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What Blaise Pascal Saw In A November Night Of Fire That Inaugurated A Year Of Grace

Had the sickly mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal been expected to shift for himself more, would he have burned as brilliantly? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. 

Blaise Pascal was a mathematician, scientist, inventor, and philosopher. From the age of 16 he made historic contributions to mathematics and the physical sciences. Despite a sickly constitution and a capacity for intense abstraction, he nonetheless oversaw the material construction of his experiments and inventions with great zest.

Pascal was barely past 30 when he saw something unexpected one raw November night. He saw fire. The vision so branded him that he sewed the record he made of it, his Memorial, into his coat, carrying it with him the rest of his life:

The year of grace 1654,

Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others.
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,


GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have departed from him: They have forsaken me, the fount of living water. My God, will you leave me? Let me not be separated from him forever. This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him. He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel: Renunciation, total and sweet. Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth. May I not forget your words. Amen.

In school, I was taught that Pascal meant it when he said, “GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob / not of the philosophers and of the learned,” that after his night of fire that fateful November, Pascal really did renounce all scientific thought as libido excellendi, the concupiscence of the mind.

Bertrand Russell called this renunciation “philosophical suicide.” Friedrich Nietzsche called Pascal “the most instructive victim of Christianity.” By contrast, Pascal’s sister and hagiographer, Gilberte, who first related the renunciation, regarded it as a triumph of faith over the illusions of this world.

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