Étienne Pascal


Born: 2 May 1588 in Clermont (now Clermont-Ferrand), Auvergne, France
Died: 24 September 1651 in Paris, France

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Étienne Pascal's parents were Martin Pascal, who was treasurer of France, and Marguerite Pascal de Mons. Étienne was trained in law in Paris, receiving his degree in 1610. He returned to his home town of Clermont were he purchased the post of counsellor for Bas-Auvergne, the region around Clermont, in 1610. He came from a wealthy family so had ample money and had no need to earn a living. However he was keen to reach high positions in the service of the French nation so he sought influential jobs. Perhaps at this stage we should put his life into context by saying a few words about France in this period. Louis XIII had become King of France in 1610, the year in which Étienne Pascal was awarded his law degree. The fact that Louis XIII's father Henry IV had been assassinated by a fanatical Roman Catholic, and Louis was only nine years old when he succeeded to the throne, already gives some idea of the political situation. It was a time of revolt by the French peasants and officials loyal to the government, such at Étienne Pascal, were in some danger of assassination.

In 1616 Étienne married Antoinette Begon. Antoinette was 20 and Étienne was 28 when they married. They had three children, Gilberte born in 1620, Blaise born in 1623, and Jacqueline born in 1625. Of course Blaise Pascal is the famous mathematician and philosopher who has a major biography in this archive. Étienne Pascal served as a tax assessor, then in 1625 was made president of the provincial division of the Cour des Aides, the board of excise which was responsible for financial matters and taxation. Clermont was where this provincial tax court, one of twelve such courts in France, met. Tragedy struck the family, however, when Antoinette died in 1626. Étienne employed a governess, Louise Delfault, to bring up his three children but, being an intelligent man with a wide range of intellectual interests, he played a major role in their education. He had a particular passion for science and mathematics but he was also knowledgeable in ancient languages, Greek literature, and the art of poetry.

Richelieu was three years older than Étienne Pascal and employed a rather different route to power in France. He began with a career in the Church and, as Bishop of Luçon, became involved with the government in the difficult period when Louis XIII was a minor. The King managed to get Richelieu made a Cardinal, then appointed him a secretary of state in 1624, giving him the title of first minister four years later. In 1631 Étienne Pascal went to Paris so that his son could have the best education and he devoted himself the Blaise's education there. In 1634 Étienne was appointed to a committee set up by Cardinal Richelieu to judge whether Jean-Baptiste Morin's scheme for determining longitude from the Moon's motion was practical. In the same year he sold his Clermont presidency. From about this time he became involved with Mersenne's meetings. Through these he collaborated with Roberval, Desargues and Mydorge [1]:-

In November 1635 Mersenne dedicated to Pascal the "Traité des orgues" of his Harmonie universelle (1636). Roberval communicated to Pascal his first discoveries concerning the cycloid and intervened on his side in the debate concerning the nature of gravity. ... At the beginning of 1637 Fermat wrote his "Solution d'un problème proposé par M de Pascal".

Étienne is famed as the discoverer of the curve the Limaçon of Pascal. The curve, so named by Roberval, can be used to trisect an angle. He discovered the curve in around 1637. In a letter (see Lettre d'Étienne Pascal et Roberval à Fermat, samedi 16 août 1636) he actively argued in favour of Fermat's De maximis et minimis in opposition to Descartes who viewed the work in a very negative light.

In 1635 Étienne Pascal had used the money he had received from the sale of his position in Clermont to invest in government bonds. As a loyal government supporter he felt that this was the right thing to do and also trusted in the government to safeguard his finances. However, wars are expensive and after France entered the Thirty Years War in 1638 the government was unable to honour the bonds it had issued. There were widespread protests from those who had lost fortunes, and Étienne, despite his support for the government, joined the protests. Governments, however, do not like protests and Étienne Pascal was threatened with imprisonment in the Bastille. In March 1638 he fled from Paris to avoid this punishment and returned to the Auvergne.

Jacqueline Pascal was fourteen years of age by 1639 and she had become a talented poet and actress. She took part in a private performance of Scudery's Amour tyrannique put on for Cardinal Richelieu. After the performance, Jacqueline met Cardinal Richelieu and persuaded him to pardon her father for his part in the protests. Certainly Jacqueline must have had great charm, for Cardinal Richelieu did not just do the minimum to please Jacqueline - he appointed Étienne to the post of chief tax officer in Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Étienne took up the post in April 1639 and it proved a very demanding position. In January 1643 he wrote a postscript to a letter written by Blaise Pascal:-

My dear daughter will excuse me if I do not write to her as I wished, having no leisure for it; for I have never been in a tenth part the perplexity that I am at present. I could not be more so without being overwhelmed; for the last four months I have not been in bed six times before two o'clock in the morning.

Hard work and great skill on the part of Étienne saw him tackle unrest in the people brought about by bad harvests, high taxes, and an outbreak of the plague. There is no doubt that his honesty, unusual in officials in his position at that time, gave him respect from the people.

In early 1646 Étienne broke a leg after falling on some ice. The Deschamps brothers, two local bone setters, were called to help and they moved into the Pascal home to look after Étienne. The brothers were followers of the abbé de Saint-Cyran who was a founder of the Jansenist movement and a director of convent at Port-Royal des Champs near Versailles. The Deschamps had a profound effect on the family which, prior to this, had been Roman Catholics but open-minded and not overly influenced by the teaching of the Church. Étienne was converted by the brothers but still tried to prevent Jacqueline joining the nuns of Port-Royal since he did not want to lose his daughter. Blaise Pascal's life was changed by the brothers and he became the spiritual leader of the family. One has to wonder how different might Blaise Pascal's life might have been had his father not broken his leg, for from that time on his life was dominated by the religious ideas of the Deschamps brothers.

Étienne Pascal retired from his official position in Rouen in 1648. He had collaborated with his son and with Pierre Petit in October 1646 in repeating Torricelli's experiment on the barometric vacuum. He continued his scientific interests and, in April 1648, he wrote a letter to R P Noël concerning the problem of the vacuum. In August 1648 Étienne went to Paris, returning to the Auvergne in May 1649. He left for Paris again in November 1650 and continued to live there until his death less than a year later. After his father died, Blaise Pascal wrote to his sister Jacqueline giving a deeply Christian meaning to death in general and to his father's death in particular. His ideas here were to form the basis for his later philosophical work Pensées.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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List of References (4 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Cross-references in MacTutor

  1. History Topics: Longitude and the Académie Royale
  2. Famous Curves: Limaçon of Pascal
  3. Famous Curves: Cardioid

Other Web sites
  1. The Galileo Project

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