Mathematician, physicist, inventor, religious controversialist, literary author: in a brief life terminated by a lingering, debilitating illness, Blaise Pascal (1623–62) was nothing if not multi-talented. As the curator of rare books at Senate House Library, I think of Pascal primarily in terms of mathematics, says Dr Karen Attar.

This is because Pascal is represented by two 17th-century editions of scientific works in Augustus de Morgan’s library, the founding collection and one of the most significant special collections of Senate House Library. Look up Pascal in the catalogue, however, and it is his unfinished work Pensées, jottings for a defence of Christianity first published in 1670, which stands out.

This makes sense, as the Pensées are, in the words of one Oxford Companion, ‘a survey of contradictions of human existence, pursued with intensity of logic and passion’. Like Bacon’s Essays, Pensées is cross-disciplinary, covering theology, philosophy and (as classified by Senate House Library among others) literature, and the state of humankind is calculated to appeal more widely than conic sections or the basis of calculus or probability theory.

Yet the breadth of the subject is alone insufficient to account for Pascal being ranked among the world’s most constant best sellers, as A J Krailsheimer describes him in his 1966 introduction to the Penguin edition of Pensées. His statement is verified by the fact that this edition alone reached its tenth reprint by 1981, the date of the Senate House Library copy.

That status arises from the particularity of the work: ‘a major exercise in Christian apologetics’; ‘Pascal is still widely regarded as one of the most intelligent and persuasive advocates of Christian ideas. The … Pensées are among the great classic statements of religious belief’. Pensées has been translated, edited and re-edited continuously, Pascal has influenced Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henri-Louis Bergson, and the Existentialists among others.

The wonder of it is that the Pensées are incomplete. They are mere jottings for an apology for the Christian religion in which Pascal hoped to persuade free-thinking unbelievers of the validity of Christianity by demonstrating it as solving the problems of the human nature and condition. He wanted to make his readers think. He composed them by writing thoughts on pieces of papers, which he cut up and bundled together under various headings.

Some of the thoughts are short and cryptic, sometimes no more than a sentence or even a phrase: ‘A trifle consoles us because a trifle upsets us’ (43/169); ‘Instinct and reason, signs of two natures’ (112/344); ‘Two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason’ (183/253). The longest, ‘Against indifference’, is six-and-a-half pages.

Many are a paragraph, as in: ‘Cause and effect. It is really remarkable; I am supposed not to honour a man dressed in brocade and attended by seven or eight lackeys. Why! He will have me thrashed if I do not bow to him. His clothes represent power. It is the same with a horse in fine harness compared to another. It is funny that Montaigne does not see what a different there is,and asks in surprise why people find any. Indeed, he says, how does it happen, etc’. (89/315).

Pascal devised 28 headings, though he arranged the 382 thoughts so bundled under only 27 of them. The headings begin with order, vanity, wretchedness and boredom, and move on to more explicitly religious titles, such as ‘perpetuity’, ‘proofs of Jesus Christ’, and, finally, ‘Christian morality’. He left another 530 notes in 34 series with no clear indication of where they should go.

When the Port Royal community edited the first edition of Pascal’s Pensées in 1670, it omitted many notes and arranged the rest coherently to fit in with its desire to further the Jansenist cause, rather than following Pascal’s own division known to us from copies of his manuscripts made soon after his death. At the end of the 17th century Pascal’s nephew, Louis Périer, pasted the original sheets into an album. His sequence, too, was misleading, as he cut up and separated single sheets to fill blanks in the album. An edition of 1776 introduced some new material and a new order.

The edition featured here includes a portrait of Pascal drawn by one of his most renowned friends, the jurisconsult Jean Domat, in about 648, when Pascal was 25 or 26 years old. This alone would give it is a place in the publishing history of the Pensées, but it is a landmark for more important literary reasons. It is that edited by Prosper Faugère (1810–87), a civil servant in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs who subsequently served as the director of Archives and Chancelleries and who devoted his literary energies to the study of Pascal’s life and work.

Faugère’s work was published in Paris in 1844. It arose from a report made by the philosopher Victor Cousin in 1842 pointing to the manuscripts compiled by Périer and requesting an edition based on them. Faugère therefore produced his edition ‘conforming for the first time to the original and largely unpublished manuscripts’, as the title proclaims.

Using seven manuscripts, he tried to get back to Pascal’s intention, correcting parts of his text that had previously been published, publishing other parts for the first time, separating out fragments that did not belong to the Pensées, and ordering the fragments ‘if not following the author’s original plan, at least following the order that seems to result from it, be it from Pascal own written indications or from a conversation of which the purport has been preserved’. Faugère described the arrangement as a major challenge.

Faugère’s labour has since been superseded by the work of Léon Brunschvicg Zacharie Tourneur, and Louis Lafuma. But it remains fascinating for its engagement with authorial intention, something with which we are much better acquainted from purely literary works. Yes, the Pensées earn their place in the history of ideas for the content.

But the puzzle of putting them together extends their interest beyond the human condition, close as that is to us all. Noting the existence of half a dozen different arrangements are on sale, A J Krailsheimer suggests as an activity: ‘There is a lot to be said for cutting up the all the fragments (at least of a cheap edition) and trying out alternate arrangements’. Just please ensure that the copy you cut up belongs to you, not to the library.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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