A. Mary F. (Agnes Mary Frances) Robinson.

The French ideal; online

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The French Ideal



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*• Vivrc gin^reuBement."

Smiu Francois de Sales,

*Je ne vols qu' Infini par toutes let fen^res
£t mon esprit, toujourt du vertige hant6,
Jalouse dn n^ant T insensibility . . .
Ah, ne jamais sortir des Nombres et des Etres 1 '*






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RicHACD Clav & Sons, IjUutso,


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PASCAL . . • 27

f£nelon 116




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-> ■


" C'^toit ua ramasseur de coquilles " — Nicole.

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1. Blaise Pascal. CEuvres, {Les grands icrivains de la France^

I" s^rie. 3 volumes. Jusqt^au Memorial de i6s4. P^u:'
MM. L60N Brunschvicg et P. Boutroux. 2»» s^rie,
en preparation. 3™« s^rie. 3 volumes. Les Pensies
Par M. L. Brunschvicg.

2. Pascal et son Temps, Par FoRTUNAT Strowskl 3 volumes.


3. Pascal. By Viscount St. Cyres. 1909

4. Pascal in/dii. Par M. ERNEST JovY. 2 volumes. 1908-1911.

5. Discours sur les Passions ^ etc. Avec commentaire. Par M.

Emile Faguet, de rAcad^mie Fran9aise. 191a

6. Les Demiers jours de Blaise Pascal. Par Augustin Gazier.


7. PasccU. Sa vie religieusey etc. Par H. Petitot. 191 i.

8. DAngoisse de Pascal. Par Maurice Barr^s, de TAcad^mie

Fran^aise. 1909.

9. La MeUadie de Pascal. Par le Docteur P. Just-Navarre.


10. Pascal. Par Victor Giraud.

11. Port Royal. Par C. A. Sainte-Beuve. 6 volumes.

12. Pascal. Par ^MILE BoUTROUX.

13. Les Sasurs de Pascal. Par LuciE F6lix-Faure Goyau.

191 1.

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None of the great French classics is so near to
us, so dear to us, as Pascal. We love them all.
Though classics, they are no mere august and
laurelled shades; they stand on our side the water-
shed of the Renaissance ; they are modern, living :
the amorous and scrupulous Racine; Corneille, the
Norman barrister, who renewed the philosophy of
the Stoics and made it chivalrous; Molifere, of the
loose-lipped and melancholy visage, with his deep
and lax views of man and life ; Bossuet, the brother
of Pindar and Isaiah, and yet just a bishop at Ver-
sailles; F^nelon, the knight and hero of the Inner
Life. . . . But not one of these is adequate to the
twentieth century in the same sense as Pascal :
pragmatist, physicist, mathematician, gentleman,
inventor. If Pascal, however, had been no more
than this, he would not have possessed such a
magical survival. He would have left a name in
science — a great name, such as Leibnitz or Torri-
celli; and, in literature, a name bathed in the very
perfume of courtesy, like Sir Philip Sydney or La
Bruyfere. It is for other reasons that he is the

B2 3

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companion of our inner selves. He was the master
of a style naturally grand and simple, as exact and
fiery as the stars; his style was perfect! And the
soul of Pascal was sublime and imperfect. Like
Tolstoi, he was a saint with pain and diflSculty — a
human, faulty saint; a feverish but heroic soul.

Physicist, pragmatist, artist in prose, inventor,
mathematician, man of the world and saint — Pascal
was all these things, but not in a continuous progres-
sion, nor were they all blended into a perfect type,
like the faces in a composite photograph. No; let
us imagine rather a number of Pascals, each distinct,
like the rays of a revolving lighthouse — mathe-
matician, natural philosopher, fine gentleman,
ascetic, revivalist, man of letters, inventor — ^suc-
ceeding and supplanting each other on the screen
of his being, recurrent personalities, appearing and

More disconcerting still, sometimes there comes
out an inversion — ^the element appears on the wrong
side, as when we turn over a piece of beaten metal-
work ; where there was a hollow, behold a boss, and
the high relief is sunk into a depression. The
Pascal, man of the world, lecturing to duchesses,
who liked good horses to his coach, plenty of money
and everjrthing handsome about him, is the antago-
nist of the ascetic Pascal who would have no hang-
ings in his bedroom, carried his own tray to and
from the kitchen, and looked on brushes and brooms
as useless articles of luxury.

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In highly organised natures the psychical
elements are sometimes dissociated — the machinery,
too delicate, too complex, is often out of gear. It is
the abundance and importance of these elements that
make Pascal's case unique, and his character full
of apparent contradictions — ^so many selves, each
animated by a different purpose and activity of its
own. His state of mind was never, at any given
moment, the sole and stable result of all his moral
life : it was the image of one face in a many-figured
souL A certain precipitation, incoherence, inexact-
ness, sometimes result from the overlapping, the
brusque appearances and disappearances, of the
recurrent elements. To examine such a soul as this
is to lose ourselves in listening to the most intricate
fugue in all the counterpoint of psychology.

Pascal was in an eminent degree the son of his
father and the product of his native province :
" Blasius Pascal, Patricius Arvemus,"' as he signed
his arithmetical machine, or (according to the
freakish letters subscribed to the third Provinciale)
B.P.A.F.D.E.P.—" Blaise Pascal, Auvergnat, fils
d'Etienne Pascal." Certain traits of his volcanic
province were so deeply imbedded in his nature that
nothing — no conversion, no dissociation — could
efface them ; even in the latter days of his sainthood

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we find their trace, like fossil-shells in stone,
sterilised but immortal. Underneath the super-
structure of his soul there exists the latent spirit of
a place where men, though kind and true and deeply
passionate, are cold and harsh; where, bom to hard-
ship, they are naturally shrewd and sparing and yet
the more appreciative of all amenity; men of more
imagination than sensibility, of helpful acts rather
than of tender speeches. For in this land so close
to the romantic Limousin and the sensuous P^rigord
there is no mildness of nature, no babble of green
fields, none of the abundance and prettiness that
come so natural, for instance, to a F6nelon. But
nowhere do we find more clearly the relish and
courage of a fine sincerity, and a disposition to look
plainly in the face both Life and Death.

Pascal has many of the traits of the traditional
mountaineer of Auvergne. All his life he was a
driver of hard bargains. He had a positive imagina-
tion, a keen grasp of facts, a hatred of conventions.
The same love of truth inspired his experiments in
physical science and his quest of a supernatural
reality. He had not the intellectual disinterested-
ness of a Descartes; his science was utilitarian,
always in search of a material benefit; just as his
religion was not the mystic's selfless Love of God,
but the quest of Salvation — ^the greatest benefit of

On this ancestral foundation (as secret as it is
stable, supporting all, but never seen) let us imagine

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the delicate superstructure of an individual soul,
passionate, violent and charming, the least like the
traditional rugged Auvergnat of any that we may
suppose. Pascal in his youth, until about his
twentieth year (from which date he was a confirmed
invalid), was a sort of Prince Charming, a delight-
ful yoimg Archimedes, the darling of Science —
" parf aitement beau *' ; and even later portraits show
a handsome, noble face where there lurks an imper-
tinent grace, just peeping through its poetic gravity
— ^the spirit of the Provindales piercing the spirit
that will one day prompt the Pensies. For although
the ultimate character of PascaFs genius was to
prove a tragic spiritual grandeur, yet, almost to the
end^ there was a freakishness mixed up with it, a
love of paradox, a delight in subterfuges and dis-
guises, an amusement at throwing dust in the world's
eyes and springing out on it in the dark, sometimes
as "Louis de Montalte," sometimes as "Amos
Dettonville,*' and sometimes as "Salomon de
Tultie/' A lonely boy, brought up between two
clever, high-spirited, idolising sisters, by a father
whose sole scholar he was and who allowed him no
other master than himself, the young Pascal grew
in grace,: subtle, charming, prompt to disdain,
proud, and full of self-confidence. Even in later
days he never quite lost that amor donnnandi^
that libido excellendiy that burning desire to sur-
pass which he himself allowed to be his besetting

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" Ceux qui ne le connoissoient pas estoient surpris
d'abord quand ils Tentendoient parler dans les con-
versations, parce qu'il sembloit tousjours qu*il y
tenoit le dessus, avec quelque sorte de domination;
mais c'estoit le mesme principe de la vivacit6 de
son esprit qui en estoit la cause, et on n'estoit pas
longtemps avec luy, qu*on ne vit bien tost qu^en cela
mesme il y avoit quelquechose d^aymable." ^

M. Fortunat Strowski, in that admirable study of
his,^ so novel and so illuminating, so wise and so
human, attributes to Pascal's home-bred youth his
impatience of contradiction, his imperious tone, his
vivacity, and also his candid melancholy. He was
in these things more like a girl than a young man,
with nerves and vapours, with a grace and a variable
charm which passionately attached his friends, and
sometimes made them suffer.

Let us etch, behind the noble head of Pascal, the
features of his sisters, his Martha and his Mary —
Gilberte and Jacqueline, Gilberte who so deeply
loved him, and Jacqueline whom he so deeply loved.
Gilberte Pascal (who married her cousin from Cler-
mont, Florin P^rier) was a notable and a warm-
hearted handsome creature, to whose Lives we owe
our best acquaintance with Pascal and with Jacque-
line — a woman of strong mind, keen psychological
sense, just criticism. So far as their writings go,
Gilberte appears superior to Jacqueline, from whose

^ La Vie de Monsieur Paschal escrite par Madame Ptrier sa
sosur, — Brunschvicg et Boutroux, I, loi.
* Fortunat Strowski, Pascal et son Temps.

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poems, once so famous, the genius has evaporated.
. . . Gilberte had in her mind something of the
substance of a great critic; and F Itchier said that
** even without her kinship with M. Pascal she might
have been accounted illustrious in herself." With
how fine a touch she shows us the accidental, in-
voluntary character of her brother's genius I How
accurately and sensitively she describes his style,
and the magic touch with which he made a phrase
his own, that he had found and taken dans les livres
— "quand il les avoit dig^rees k sa manifere elles
paroissoient tout autres."

Time has not faded the strong sense of Madame
P^rier. But it was Jacqueline who won the admira-
tion of Richelieu and Comeille. A few bright
charming letters still reflect that affable gaiety, that
touching truth of tone, that warmth of heart which
made Mademoiselle Pascal the darling of Court and
convent, of her family and of letters: Jacqueline
was a honey-pot round whom there was always a
buzz of wings. Quite without vanity, indifferent to
success, she was a small, sweet, pale little person,
the plain one of her family, for the smallpox had
ruined her colours and thickened her features in
early youth. Her gentle brightness hid a will of
steel, supple as a spring but never to be broken.
She would not gainsay, struggle or oppose, but,
biding her time serenely, she was sure in the end
to arrive where she wished, which was always in an
upward direction.

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The little poetess was but fourteen when " Mon-
sieur Corneille " proposed to her to compete for the
prize at the poetic games of Rouen — '' Elle fit les
stances et on luy en porta le prix, avec des trompettes
et des tambours, en grande c6r6monie. Elle re^ut
cela avec une indifference admirable." She was so
simple that at fifteen years of age she would dress
and undress her dolls like any child of ten. The
praises of Richelieu and Corneille had not turned
her head — "Nous luy faisions reproche de cette
enfance." To-day this sweet childishness and a
sort of airy brightness is what remains of Jacque-
line's charm. Still one line in the Mysthe de fSstcs
keeps a feminine haunting echo of Pascal's genius —
"Le drap dans lequel on ensevelit J^sus n'^tait
pas k lui ! "

Two nervous, exalted, enthusiastic natures, hiding,
like the opal, a flash of fire beneath a milky bright-
ness, Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal were inseparable
souls. Twin in the spirit, if not in the flesh, their
natures were joined by the most intimate sympathy.
Frail of health, consumptive, we may suppose that
they resembled the mother they scarcely could
remember; while Gilberte reproduced the sound
brain and solid heart of the judge and geometer,
Etienne Pascal.


The father of these extraordinary children was
a magistrate of Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne,

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where Gilberte was born in 1620, Blaise Pascal in
1623 (on the 19th of June), and Jacqueline in 1625
— the year before her mother's death. In 1630
Etienne Pascal sold his charge and his estates, and
moved to Paris in order to educate his children.

He was himself a mathematician of repute, a
friend of Mersenne, Roberval, Huygens, Gassendi,
an amiable adversary of Descartes, and deeply
interested in the science of physics. Only our own
age has seen such changes in our views, such start-
ling new conceptions. When Etienne Pascal moved
from Clermont to Paris, Galileo was still alive and
Newton was unborn. The notion of a single finite
earth surrounded by a series of eternal crystal
spheres had only lately given place to the new and
dazzling idea of infinite worlds dispersed through-
out illimitable space. He was of the first generation
that should live, as we live, between two Infinities :
the infinitely great (so recently revealed by the pro-
gress of astronomy) and the infinitely little, which
the men of his time perceived, not as we do, by
microscopes or chemical scales, but by the induc-
tions of mathematics. Yet Etienne Pascal and his
friends dreamed all our dreams — ^those dreams
which we have made realities. Father Mersenne
imagined a diving ship for submarine navigation * —
a monster of copper and leather with port-holes,
ventilators, and tubes communicating with the sur-
face; and the same Mersenne devised a new

^ Hisiaire de la Marine Fran^aise^ par Charles de la Rondure.

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" machine k voler," ^ and would doubtless have been
surprised to learn that fourteen-score years must
elapse ere his invention should be put in practice.
But what, after all, are fourteen-score years to men
who live in the constant presence of Infinity?

In this world of academic conversations, the pre-
cocity of young Pascal was abundantly stimulated.
At his father*s house the principal savants of Paris
were accustomed to meet in order to discuss the
principal scientific questions of the hour; as, for
instance, What is the cause of specific gravity? Is
it a quality inherent in the object that falls or an
attraction from without? In these learned reunions
young Pascal held his own, and sometimes would
contribute remarks and ideas so notable that his
father decided to escort him to those more important
gatherings, held at the convent of Father Mersenne,
which were the beginnings of the Academic des
Sciences. When Blaise Pascal was between sixteen
and seventeen years of age, he wrote "A Treatise
on Conic Sections." Of the mathematical excel-
lence of the few pages which remain of this un-
printed study we dare not speak. What strikes us
chiefly in them is that, at seventeen years of age,
the mind of Pascal worked in the same manner as
during his years of maturity. He pounced, as it
were, on some discovery whose value hitherto had
been unrecognised, which dwindled in obscurity,
imperfectly vitalised, until Pascal picked it up, held

^ I^etfu€ du Mois. F^vrier, 191 1.

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it in the warmth of his hand, gave it a twist, breathed
on it, and the thing began to live. Pascal was much
less an inventor than an experimenter, an organiser.
Nicole called him a "ramasseur de coquilles"!
— a picker up of shells (from which he plucked the
pearls), a collector, that is to say, rather than a
creator. There exists in the Apocrypha a legend of
the childhood of Christ which expresses the idea
more justly : the children of Bethlehem were playing
in the road, making mud-sparrows, when the divine
Child passed that way, and took the small clay
images into His hand; breathing upon them. He
filled them with life, and sent them flying up into
the sky. So Pascal ; the images, let us admit, were
often not of his framing, but he gave them life. He
was an Animator, and the birds that he sent winging
out of the dust have flown through the centuries
even to our own times.


The story has often been told how Etienne
Pascal, being compromised in a rising against the
Chancellor Siguier, fled from Paris in 1638, leaving
his children in the charge of a faithful housekeeper.
But these children were already personages.
Jacqueline, at twelve years old, was the author of
a book of poems and a favourite at Court. One
day, meeting the Cardinal de Richelieu at the house
of the Duchess of Aiguillon, she asked her father's

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pardon so prettily in ver3e that Richelieu not only
recalled him to Paris, but soon afterwards gave him
the important post of Adjutant to the Intendant of
Normandy, and sent him to Rouen in 1639.

All Pascal's work and inventions were struck out
directly from the friction of life. Impressed into
the tremendous business of his father's oflSce at
Rouen, the young mathematician, at sixteen years
of age, conceived the idea of a mechanical ready
reckoner, independent of the will, and gave himself
to this invention with a passion and energy which
filled more than two years of his youth, devising
more than fifty different models, and overseeing in
person the artisans entrusted with their carrying out.
How characteristic of Pascal this swooping down on
a chance problem, this fierce and obstinate pursuing
of it to a sure result ! Lord St. Cyres was happily
inspired in calling him "the knight-errant of
geometry, wandering hither and thither in search of
questions worthy of his steel." The calculating
machine of Pascal is the ancestor of all our modem
multiplicators, the little boxes that hand out our
change on the counters of shops, the mechanical
computators of taxi-cabs, the mathematical machines
used in scientific laboratories. And Pascal pursued
this adventure as simply as later he designed or
perfected the barometer, the hydraulic press, the
wheelbarrow, the omnibus, the dray.

The town of Rouen, in which he spent seven
years, was a centre of that neo-Stoicism which, to

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the France of those days, meant all that the different
forms of neo-Buddhism — Theosophy, Christian
Science, the Higher Thought, etc. — ^have meant of
late to our English-speaking world : a religion
within a religion, a cultus of the cultured, having its
high priests and its high places. In Rouen, where
the editions of Du Vair fell frequent from the press,
Pascal could not but make acquaintance with that
renewer of the Stoics, as well as with Montaigne
(for every country gentleman in those days had a
copy of the Essays on his mantelpiece), and above
all with Epictetus. The two last were thenceforth
incorporate with Pascal's mind. We shall hear of
his debt to Montaigne. From Epictetus he took
that bold plain writing, that direct bareness of
thought and word, that simplicity and homeliness
of image, which make the style of Pascal as alive as
fire or nmning water. The ideas of these masters
were a preparation to Port Royal, for the Stoics
made morality completely interior : they were neces-
sarians, who eliminated from the world every
element of chance and spontaneity ; and their dogma
of imiversal determinism was combined with an idea
of fraternal love and mutual charity.

In Rouen of late their doctrines had suffered a
romantic, heroic transfiguration in the plays of a
poet, Comeille, a friend of the family of Pascal.
The Cid, the Horatii, Cinna, peopled the stage with
creations whose force of will, whose passions tragic-
ally at war with necessity and virtue, whose mastery

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Online LibraryA. Mary F. (Agnes Mary Frances) RobinsonThe French ideal; → online text (page 1 of 19)