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Speaker to Reveal America’s Debt to French Philosopher Pascal

America’s debt to the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal will be explored by a renowned historian of the American intellectual tradition during a Pascal Day celebration at Duquesne University.Dr. Wilfred M. McClay will deliver the keynote address, L’Esprit de la Frontier: Blaise Pascal and the American Mind, at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 22, in the Power Center Ballroom. Free and open to the public, the event is sponsored by the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts.

Pascal, a 17th-century polymath who made long-lasting contributions to mathematics and the physical sciences, was as also a theologian and man of profound faith. His life and writings have come to symbolize the all-too-elusive unity of reason and revelation.

“Pascal is an exemplary case of the high achievements possible through an approach to the world that is both faithful and rational—a topic properly of central concern to a Catholic university,” said Dr. Charles Rubin, associate professor of political science at Duquesne and Pascal Day organizer.

As McClay sees it, America’s perception of its own intellectual tradition comes with a pedigree. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, traveled the United States for a close look at government and society. His classic work Democracy in America states that the ideals and organization of our political and social institutions draw deeply from rational and empirical habits of thought.

That opinion holds today: our Founding Fathers were heirs of the Enlightenment, and their thinking—clear-eyed, implicitly scientific and wary of religion—has left an indelible mark on the nation’s character. McClay argues that one can build a better case that in the Republic’s first decades we were influenced more by Pascal's “supple and intuitive mind, as well a host of religious thinkers, from the Old Testament to St. Augustine, who inspired him.”

McClay, who holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is a member of the National Council on the Humanities and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. His book, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.