HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95, 240 pp.
Blaise Pascal (1623-62) was a brilliant figure in Western thought and science, who combined a ferocious, practical mind with a deep thirst to wrestle with the most fundamental philosophical issues. He seems to have been cursed by ill health and social anxiety, which links him with other “outsider” thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, and (perhaps) Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Pascal’s claim to fame rests on very real accomplishments: he wrote a treatise on conic sections while still a teenager; he conducted seminal experiments on the nature of the vacuum; he constructed one of the first mechanical calculating machines and did pioneering work on probability and game theory; and, toward the end of his life, he established the first public-transportation scheme in Paris.
Despite all those accomplishments, Pascal is perhaps best remembered for his passionate religious faith. In the words of the famous “Memorial” found sewn in his clothes at the time of his death, his faith was not in the God...