Unit 1: Blaise Pascal
Since the term existentialism was not used to describe a philosophical movement until the twentieth century, it is anachronistic to call Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) an existentialist. However, his concern with the limitations of human existence (or finitude, in philosophical terms); the presence of constant change, uncertainty, and suffering in the progress of human life; and the irrationality of human beings' actions has persuaded many philosophers that he is, at the very least, a precursor to the existentialist movement. Pascal was a mathematical genius whose father counted among his friends the French rationalist philosopher and "father" of modern philosophy, René Descartes. In 1654, after a severe bout with depression, Pascal had a religious experience. He entered a monastery and dedicated the rest of his life to defending the Christian faith against its critics. Pascal's most famous work, written as a defense, or apology, of Christianity that included meditations on suffering, sin, and faith, was published posthumously as the Pensées (translated as "thoughts"). This unit will introduce you to Pascal and the Pensées and give you an overview of Pascal's "proto-existentialism", which provided a foundation for philosophical themes – including contingency (or the uncertainty of future events), anti-rationalism, and individual existence – with which many existentialists would grapple a few hundred years later.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 2 hours.