Blaise Pascal/Preface to the Treatise on Vacuum

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Minor Works by Blaise Pascal
Preface to the Treatise on Vacuum

PREFACE TO THE TREATISE ON VACUUM

The respect that we bear to antiquity is at the present day carried to such a point on subjects in which it ought to have less weight, that oracles are made of all its thoughts and

mysteries, even of its obscurities; that novelties can no longer be advanced without peril, and that the text of an author suffices to destroy the strongest reasons    

Not that it is my intention to correct one error by another, and not to esteem the ancients at all because others have esteemed them too much.

I do not pretend to banish their authority in order to exalt reasoning alone, although others have sought to establish their authority alone to the prejudice of reasoning    

To make this important distinction with care, it is necessary to consider that the former depend solely on memory and are purely historical, having nothing for their object except to know what the authors have written; the latter depend solely on reasoning and are entirely dogmatic, having for their object to seek and discover concealed truths.

Those of the former kind are limited, inasmuch as the books in which they are contained    
It is according to this distinction that we must regulate differently the extent of this respect. The respect that we should have for    

In matters in which we only seek to know what the authors have written, as in history, geography, jurisprudence, languages, and especially in theology; and in fine in all those which have for their principle either simple facts or divine or human institutions, we must necessarily have recourse to their books, since all that we can know of them is therein contained; hence it is evident that we can have full knowledge of them, and that it is not possible to add any thing thereto.

If it is in question to know who was the first king of the French; in what spot geographers place the first meridian; what words are used in a dead language, and all things of this nature; what other means than books can guide is to them? And who can add any thing new to what they teach us, since we wish only to know what they contain?

Authority alone can enlighten us on these. But the subject in which authority has the principal weight is theology, because there she is inseparable from truth, and we know it only through her: so that to give full certainty to matters incomprehensible to reason, it suffices to show them in the sacred books; as to show the uncertainty of the most probable things, it is only necessary to show that they are not included therein; since its principles are superior to nature and reason, and since, the mind of man being too weak to attain them by its own efforts, he cannot reach these lofty conceptions if he be not carried thither by an omnipotent and superhuman power.

It is not the same with subjects that fall under the senses and under reasoning; authority here is useless; it belongs to reason alone to know them. They have their separate rights: there the one has all the advantage, here the other reigns in turn. But as subjects of this kind are proportioned to the grasp of the mind, it finds full liberty to extend them; its inexhaustible fertility produces continually, and its inventions may be multiplied altogether without limit and without interruption    

It is thus that geometry, arithmetic, music, physics, medicine, architecture, and all the sciences that are subject to experiment and reasoning, should be augmented in order to become perfect. The ancients found them merely outlined by those who preceded them; and we shall leave them to those who will come after us in a more finished state than we received them.

As their perfection depends on time and pains, it is evident that although our pains and time may have acquired less than their labors separate from ours, both joined together must nevertheless have more effect than each one alone.

The clearing up of this difference should make us pity the blindness of those who bring authority alone as proof in physical matters, instead of reasoning or experiments; and inspire us with horror for the wickedness of others who make use of reasoning alone in theology, instead of the authority of the Scripture and the Fathers. We must raise the courage of those timid people who dare invent nothing in physics, and confound the insolence of those rash persons who produce novelties in theology. Nevertheless the misfortune of the age is such, that we see many new opinions in theology, unknown to all antiquity, maintained with obstinacy and received with applause; whilst those that are produced in physics, though small in number, should, it seems, be convicted of falsehood as soon as they shock already received opinions in the slightest degree; as if the respect that we have for the ancient philosophers were a duty, and that which we bear to the most ancient of the Fathers solely a matter of courtesy! I leave it to judicious persons to remark the importance of this abuse which perverts the order of the sciences with so much injustice; and I think that there will be few who will not wish that this liberty[1] might be applied to other matters, since new inventions are infallible errors in the matters[2] which we profane with impunity; and since they are absolutely necessary for the perfection of so many other subjects incomparably lower, which nevertheless we dare not approach.

Let us divide our credulity and suspicion with more justice, and limit this respect we have for the ancients. As reason gives it birth, she ought also to measure it; and let us consider that if they had continued in this restraint of not daring to add any thing to the knowledge which they had received, or if those of their times had made the like difficulty in receiving the novelties which they offered them, they would have deprived themselves and their posterity of the fruit of their inventions.

As they only made use of that which had been bequeathed to them as a means whereby to gain more, and as this happy daring opened to them the way to great things, we should take that which they acquired in the same manner, and by their example, make of it the means and not the end of our study, and thus strive while imitating to surpass them.

For what is more unjust than to treat our ancestors with more deference than they showed to those who preceded them, and to have for them that inviolable respect which they have only merited from us because they had not the like for those who possessed the same advantage over them?    

The secrets of nature are concealed; although she is continually working, we do not always discover her effects: time reveals them from age to age, and although always alike in herself she is not always alike known.

The experiments that give us the knowledge of these secrets are multiplied continually; and as they are the sole principles of physics, the consequences are multiplied in proportion.

It is in this manner that we may at the present day adopt different sentiments and new opinions, without despising the ancients and[3] without ingratitude, since the first knowledge which they have given us has served as a stepping-stone to our own, and since in these advantages we are indebted to them for our ascendency over them; because being raised by their aid to a certain degree, the slightest effort causes us to mount still higher, and with less pains and less glory we find ourselves above them. Thence it is that we are enabled to discover things which it was impossible for them to perceive. Our view is more extended, and although they knew as well as we all that they could observe in nature, they did not, nevertheless, know it so well, and we see more than they.

Yet it is marvellous in what manner their sentiments are revered. It is made a crime to contradict them and an act of treason to add to them, as though they had left no more truths to be known.

Is not this to treat unworthily the reason of man and to put it on a level with the instinct of animals, since we take away the principal difference between them, which is that the effects of reason accumulate without ceasing, whilst instinct remains always in the same state? The cells of the bees were as correctly measured a thousand years ago as to-day, and each formed a hexagon as exactly the first time as the last. It is the same with all that the animals produce by this occult impulse. Nature instructs them in proportion as necessity impels them; but this fragile science is lost with the wants which give it birth: as they received it without study, they have not the happiness of preserving it; and every time it is given them it is new to them, since the…nature having for her object nothing but the maintenance of animals in a limited order of perfection, she inspires them with this necessary science…always the same, lest they may fall into decay, and does not permit them to add to it, lest they should exceed the limits that she has prescribed to them. It is not the same with man, who is formed only for infinity. He is ignorant at the earliest age of his life; but he is instructed unceasingly in his progress; for he derives advantage, not only from his own experience, but also from that of his predecessors; since he always retains in his memory the knowledge which he himself has once acquired, and since he has that of the ancients ever present in the books which they have bequeathed to him. And as he preserves this knowledge, he can also add to it easily; so that men are at the present day in some sort in the same condition in which those ancient philosophers would have been found, could they have survived till the present time, adding to the knowledge which they possessed that which their studies would have acquired by the aid of so many centuries. Thence it is that by an especial prerogative, not only does each man advance from day to day in the sciences, but all mankind together make continual progress in proportion as the world grows older, since the same thing happens in the succession of men as in the different ages of single individuals. So that the whole succession of men, during the course of many ages, should be considered as a single man who subsists forever and learns continually, whence we see with what injustice we respect antiquity in philosophers; for as old age is that period of life most remote from infancy, who does not see that old age in this universal man ought not to be sought in the times nearest his birth, but in those the most remote from it? Those whom we call ancient were really new in all things, and properly constituted the infancy of mankind; and as we have joined to their knowledge the experience of the centuries which have followed them, it is in ourselves that we should find this antiquity that we revere in others.

They should be admired for the results which they derived from the very few principles they possessed, and they should be excused for those in which they failed rather from the lack of the advantage of experience than the strength of reasoning.

For were they not excusable in the idea that they entertained of the milky way, when, the weakness of their vision not having yet received the assistance of art, they attributed this color to a greater density in that part of the heavens which reflected the light more strongly? But would we not be inexcusable for remaining in the same opinion, now that, by the aid of the advantages procured us by the telescope, we have discovered in it an infinite number of small stars, whose more abundant splendor has revealed to us the true cause of this whiteness!

Had they not also cause for saying that all corruptible bodies were inclosed within the orbit of the moon, when, during the course of so many ages they had not yet remarked either corruption or generation outside of this space?

But ought we not to be assured of the contrary, when the whole world has manifestly beheld comets kindle and disappear far beyond the limits of that sphere?

In the same way, in respect to vacuum, they had a right to say that nature would not suffer it, since all their experiments had always made them remark that she abhorred, and could not suffer it.

But if the modern experiments had been known to them, perhaps they would have found cause for affirming what they found cause for denying, for the reason that vacuum had not yet appeared. Thus, in the judgment they formed that nature would not suffer vacuum, they only heard nature spoken of in the condition in which they knew her; since, to speak in general terms, it would not have been sufficient to have seen it constantly in a hundred cases, a thousand, or any other number, however great it may have been; since, if a single case remained unexamined, this alone would suffice to prevent the general definition, and if a single one was contrary, this alone    

For in all matters the proof of which consists in experiments, and not in demonstrations, we can make no universal assertion, except by the general enumeration of all the parts and all the different cases. Thus it is that when we say that the diamond is the hardest of all bodies, we mean of all the bodies with which we are acquainted, and we neither can nor ought to comprehend in this assertion those with which we are not acquainted; and when we say that gold is the heaviest of all bodies, we should be presumptuous to comprehend in this general proposition those which have not yet come to our knowledge, although it is not impossible that they may exist in nature.

In the same manner, when the ancients affirmed that nature would not suffer a vacuum, they meant that she would not suffer it in any of the experiments they had seen, and they could not, without temerity, comprehend in it those which had not come to their knowledge. Had they done so, they would doubtless have drawn from them the same conclusions, and would, by their acknowledgment, have sanctioned them by this antiquity which it is sought at present to make the sole principle of the sciences.

Thus it is that, without contradicting them, we can affirm the contrary of what they say; and, whatever authority, in fine, this antiquity may have, truth should always have more, although newly discovered, since she is always older than all the opinions that we have had of her, and it would be showing ourselves ignorant of her nature to imagine that she may have begun to be at the time when she began to be known.

  1. The word here underlined, which we restore by conjecture, is blank in the MS.―Faugère.
  2. Here seems to be needed theological matters.―Ibid.
  3. Break of two or three words in the MS. We supply them by the words italicized.―Faugère.