life than a helpless trajectory from a filthy birth to an agonizing death.
Picture a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death; each day some are strangled in the sight of the rest; those who remain see their own condition in that of these their fellows, looking at one another with sorrow and without hope, each awaiting his turn. This is the picture of the condition of man. 68
How shall we redeem this obscene slaughter called history except by believing, with or against the evidence, that God will right all wrongs in the end?
Pascal argued so earnestly because he had never really recovered from the doubts suggested to him by Montaigne, by the libertins of his “years in the world,” and by the merciless neutrality of nature between “evil” and “good.”
This is what I see, and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet. If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator, I would repose peacefully in faith. But seeing too much to deny [Him], and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state, and I would wish a hundred times that if a God sustains nature it would reveal Him without ambiguity. 69
It is this profound uncertainty, the paralyzing ability to see both sides, that makes Pascal a fascination to believer and doubter alike. This man had felt the atheist’s angry resentment of evil, and the believer’s trust in the triumph of the good; he had passed through the intellectual gyrations of Montaigne and Charron to the happy humility of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas à Kempis. It is this cry from the depths of doubt, this desperate forging of a faith against death, that make the Pensées the most eloquent book in French prose. Again, for the third time in the seventeenth century, philosophy became literature, not with the cool pithiness of Bacon, nor with the ingratiating intimacy of Descartes, but with the emotional power of a poet feeling philosophy, writing to his own heart in his own blood. In the apex of the classic age rose this romantic appeal, strong enough to survive Boileau and Voltaire, and to be heard across a century by Rousseau and Chateaubriand. Here, in the morning of the Age of Reason, in the very decades of Hqbbes and Spinoza, reason found a challenger in a dying man.
In his final years, said his sister Mme. Périer, Pascal suffered “continual and ever-increasing maladies.” 70 He came to think that “sickness is the natural state of Christians.” 71 Sometimes he welcomed his pains as distracting him from temptations. “One hour’s pain,” he said, “is a better teacher than all the philosophers put together.” 72 He renounced every pleasure, took to ascetic practices, flogged himself with a girdle studded with iron spikes. 73 He rebuked Mme. Périer for allowing her children to caress her. He opposed the marriage of her daughter, saying that “the marriage state is no better than paganism in the eyes of God.” 74 He would not allow anyone, in his presence, to speak of the beauty of woman.
In 1662, as one of many charitable acts, he took a poor family into his home. When one of the children developed smallpox Pascal, instead of asking the family to leave, moved to the house of his sister. Soon afterward he took to his bed, racked with colic pains. He drew up his will, leaving nearly half his fortune to the poor. He confessed to a priest, and received viaticum. He died after a violent convulsion, August 19, 1662, in the fortieth year of his age. Upon opening his body it was found that his stomach and liver were diseased, and his intestines gangrened. 75 His brain, reported the doctors, “was of prodigious abundance, its substance solid and condensed,” but only one of the cranial sutures had properly closed; hence, perhaps, his terrible headaches. On the cortex were two depressions, “as large as if made by fingers laid in wax.” 76 He was buried in the church of his parish, St.-Étienne-du-Mont.