Blaise Pascal

Blaise’s father, Etienne Pascal, had faith, at first, in the cataplasm placed on his child’s body.  What did it contain?  Probably something from the cat.  Then, decoctions of the nine leaves of three sorts of herbs gathered by the apothicary’s daughter:  belladonna, rue, and others.  The combination provokes a sort of catalepsy, followed by the curing of the “languors”, then the disappearance of the strange aversion to the sight of water and seeing his parents together.  The witch orders that a young girl under seven years old go to gather the herbs.  Strange dialogue between a pharmacist and the eminent jurist from Clermont.  But you only have to read a book of spells like L’Enchiridion du pape Leon or Le Dragon rouge, to learn that magical herbs must be gathered before dawn by an innocent hand.

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Etienne Pascal belongs to that great middle-class or little nobility which furnishes magistrates, and from where Richelieu recrutes the high State functionaries.  He is a man of great knowledge.  He frequents the scientific milieu, where mathematical physics are elaborated.  He is in relation with the famous Father Mersenne, “the letter-box of scholarly Europe”.  He corresponds with Fermat and Roberval.  He’s the one who consecrates himself to the scholarly education – letters and sciences – of his son.  To resume, he is a shining light of his time.  Richelieu says:

“We will make something great of this family!”

when he receives the father, his young son and his two daughters, all of bright intelligence.

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The bewitchment of Blaise Pascal teaches us a lot about the double mentality of the epoch:  emerging cartesianism, wave of scientific thought, and permanence of magical ideas and comportments.  Blaise Pascal was born nine years before the trial of Urbain Grandier, burnt for sorcery.  And the whole reign of Louis XIV will be overshadowed by cases of black magic.  At the beginning of this XVIIth Century, Auvergne is privileged territory for witches.  Proof of this is in what happened (if not in reality, at least in people’s minds) fifty years later in the same province, according to Flechier in his relation of the Grands Jours:

“Having followed them into the church, where the curate married them, the wizard threw on them the cruellest of spells.  The marriage was celebrated with all the joy that innocent love can inspire.  The young couple retired to enjoy all the pleasures of marriage.  But, alas, they were bewitched for six days, and the sacrament could not take effect.  They addressed themselves to the curate who discovered the spell.  The wizard had used hazel wood to knot their laces.”

Further on, Flechier recounts the adventures of a President of the Election of Brioude who had made a pact with the Devil.  So, it is understandable that President Etienne Pascal, who pursues scholarly research on the laws of gravity, accepts the idea that his child has been the victim of bewitchment and collaborates with the witch to “unbewitch” little Blaise.

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The Pascals, father and children, convert to the Port-Royal doctrine in 1646.  Jacqueline Pascal renounces the world, joins the Solitaires de Port-Royal, who profess predestination and grace.  Gilberte has a daughter, Marguerite Perier, who will follow her aunt.  The miracle of her cure (from a lacrymal ulcer by being touched with a thorn from Jesus’ crown) will affect Blaise Pascal.  He turns away from the world and mathematics to consecrate himself to his great work, Apologie de la religion chretienne, which he doesn’t compose, but of which the Pensees remain.

Marguerite Perier writes at Port-Royal her Memoire sur la vie de M. Pascal, where the whole story, which we have resumed, is to be found.  It begins with these words:

“When my uncle was one year old, something extraordinary happened to him.”

It is evident that the very pious Marguerite Perier has absolutely no reason to flatter this “sorcery” that her faith rejects.  But she reports all the facts of her uncle’s life, for historical accuracy.  We know the abundance and minutia of the Pascalian studies.  Marguerite Perier’s story is contested by no specialist.  It is not well-known because it creates an uncomfortable feeling:  among those who admire Pascal the Mathematician, as well as those who venerate the Christian Pascal.  The “magical” adventure doesn’t seem to belong.  They prefer not to talk about it.  It is however real.

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Blaise displays, from a very young age, an astonishing genius.  His father, who moves to Paris after the death of his wife (Blaise is three at his mother’s death), consecrates himself entirely to the education of this child with the extraordinarily precocious mind.  Firstly, he perfects him in the rules of grammar, Latin and Greek, not wanting to undertake mathematical teaching until after this formation.  But at eleven, Blaise writes a treatise on the vibration of sounds.  At twelve, “inventing” geometry on his own, he rediscovers by himself Euclide’s thirty-second proposition.  At sixteen, he writes his Essai sur les coniques, which vexes Descartes and where, according to the words of Father Mersenne,

“he tramples over all those who have treated the subject before him”.

He came from a very intelligent family.  And we know that IQ is, for the most part, genetical.  However, who can say if the “death” and “resurrection” of the magical treatment did not stimulate this brain, already well-equipped by his genitors?

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Brunetiere, the great literature historian, wrote:

“What is this mysterious illness that we know attacked Pascal in early childhood, that manifested itself later by such bizarre accidents, and finished by taking him before his fortieth year?”

Mysterious illness caused by the witch’s spell?  Or provoked by the magical “treatment”?  All his life, he has the feeling of a gulf on his side;  he suffers from hallucinations and ophthalmic migraines;  he falls into a “state of annihilation” which does not allow him any continuous work, and he writes his Priere pour demander a Dieu le bon usage des maladies.  This mysterious illness (in Progres medical  of January 1954, Dr Torlais is of the opinion that his end was caused by a gastric cancer with intestinal and meningeal metastases) has been the object of much research.  Doctors Chedecal, Lebut, Onfray, Regnard, Mouezy-Eon, Binet-Sangle, and many others, have all studied it.  Pierre Mariel asks the question:

“What if it was just a bewitchment that was badly cured?”

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