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Descartes and Pascal

J.H.M. Salmon asserts that René Descartes and Blaise Pascal stand out from other men of letters of their era due to the enduring relevance of their lives and works.

Two of the intellectual heroes of seventeenth-century France are better remembered than any of the kings and the cardinals, the captains and the courtiers, and perhaps deservedly so. Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal stand out from the philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, scientists and men of letters of the time, partly because their genius extended to all these fields, but mainly because their influence appears to lie behind two rival views of the world that have descended to us.

The first has the reputation of the father of modern rationalism; the second of the sublime misanthropist (Voltaire’s phrase) who in both science and religion preferred experience to deductive logic. The contrast between them seems epitomized in the words attributed to Pascal:

‘I cannot forgive Descartes. In his whole philosophy he would like to dispense with God, but he could not help allowing Him a flick of the fingers to set the world in motion, after which he had no more use for God.’

But the comparative study of their lives and thought reveals a relationship more subtle than this. The received views of their role in the history of thought require modification, and similarities come to light that are as striking as the contrasts. They respected each other’s contributions to science, and, although they met personally, on only one occasion, they belonged to a common circle and were concerned with the same problems.

They were both indebted to the sceptical essays of Montaigne, and yet they both set out to combat the intellectual libertins of their day. Both recorded remarkable experiences of personal illumination, and both lived and died in communion with the Catholic church, despite official repudiation of their doctrines.

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