Tag Archives: Pascal

Charles Bell’s Axiomatic Drama

Here is an annotated transcription of a 1981 manuscript by Charles Greenleaf Bell (1916–2010) called “The Axiomatic Drama of Classical Physics.” A theme is what Heraclitus observed, as in fragment B49a of Diels, LXXXI of Bywater, and D65a of Laks and Most:

We step and we do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not.
ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν.

Bell reviews the mathematics, and the thought behind it, of

  1. free fall,
  2. the pendulum,
  3. the Carnot heat engine.

In a postlude called “The Uses of Paradox,” Bell notes:

Forty-five years ago I decided that when reason drives a sheer impasse into an activity which in fact goes on, we have to think of the polar cleavage as both real and unreal.

I like that reference to “an activity which in fact goes on.” In youth it may be hard to recognize that there are activities that do go on. We do things then, but that they will get anywhere may be no more than a dream. In any case, Bell himself goes on:

… that is a job as huge and demanding as Aristotle’s, and for me at 70, just begun.

“Look,” my friends say, “Bell’s been doing the same thing since he was 25. About that time he had a vision of Paradox as paradise, and he’s been stuck there ever since.”

Bell’s picture next to Aristotle’s Physics
The back of Bell’s Five Chambered Heart with
the front of the OCT of Aristotle’s Physics

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On Plato’s Republic, 4

Index to this series

Our fourth scheduled reading in the Republic is Book III, Stephanus pages 386–417. Socrates continues to direct the construction of the fantastic city. Plato’s brothers, faithful as dogs, agree to two infamous proposals:

  1. The deportation from the city of any poet “who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things” (δυνάμενον ὑπὸ σοφίας παντοδαπὸν γίγνεσθαι καὶ μιμεῖσθαι πάντα χρήματα, 398a).

  2. The teaching of the Noble Lie, that the citizens were formed under ground and distinguished, according to class, with admixture of

    • gold for the rulers,
    • silver for the auxiliaries,
    • iron and bronze for the “farmers and other craftsmen” (414b–5c).

Later in this post, I shall try to analyze the reading into sections; but a serial summary of these seems tedious, and I shall focus on a few remarkable points, such as the ones above.

Two dogs with my copy of
Allan Bloom (translator), The Republic of Plato, 2016 edition,
on the beach at
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 8, 2021

I shall be quoting

  • Homer, whom Socrates loves to hate;
  • Adam Kirsch, from the 2016 introduction to Allan Bloom’s Republic translation, on the danger of summarizing Plato;
  • Pascal on the will of God as the rule for justice;
  • Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales such as the Three Little Pigs, and perhaps our City in Speech, as opposed to fables;
  • Somerset Maugham on the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper;
  • Plato, in the Symposium, on the identity of comedy and tragedy, and Socrates as a seductive flute-player;
  • Anne Applebaum on “The New Puritans”: the same as the old ones, called Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates?

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Hostility and Hospitality

After seventeen weekly posts of readings with my annotations, the Pensées of Pascal join two other works that I have blogged about systematically, chapter by chapter or book by book:

  • R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan, or Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism (1942);

  • Homer, the Iliad, in George Chapman’s translation.

Do three authors belong together, for any other reason than that I have spent time with each of them?

  • For Pascal, the Torah is history, but the Iliad was written too late to be that, and is just a novel (S 688 / L 436 / B 628). It has no concept of law, he says (S 691 / L 451 / B 620), but later Greeks took this and other things from the Jews. I discussed this in “Judaism for Pascal.” For example, Philo Judaeus thinks that when Heraclitus says, “We live their death and we die their life,” this is the death wrought by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis.

  • Pascal and Collingwood both come to terms with a world of contrariety. Collingwood calls it “a Heraclitean world,” alluding to how Plato has Socrates tell Hermogenes in the Cratylus (402a, Loeb translation by Harold North Fowler),

    Heracleitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.

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Pascal, Pensées, S 791–813

Index for this series

The text of our final reading of Pascal’s Pensées is below in black. The fragments are Sellier 791–813, labelled below by the enumerations of

Sellier–Le Guern–Lafuma–Brunschwicg.

The last fragment, discovered in 1952, is thus not in Lafuma or Brunschvicg. The rest are Lafuma 956–67, 969, 971–2, 983, 985–91, 993.


This section is based on an email that I sent to the discussion group. For our final discussion, one participant has proposed looking back also at fragments in our third reading:

  • S 230 / L 199 / B 72: “The Disproportion of Man”

  • S 231 / L 200 / B 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed …”

These are a reason why I wanted to join this group in the first place. I propose to include the continuation,

  • S 232 / L 200 / B 347 “All our dignity consists then in thought. That’s how we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then try to think well: this is the principle of morality.”

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Pascal, Pensées, S 755–790

Index for this series

The reading is Sellier 755–90. These are labelled below by the enumerations of

Sellier–Le Guern–Lafuma–Brunschwicg.

Apparently S 772–85 were in a manuscript that was discovered, or were discovered to be in a manuscript, by Jean Mesnard in 1962. Those fragments then are not in Lafuma’s edition, much less Brunschwicg’s, except S 781–2, which were already known from another manuscript. These and the rest of the reading are Lafuma 926–35, 937–48, 950–1, 974, 977, 980–2, 984, and 992. One of the fragments, S 786 / L 977 / B 320, is not on the site of Descotes and Proust.

A page at the site that might have more information on the later manuscripts is currently en chantier. Looking elsewhere, I found a review (Girdlestone, C. M. Blackfriars, vol. 34, no. 395, 1953, pp. 100–102. JSTOR. Accessed 30 May 2021) of the translation by G. S. Fraser of Pascal: His Life and Works by Jean Mesnard. The book would seem to correct the picture of Pascal passed along by Eric Temple Bell, as in a quotation I made in connection with 142–110–282 in the second reading. According to the reviewer, Mesnard

rectifies many a misconception still current about its hero, the image of whom is still often based on that first outlined by Voltaire who had, let it be remembered, only the adulterated Port-Royal edition to judge him by. Pascal was not a ‘madman’, not even ‘of genius’. Even after his mystical experience of November 23, 1654, he never became the ‘fierce solitary of Port-Royal’ of which so many biographers speak. He did not abandon the world but sought to conquer it. He never ‘discovered’ for himself, as a child of twelve, the first thirty-two theorems of Euclid and his sister never claimed he did; what she says is that ‘he was surprised by his father when he was seeking to demonstrate the thirty-second theorem’ itself. Divided as he was between scientific and mathematical research and the pursuit of that unum necessarium which Baudin calls his soteriologial pragmatism, he would swing from one to the other, but he did not give up his scientific studies till 1659, a couple of years before his death, and he did so not under the influence of frigid asceticism but of ill-health, which made sustained thought impossible. In this light, the tendentious lamentations of Sully-Prudhomme or Paul Valéry, weeping over the loss to science caused by his devotion to religion, sound rather ludicrous.

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Pascal, Pensées, S 739–754

Index for this series

The remaining three readings are of fragments “not registered by Copy B” (Ariew).

The present reading is Sellier 739–54, of which all but 741 correspond to Lafuma 913–25, 936, 975–6, and 978–9. Each of these but one (namely Mémorial, S 742, L 913) n’est pas encore analysé at the Descotes–Proust site.

Major fragments:

  • Mémorial (742–711–913–[0])

  • Texte Amour propre (743–758–978–100)

  • The Mystery of Jesus: 749–717–919–553, 751–(717)–(919)–(553), (751)–(717)–(919)–791


  • Contrariety of inside and outside, now in (751)–727–936–698 and S 753, but seen also in the ninth reading, 499–514–923–905.

  • The Jesuits against the Jansenists: 744–712–914–882, 745–713–915–902 bis, 746–714–916–920, 750–718–920–957. Thus the importance of speaking the truth as one sees it. This was seen also in:

    • Third reading, 184–151–211: If we refuse to act as if alone, we witness our greater esteem for the esteem of others than for the truth.

    • Ninth reading, 492–505–592–750, and the last reading: The Jews are the best witnesses for not having all converted; thus one needs to be free to convert or not.

    • Eleventh reading, (672)–(457)–505–(260). Believe according to your own lights. The punishment for those who sin is error (thus perhaps error is its own punishment).

Summary of each fragment

Pascal, Pensées, S 720–738

Index for this series

The reading is Sellier 720–738, which is Lafuma 485–503:

Labels are Sellier–La Guern–Lafuma–Brunschvicg.


A difficult reading for its quotations, paraphrases, and unexplained citations from the Hebrew Bible; but also, in another sense, for its attempt to explain (even in Pascal’s own words) what’s wrong with the Jews.

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Judaism for Pascal

This blog’s occupation with Pascal may continue four more weeks. Four readings of the Pensées remain to be posted here, with my annotations.

The present post will take up a question raised by the latest reading so far, which is the thirteenth.

In the twelfth reading, to somebody looking for faith, Pascal recommended acting as if he already had it. For the person of today, faced with various options, at least in a liberal society, the question remains (which was asked in our seminar) of which faith to follow. Could the person of Pascal’s day, whether gentile or Jew by breeding, have sensibly considered the option of Judaism as a faith, according to Pascal?

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Pascal, Pensées, S 688–719

Index for this series

The reading is Sellier 688–719, which is Lafuma 436–484, or

Labels are Sellier–La Guern–Lafuma–Brunschvicg. There is an extra fragment, 698–425 bis–973–919.

Points of Note

Jews revere a holy book that tells them how bad they are and will always be, Pascal observes admiringly in 692–422–452–631. In 688–407–436–628 he criticizes the Iliad for being fiction intended for diversion; but I think it is the Greek holy book, even while showing that

  • the Greeks are fools for trusting in the gods they do;
  • the best human beings may be foreigners.

Christianity is nearly as far from deism as from atheism, according to Pascal in (690)–419–449–556. You may be led to either extreme by the natural light of reason. Pascal will base no argument on this, he goes on to say; scripture doesn’t, he points out in 702–431–463–243. The proof of religion is only enough to justify the inclination of your heart, according to 700–429–461–584 and 717–447–482–289.

Les hommes sont tout ensemble indignes de Dieu et capables de Dieu, says Pascal in (690)–414–444–557: “men are both unworthy and capable of God,” as Trotter has it, or “men are all at once unworthy and capable of God,” for Ariew. Whether in French or English, such use of capable is obsolete, but is found, before Pascal, in Anglican theologian Richard Hooker:

Happiness … containeth in it … the highest degree of all our perfection. Of such perfection capable we are not in this life … Capable we are of God, both by understanding and will.

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Pascal, Pensées, S 680–687

Index for this series

The reading is Sellier 680–7, which is Lafuma 418–35, or

Labels are

Sellier–La Guern–Lafuma–Brunschvicg.


We have here le discours de la machine, promised in the first reading, Ordre, first in S 39, L 5, B 247:

Une lettre d’exhortation à un ami pour le porter à chercher. ¶ Et il répondra : Mais à quoi me servira de chercher ? Rien ne paraît. ¶ Et lui répondre : Ne désespérez pas. ¶ Et il répondrait qu’il serait heureux de trouver quelque lumière, mais que selon cette religion même, quand il croirait ainsi, cela ne lui servirait de rien et qu’ainsi il aime autant ne point chercher. ¶ Et à cela lui répondre : La machine.

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