Pascal’s name is inseparably connected with the history of Jansenism, and though varying phases of his intellectual development have caused him to receive all kinds of descriptive epithets ranging from skeptic to fideist, yet his temperament and his bodily condition reflect the austere and gloomy theories of the Jansenist Augustinians.

Born of a high-strung stock in a bleak part of the volcanic region of Auvergne, under the very shadow of the gloomy cathedral, built of Volvic lava, at Clermont-Ferrand, the child Pascal was from the beginning over-intellectualized. If we are to believe the accounts of a perhaps partial sister, this “terrifying genius” as Chateaubriand calls him, taught himself geometry and worked out problems in Euclid, while he still called lines and circles “bars” and “rounds.” His intellect developed by leaps and bounds, and by the end of a life of recurring illnesses and of suffering, cut short at less than two score years, he had encompassed the field of knowledge, verified hypotheses of physics, descried unexplored realms of mathematics, and projected his thought into the vast chaos of conjecture concerning the relations of God and the world, of God and of created man.

Pascal’s adherence to religion was not immediate, and he went through successive stages of hesitation and of partial retrogression. A man of the world, he consorted with brilliant talkers, entered into scientific discussions against the Jesuits, or argued on philosophy with other thinkers. But the real interest of his life for our purpose begins with his conversion to the doctrines of Jansenius.

Bishop Jansen of Ypres in Belgium had devoted his life to the study of Saint Augustine and to the elucidation of the doctrines of that great father of the church. Saint Augustine is the spiritual forefather of those who in religious thought are believers in determinism, in religious fatalism, with all the consequences which it involves, such as predestination and the doctrine of primitive sin which man is apparently endeavoring in vain to expiate. The theories of Jansen were propagated in France through the teachings of his friend the Abbé de Saint Cyran, a man of rigid and unbending principles, and the spiritual director of the convent of Port Royal. Port Royal was at the time dominated by members of the great Arnauld family, one of whom had in earlier days offended the strong and ambitious order of Jesuits. The Jesuits were by principle and temperament unfavorable to the theories of Jansen. A doctrine of self-concentration and of introspection, akin in almost every respect to Calvinism, which awoke in a human being a thousand cares and anxious doubts as to the why and wherefore of man’s existence on earth—such a doctrine was diametrically opposed to the urbane teachings of the Jesuits, eager rather to acquire new converts by methods of amenity than to frighten them away by visions of dread. Therefore, with the Arnaulds and Jansenists all linked together at Port Royal, the convent became the storm center of religious discussion.

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