Humans are portrayed in Augustinian terms as corrupt, vapid creatures, prey to their passions and the delusions of imagination; but they are also shown to possess greatness through their reason and self-awareness, which can bring them to recognize that Christianity alone has represented their predicament accurately, and that they should turn to religion, even if initially they lack the instinctive faith which is the hallmark of the saved.

In the ‘wager’ fragment, Pascal employs his mathematical insights to revivify an old apologetic argument (that it is wiser to bet on God existing rather than on his not existing) and to link it to an existential imperative (that we all are obliged to choose between these alternatives). The adroit interplay between scepticism, rationalism and faith of the first part is succeeded by a second part which argues the veracity of Christianity from Biblical interpretation, prophecies and miracles. Pascal concedes that this cannot carry absolute conviction; but he insists that the rejection of such arguments is caused not by man’s rational powers but by his corrupt passions.

Pascal’s Pensées are written for the most part in terse aphoristic form; he aspired to a style that was so accessible that the reader would believe he was experiencing as his own the thoughts that he read. …

Early life and mathematical works

Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont in Auvergne, the son of a government official who was also an enthusiast for the new mathematical learning. With his family, he moved to Paris in 1631, and stayed there until 1638, when his father was forced to flee because of his public opposition to an aspect of Richelieu’s fiscal policy. Blaise was educated privately by his father, who wanted him to be fully conversant with Greek and Latin before introducing him to mathematics: but his prodigy son worked out for himself the principles of geometry as far as the thirty-second proposition of Book I of Euclid at the age of twelve. It was also during this Parisian period that he was able to attend the mathematical academy of Father Marin Mersenne who was actively engaged both in European scientific and philosophical circles and in the religious controversy surrounding the new scientific ideas, as Pascal himself was also to become engaged.