Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

as they could not resolve. Upon one of these occasions he discovered the solution of a problem proposed by Mersenne, which had baffled the penetration of all that had attempted it. This problem was to determine the curve described in the air by the nail of a coach-wheel, while the machine is in motion; which curve was thence called a roullette, but now commonly known by the name of cycloid. Pascal offered a reward of 40 pistoles to any one who should give a satisfactory answer to it. No person having succeeded, he published his own at Paris; but, as he began now to be disgusted with the sciences, he would not set his real name to it, but sent it abroad under that of A. d'Ettonville. This was the last work which he published in the mathematics; his infirmities, from a delicate constitution, though still young, now increasing so much, that he was under the necessity of renouncing severe study, and of living so recluse, that he scarcely admitted any person to see him. Another subject on which Pascal wrote very ingeniously, and in which he has been spoken of as an inventor, was what has been called his Arithmetical Triangle, being a set of figurate numbers disposed in that form. But such a table of numbers, and many properties of them, had been treated of more than a century before, by Cardan, Stifelius, and other arithmetical writers.

After having thus laboured abundantly in mathematical and philosophical disquisitions, he forsook those studies and all human learning at once, to devote himself to acts of devotion and penance. He was not twenty-four years of age, when the reading some pious books had put him upon taking this resolution; and he became as great a devotee as any age has produced. He now gave himself up entirely to a state of prayer and mortification; and he had always in his thoughts these great maxims of renouncing all pleasure and all superfluity; and this he practised with rigour even in his illnesses, to which he was frequently subject, being of a very invalid habit of body.

Though Pascal had thus abstracted himself from the world, yet he could not forbear paying some attention to what was doing in it; and he even interested himself in the contest between the Jesuits and the Jansenists. Taking the side of the latter, he wrote his celebrated “Lettres Provinciales,” published in 1656, under the name of Louis de Montalte, making the former the subject of ridicule. These letters," says Voltaire, “may be considered

[ocr errors]

1

men.

as a model of eloquence and humour. The best comedies of Moliere have not more wit than the first part of these letters; and the sublimity of the latter part of them is equal to any thing in Bossuet. It is true indeed that the whole book was built upon a false foundation, for the extravagant notious of a few Spanish and Flemish Jesuits were artfully ascribed to the whole society. Many absurdities might likewise have been discovered among the Dominican and Franciscan casuists; but this would not have answered the purpose; for the whole raillery was to be levelled only at the Jesuits. These letters were intended to prove, that the Jesuits had formed a design to corrupt mankind; a design which no sect or society ever had, or can have.” Here, however, Voltaire is not altogether correct; for the Jesuits cited by Pascal, were considered as oracles by their order; and the whole society always acted so systematically as a body, that the doctrines of one may be imputed to the rest, more fairly than in any other class of

Voltaire calls Pascal the first of their satirists; for Despréaux, says he, must be considered as only the second. In another place, speaking of this work of Pascal, he says, that “examples of all the various species of eloquence are to be found in it. Though it has now been written almost 100 years, yet not a single word occurs in it, savouring of that vicissitude to which living languages are so subject. Here then we are to fix the epoch when our language may be said to have assumed a settled form. The bishop of Lucon, son of the celebrated Bussy, told me, that asking one day the bishop of Meaux wbat work he would covet most to be the author of, supposing his own performances set aside, Bossu replied, “The Provincial Letters”.” These letters were first published in 1657, 12ino, an edition highly valued, and were afterwards translated into all languages, and printed over and over again. Some have said that there were decrees of formal condemnation against them; and also that Pascal himself, in his last illness, detested them, and repented of having been a Jansenist : but both these particulars are without foundation. It was supposed that father Daniel was the anonymous author of a piece against them, entitled “ The Dia. logues of Cleander and Eudoxus.”

Pascal was but about thirty years of age when these let. ters were published; yet he was extremely infirm, and his lisorders increasing soon after so much, that he conceived, his end fast approaching, he gave up all farther thoughts of literary composition. He resolved to spend the remainder of his days in retirement and pious meditation; and with this view he broke off all bis former connections, changed his habitation, and spoke to no one, not even to his own servants, and hardly ever even admitted them into his room.

He made his own bed, brought his dinner from the kitchen, and carried back the plates and dishes in the evening; so that he employed bis servants only to cook for him, to go to town, and to do such other things as be could not absolutely do himself. In his chamber nothing was to be seen but two or three chairs, a table, a bed, and a few books. It had no kind of ornament whatever; he had neither a carpet on the floor, nor curtains to bis bed. But this did not prevent him from sometimes receiving visits ; and when his friends appeared surprised to see him thus without furniture, he replied, that he had what was necessary, and that any thing else would be a superfuity, unworthy of a wise man. He employed his time in prayer, and in reading the Scriptures; writing down such thoughts as this exercise inspired. Though his continual infirmities obliged him to use very delicate food, and though his servants employed the utmost care to provide only what was excellent, he never relished what he ate, and seemed quite indifferent whether they brought him good or bad. His indifference in this respect was so great, that though his taste was not vitiated, he forbad any sauce or ragout to be made for him which might excite his appetite.

Though Pascal had now given up intense study, and though he lived in the most temperate manner, his health continued to decline rapidly; and his disorders had so enfeebled his organs, that his reason became in some measure affected. He always imagined that he saw a deep abyss on one side of him, and he never would sit down till a chair was placed there, to secure him from the danger which he apprehended. At another time he pretended that he had a kind of vision or ecstasy; a memorandum of which he preserved during the remainder of his life in a bit of paper, put between the cloth and the lining of his coat, and which he always carried about him. Some of the Jesuits reproached him with insanity; but his disorder had nothing more in it than a fever, or a vertigo. During the last years of his life, indeed, he became very superstitious, and exhibited a melancholy example of human infirmity

in that respect.

In company Pascal was distinguished by his amiable behaviour, by his easy, agreeable, and instructive conversation, and by great modesty. He possessed a natural kind of eloquence, which was in a manner irresistible. The arguments he employed, for the most part produced the effect which he proposed ; and though his abilities entitled him to assume an air of superiority, he never displayed that haughty and imperious tone, which may often be observed in men of shining talents. Toward the close of his life, he employed himself wholly in pious and moral reflections, writing down those which he judged worthy of being preserved. The first pieoe of paper he could find was employed for this purpose; and he commonly put down only a few words of each sentence, as he wrote them merely for his own use. The bits of paper upon which he had written these thoughts, were found, after his death, filed upon different pieces of string, without any order or connection; and being copied exactly as they were written, they were afterwards arranged and published.

Pascal died at Paris, August 19, 1662, aged thirty-nine. He had been some time about a work against atheists and infidels; but he did not live long enough to digest the materials he had collected. What was found among his papers was published under the title “ Pensées,” or Thoughts upon Religion, and other subjects; and has been much admired. After his death appeared also two other little tracts; one of which is entitled “ The Equilibrium of Fluids;" and the other “ The Weight of the mass of Air."

The celebrated Menage, in that collection called “Menagiana,” selects the two following passages in the writings of M. Pascal, for the acute observations they contain: “ Those minds which are capable of invention are very scarce. Those to whom this power is denied, being much the greater number, are of course the prevailing party; insomnuch, that when works of invention come forward, to claim the praise due to their authors, the public opinion treats them as visionaries.” And again, “It seems rather a fortunate circumstance, that some common error should fix the wanderings of the human mind. For instance, the moon is supposed to influence the disorders of the human body, and to cause a change in human affairs, &c. which notion, though it be false, is not without its advantage; as men are thereby restrained from an inquiry into

[ocr errors]

things to which the human understanding is incompetent, and from a kind of curiosity which is a malady of the mind.”

The works of Pascal were collected in five volumes octavo, and published at Paris in 1779. This edition of Pascal's works may be considered as the first published; at least the greater part of them were not before collected into one body; and some of them had remained only in manu' script. For this collection the public were indebted to the abbot Bossut, and Pascal deserved to have such an editor. “ This extraordinary man," says he, “ inherited from nature all the powers of genius. He was a geometrician of the first rank, a profound reasoner, and a sublime and elegant writer. If we reflect, that in a very short life, oppressed by continual infirmities, he invented a curious arithmetical machine, the elements of the calculation of chances, and a method of resolving various problems respecting the cycloid ; that he fixed in an irrevocable manner the wavering opinions of the learned respecting the weight of the air; that he wrote one of the completest works which exist in the French language; and that in his thoughts there are passages, the depth and beauty of which are incomparable-we shall be induced to believe, that a greater genius never existed in any age or nation. All those who had occasion to frequent his .company in the ordinary commerce of the world, acknowledged his superiority ; but it excited no envy against him, as he was never fond of shewing it. His conversation instructed, without making those who heard him sensible of their own inferiority; and he was remarkably indulgent towards the faults of others. It may be easily seen by his Provincial Letters, and by some of his other works, that he was born with a great fund of humour, which his infirmities could never entirely destroy. In company, he readily indulged in that harmless and delicate raillery which never gives offence, and which greatly tends to enliven conversation ; but its principal object generally was of a moral nature. For example, ridiculing those authors who say, “my book, my commentary, my history; they would do better," added he, “to say our book, our commentary, our history; since there are in them much more of other people's than their own.

1 Life by Bossut and by madame Perier. Hatton's Dictionary.-Thomson's Hist, of the Royal Society, &c.

« ZurückWeiter »