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NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
APRIL, 184 5.
Art. I. - 1. Lettres écrites à un Provincial, par BLAISE
Pascal. Précédées d'un Eloge de Pascal, par M. BOR-
Frères. 1842. 12mo. pp. 395. 2. Pensées de Pascal, précédées de sa Vie, par Madame
PERIER, sa Sæur. Paris : Firmin Didot. 1842. 12mo. pp. 504.
GREAT precocity of genius, however developed or employed, seldom fails to excite at least as much alarm and pity as admiration in the judicious spectator. If not in itself a token of disease already formed, and working as a stimulus on the brain, it is sure to lead quickly to some morbid action of the physical frame, and ere long to dry up the fountains of life. The skilful horticulturist, by a forcing process, can compel the branch of a tree to make a premature and excessive display of fruit; but at the end of the year the limb is sure to perish. The energies of mind are equally exhausted, when compelled to yield their harvest out of season. The great law of compensation, which we find, on close scrutiny, to obtain everywhere in the scheme of Providence respecting mankind, under the glaring inequalities which appear on a superficial view, applies in a much greater degree thạn we are apt to imagine to the powers of the intellect. It seems as if only a given amount of work can be done. If more is accomplished at an early period, a shorter term of life remains for further achievements. So firmly is this truth established by uniform observation, that a VOL. LX. - NO. 127.
note of lamentation, a mournful presentiment, always mingles with the admiring applause which greets every new and wonderful effort of a youthful prodigy. We mourn that this early excellence should be purchased at so high a price, that premature strength and beauty of mind should be doomed to premature decay.
Blaise Pascal, the boy Euclid, the contemporary and peer of Torricelli, Huygens, and Descartes, the scourge of the Jesuits, the boast of the Port Royal school of theologians and philosophers, the earliest writer of correct and elegant French prose, the master in eloquence of Bossuet, and the object of the unwilling homage even of Voltaire, died at the age of thirty-nine. All his important writings, except the " Thoughts,” which was a posthumous publication, appeared several years
before his death ; and his most valuable contributions to science were made before he was thirty. As a boy, he seemed miraculously endowed, and the abundant promise of his youth was fully sustained by the rich fruit of his early manhood. Bodily weakness and suffering, to which he was a lifelong martyr, far from impairing, seemed only to heighten the preternatural acuteness and strength of his intellect, as a hectic flush improves the beauty and expressiveness of the features. All that he accomplished in science and philosophy, great as was its intrinsic value, only leaves the impression that he had much in reserve. His discoveries and inventions are rather the indications, than the full fruits, of the vigor and comprehensiveness of his genius. They showed what he might have done, if his ambition had been greater, or if it had not been so early checked and turned into a different channel by religious enthusiasm. One of the most remarkable of his scientific labors, his solution of certain problems relating to the cycloid, a task which had been proposed to all the geometers of Europe as a trial of strength, and which they had failed to accomplish, was executed by him as a diversion, during the weary and sleepless hours entailed upon him by wasting disease, that contined him to his couch, and made him incapable of holding a pen. As he had renounced science for a long time, the demonstrations remained for many days floating in his memory, before he even thought of committing them to paper. This he finally did at the solicitation of a friend, and performed the whole work of preparing them for the press in eight days. This
effort established his reputation as the first geometer of his time ; but the fame thus acquired was only another garland to be thrown on the tomb to which he was hastening. He beeded it not; for religious exercises now absorbed his whole attention, and the immortal “ Thoughts,” the ablest and most eloquent apology for Christianity ever published in France, were the sole occupation of his dying hours.
No full and satisfactory account of his life and works has ever appeared. There are eulogies upon him in plenty, but they give only a meagre and fragmentary view of bis labors, and supply few materials for a complete portrait of his character and genius. The memoir of him by his sister, Madame Perier, who shared the servor of his religious feelings, is short, and gives us little more than a record of his bodily sufferings, and illustrations of the remarkable purity, generosity, severity of principle, and self-devotion, wbich characterized his whole life. We must make allowance for the bias of sisterly affection and pride ; but there is no cause to doubt the honest simplicity of the writer's intentions, and the anecdotes which she relates are authentic and interesting. Later authors among his countrymen, though they have added but few facts to bis biography, have done full justice to his scientific merits, have celebrated his wit, his acuteness, and his eloquence, and have paid a willing tribute of admiration to the unequalled vigor, terseness, and purity of his style. But they have not fully appreciated bis depth of thought and originality in speculation, his reasoning power, his sharp observation of human nature, or the consecration of all the traits of his genius by the most fervid piety. His current reputation as a philosophical thinker and eloquent advocate of religion will be more increased than diminished by the most rigid examination of his works.
Blaise Pascal was born in the summer of 1623, at Clermont, the capital of the province of Auvergne, in France. His father, Etienne Pascal, who had himself attained considerable reputation as a man of science and letters, superintended the education of his only son with rare devotion and judgment. That he might obtain greater facilities for instruction, he gave up the office which he had held at Clermont, and came to reside in Paris when Blaise was but eight years old. As the mother had died five years before, the boy was entirely dependent on paternal aid, and the signs
which he had already given of extraordinary natural endowments were enough to determine the father not to enter him at any college, but to take the whole task of his education on himself. So precious, though so frail, a gift of Providence, the delicacy of his bodily constitution being already apparent, was not lightly to be intrusted to the bands of strangers. The eager curiosity of the boy, fostered by his clear and quick perceptions of things, was not to be satisfied with the narrow range of studies at first allotted to him in consideration for his health. His father was wont to converse freely with him in answering his inquiries about the causes of phenomena that attracted his notice, and thus, without knowing it, probably stimulated his mind more than if he had allowed him to study the same subjects in books. To the young, oral instruction is vastly more exciting and effeclive than the most judicious selection of reading and exercises for the memory.
The intention of the elder Pascal was, that his son should study only the languages during his tender years, with a view to cultivate the memory and the taste, wbile the more manly and exacting pursuits of mathematical and physical science were to be the employment of his early manhood. This wise scheme was frustrated by circumstances and the precocity of the child's genius.
The elder Pascal belonged to a small association of scientific men, among whom were Mersenne, Roberval, Le Pailleur, and Carcavi, who came together occasionally, in an informal way, to discuss new inventions and discoveries, and who kept up a correspondence with persons in the provinces and in foreign countries, who were interested in the same pursuits. They met in turn at the houses of the several members, and were united as much by personal regard as by the similarity of their tastes and occupations. The Academy of Sciences, which was established in 1666, was formed out of this society. Young Pascal was usually present at the meetings when they were held at his father's house, and the conversations which he heard probably stimulated his curiosity the more from the very fact that he was not allowed to study the subjects of the debate in books. When he was but twelve years old, his sister tells us, he wrote a short treatise upon sounds, in which he endeavoured to show why a plate, after it had been struck by a knife, immediately ceased ringing if it was touched by the hand. He was eager to know