In a major biography of Blaise Pascal, James Connor explores both the intellectual giant whose theory of probability paved the way for modernity and the devout religious mystic who dared apply probability to faith.
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About the Author
James A. Connor is the author of Kepler's Witch: An Astronomer's Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother and Silent Fire: Bringing the Spirituality of Silence to Everyday Life. A former Jesuit priest, Connor is professor of English at Kean University in Union, New Jersey; he has also held teaching posts at St. Louis University and Gonzaga University. He is a director of studies at the Lessing Institute in Prague. He holds degrees in geoscience, philosophy, theology, and creative writing, and a Ph.D. in literature and science. He is a prize-winning essayist published widely in such places as American Book Review, Traditional Home, Willow Springs, The Critic, The Iowa Review, and The Iowa Journal of Literary Studies.
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Pascal's WagerThe Man Who Played Dice with God
By James Connor
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 James Connor
All right reserved.
[ 1625 ]
Historians are the best gossips.
--John Padburg, S.J.
It seemed certain that the boy would die. Mysterious childhood ailments abounded, but this one was mysterious indeed. The boy Blaise was only two years old, the first and only son of Étienne and Antoinette Pascal, when suddenly he began to waste away, becoming emaciated, as one en chartre, or "starving." He seemed dejected. He could not stand the sight of liquids, nor could he take water in any form. In fact, he seemed afraid of water, obsessed by a sudden hydrophobia that set him shrieking with fear. What's more, he couldn't bear to see his parents together. His mother, by herself, was fine, as was his father, but the two of them together sent him into rages. Was he possessed? Was he bewitched? It was the seventeenth century, and most of the Pascals' fellow towns-people would have thought such things possible. Rumors about the boy and his illness fluttered about Clermont like birds.
The boy's father, Étienne, was uncertain. He was too much the scientific intellectual to easily believe in witchcraft and was, by his own account, an honnête homme, a man of good breeding, one of the new bourgeois intellectuals who served his king and his God, and who made a little money on theside doing it. He was a worldly man, though pious; a rational man; a philosophical man who doubted all the superstitious frippery of the simple people. But still, the boy was wasting away, and if the father did not find a cure, and find it soon, his son would die.
The town gossips suspected first this one, then that one, finally culling out an old woman who had once worked for the Pascals, possibly as a sevreuse, one who took in the children of the wealthy during their time of weaning, one who would put up with the children's tantrums and their weeping, one who, because of her age, could no longer be a wet nurse and who was therefore the child's first teacher about the hardness of the world.1 This particular old woman had once received the Pascals' charity--a fact that, oddly enough, became the source of her grievance against Étienne, the tax judge. Because of her prior relationship, she had expected a favorable judgment by monsieur the judge, but was disappointed and grumbled about his hard-heartedness. And so the people put together the pieces. An old woman, a grievance, a mysterious illness--it had to be witchcraft. Étienne stopped her in the street one day and told her that if she was indeed responsible, he would take her to court and see her punished. He demanded that she cure his son at once and without further witchcraft.
The old woman, cowed, apologized over and over, and said that certainly she would do what she could. Still, life for life, death for death: some other poor soul would have to sacrifice its life for the boy. After all, the spell had been a killing spell, which could be satisfied only by a death. Pascal ridiculed her and asked if she wanted one of his horses to kill, but the old woman pushed on. She said no; a cat would do as well. In time, the bargain was set. Étienne returned to his home, and the witch cast about for a cat to steal. She went out and found herself a cat. But as she was walking up the stairs of Étienne's house, she met someone on the stairs, likely a servant, who opposed her, insulted her, and upbraided her. Startled and upset, she threw the cat out the window. Now, cats are legendary when it comes to surviving falls, and the window was not very high off the ground. But when the old woman found the cat outside the window, it was already dead.
To complete the cure, the witch then gathered common herbs from the garden and, after mixing them with flour, placed them on the boy's navel. Suddenly, little Blaise fell into a coma and looked as if he had fallen dead, just like the cat. Étienne called for the doctor, who arrived and examined the boy, and then told the distraught parents that their son had indeed died, that he was sorry, that there was nothing he could do. Meanwhile, the witch had gone off for a time, but after a while she returned. She knocked on the door, and the servants ushered her into the child's bedroom. Overcome with grief and anger, Étienne the philosopher, the gentleman of good breeding, ran to the woman and knocked her to the ground with his fist. Standing over her, he shouted at her and cursed her. But the witch pleaded, assuring him that his son was not dead, that they should not put him in a shroud, and certainly not bury him--that this lethargy was part of the cure, and that if they only had a bit more patience, they would see that Blaise would awaken soon and begin to heal.
The spell required that they wait until midnight, when suddenly, she said, the boy would awaken and return to himself. That afternoon and into the night, the Pascals--Étienne and Antoinette--with their few servants and possibly even their daughter Gilberte, the woman who would eventually write down the story as part of a biography of her brother, Blaise, stayed by his bedside and prayed, taking cold comfort in what the witch had told them--that the boy was not dead but only asleep. Midnight passed, and nothing happened. One o'clock, and still nothing. Two o'clock. Three, four, five, six. The family despaired, but then around six thirty in the morning the boy stirred, and finally his eyes fluttered awake. The first thing he saw was his father and mother next to the bed, standing together, and he began to cry, as he had done in the past. So they knew that . . .
Excerpted from Pascal's Wager by James Connor Copyright © 2006 by James Connor. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
James Connor has written an excellent biography of Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician and scientist...and theologian. Connor traces the parallel developments of Pascal's mathematical genius and his theological development, and then intersects the two at the point of Pascal's famous wager. I will not state the wager here, save to say that Einstein was correct. God does not roll dice, in this case, Pascal appealed to mankind to roll the theoretical dice. Along these parallel lines, Connor interweaves Pascal's famous disagreements with contemporary Rene' Descartes, various disagreements within the church of Pascal's time, and Pascal's struggles with his own angst and illnesses which ultimately left him a determined man who accomplished much during his short life time. Ultimately, Connors does find a place for both mathematical theory and theology to exist in the same plane of thought. I myself, a life long Lutheran theologian have written a paper using a mathematical model to illustrate Martin Luther's "sole fide" (faith alone) concept in light of post modern Pauline thought. This was before I read this book, but if one discipline influences the other, so much the better. Kudos for a book on a mathematical and theological genius that can be read and enjoyed by the average layperson to both disciplines.
Was a very good read.
I bought this book on a whim - and was really glad that I did. Connor's writing style is quite engaging. Each section leaves the reader curious as to what will happen next. The narrative combines a fascinating biography with a great deal of French history and concurrent history of the Catholic Church. I agree with another reviewer that an index would have been beneficial; yet I enjoyed the style of this book so much that I look forward to reading another book by this author.
Finally, after hearing about Pascal's wager for many years and seeing it referred to in print numerous times, James Connor has finally explained it to where even a novice like myself can understand it. But, the book goes much further than the wager. It involves life in France during the middle seventeenth century. All the conflicts between Catholics & Huguenots, Thomists & Janesists, Richelieu & everyone, those within the Pascal family itself, and finally the deep conflicts that tormented Blaise Pascal himself. His actual life history reads like a horror story. In addition to the very detailed explanation of the wager, Connor also enlightened this reader concerning Pascal's other accomplishments. I was ignorant of the fact that Pascal was involved in so many other experiments and scientific firsts such as being one of the founders of statistical analysis & probability theory. Kudos to Connor for keeping the chapters small as some of the data would be overwhelming to most if the chapters were lengthy. But a big thumbs down to Harper for lack of an index. How can a book like this that has been well written & researched not have an index?! All in all, this is a splendid book that clears up many issues. Now, if Connor can just do another one explaining Occam's Razor and/or Red Herrings, my cobwebs will be gone!