I was recently translating this passage from Pascal for my French class:

"La théologie est une science, mais en même temps combien est-ce de sciences? Un homme est un suppôt, mais si on l’anatomise que sera-ce? la tête, le cœur, l’estomac, les veines, chaque veine, chaque portion de veine, le sang, chaque humeur de sang. Une ville, une campagne, de loin c’est une ville et une campagne, mais à mesure qu’on s’approche, ce sont des maisons, des arbres, des tuiles, des feuilles, des herbes, des fourmis, des jambes de fourmis, à l’infini. Tout cela s’enveloppe sous le nom campagne. "


"Theology is a science, but at the same time how many sciences is it? A man is a suppôt, but if we anatomize him what will it be? the head, the heart, the stomach, the veins, each vein, each portion of vein, the blood, each mood of blood. A city, a country, from far away it is a city and a country, but as one approaches, it is houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grasses, ants, legs of ants, and so on ad infinitum. All of this, enveloped by the name 'countryside'. " (https://www.deepl.com/en/translator is a good translator for convenience).

The phrase un suppôt here is an old philosophy word that refers to a metaphysical "base material", i.e. some kind of soul or spirit; a hypokeimenon. This got me thinking about what Pascal could mean here. My teacher and I did some digging and found this passage a little beforehand in the book:

"Inconstance: Les choses ont diverses qualités et l'âme diverses inclinations, car rien n'est simple de ce qui s'offre à l'âme, et l'âme ne s'offre jamais simple à aucun sujet. De là vient qu'on pleure et qu'on rit d'une même chose."


"Things have various qualities and the soul various inclinations, for nothing is simple [We assume simple here means indivisible] of what is offered to the soul, and the soul never offers itself simple to any subject. Hence we weep and laugh at the same thing."

We think what Pascal's getting at here is that things, specifically in these examples the metaphysical human and the field of theology, are infinitely divisible into various parts (which would align with his oft repeated ideas about infinite things in relation to finite human reason)... but that doesn't mean much per se, so where does he take this idea of infinitely divisible things? Where and how far does he take it, what are the implications of it, are we understanding correctly him in the first place?

Thanks for any help :).

  • 1
    You'd have to check this, but I think the word you didn't translate is usually translated "substance" in English. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 3:09
  • See Littré (1872-1877): "Terme de philosophie. Ce qui sert de fondement, de soutien, de sujet. En termes de l'école, on dit que l'humanité est le suppôt de l'homme. "Un homme est un suppôt : mais, si on l'anatomise, sera-ce la tête, le cœur, l'estomac… ? Pascal, Pens. XXV, 63, édit. HAVET." "Comment connaîtrions-nous distinctement la matière, puisque notre suppôt, qui agit en cette circonstance, est en partie spirituel, Pascal, ib. I, 1." " Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 7:42
  • Yeah, we had to dig for a while to find the translation of "suppot" that would match. As for the meaning of the passage, what Pascal does with that meaning, etc. we're still in the dark.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 13:34
  • Probably, as per David's comment above, substance will do. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 14:24
  • 2
    So, it seems, Pascal's perplexity is about the old question of "essence": the definition of theology must identify its essence, as well as the definition of "ville" must point at its essence. But if we "analyze" it we find only parts and no essence whatvever. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 14:43

2 Answers 2


I haven't read the work myself, but it seems to me these passages point at the (problematic) distinction between man as a singular entity and man as a (near infinitely) divisible material object. If we take theology as a science (as Pascal does) then the proper subject matter of that science is the human being. Human beings as such are not divisible or reducible to fractions; we can only have one or two or three human beings, not a half a human being, or a third, or two and three quarters. So that leaves the question where we find the 'human being' in the physical body. The physical body can obviously be dissected (anatomized), and we can look at all the various organs and vessels and fluids at whatever level of detail we like. But Pascal is pointing out that the 'human being' is not located in any of those dissected pieces.

The natural analogy to a city or countryside: we think of a city or country as a 'thing', but is that 'thing' located in the buildings, the people, the plants or animals or insects?

I don't know where Pascal intends to go with this — if you want more info on that I'll need to dig deeper into the work — but I don't think the term 'simple' in the second quote means 'indivisible'. I think he's suggesting that an indivisible object can still have complex behaviors and interactions. For example, an ocean is conceptually indivisible, but it can still have waves, currents, and living entities within it; it can grow or shrink, or change its boundaries over time. If we want to study the ocean we have to embrace its complexities as part of its indivisible self, and if we want to study human beings we have to do the same.

  • 2
    Nice answer. I take "simple" to be (from the philosophy heading in the Trésor de la langue française) "qui n'est pas double ou multiple". Hence "rien n'est simple" -- nothing is not multifaceted, everything is composite (or plural, if you prefer). Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 16:33
  • This is excellent, thank you. I'll mark this as an accepted answer after a bit of waiting for others.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 19:32
  • As for Pascal's idea, I'm interested to see how he solves the problem he sees, "You can divide these things as much as you like, but you'll never find the essence of the thing in its parts", and also how far he takes this observation and what he applies this too. I'm not sure, as well, whether he thinks that these things are somehow MORE than the sum of their parts - as in, they have a separate source of essence, or whether they are simply the sum of their parts, and the thing itself emerges from the parts rather than being a separate thing "containing" its parts.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 19:55
  • @SamIAm123: I'm actually curious where he goes with it as well. His writing is too early for the 'emergent properties' argument you suggest (that didn't come around until the 20th century), and I suspect he'll lean on some conception of 'the soul' as the essence of a human being, separate from the material form. But he was a brilliant guy, so I might find myself surprised. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 21:10
  • @TedWrigley I know very little about mereology, so correct me if I'm wrong, but what's new about "emergent properties"? It may not have been so named, but didn't Aristotle think quite a lot about whether the totality is more than simply the constituent parts? Unless of course you mean "emergent properties" specifically as a theory of what makes the self, or consciousness, or whatever.
    – SamIAm123
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 21:15

Micraelius, Lexicon rationale :

" Suppositum [ suppôt in French] est substantia prima singularia " .

This definition refers to Aristotle's diistinction betweeen primary substance and secondary substance.

The author gives "individuum" as a synonym.

A man is a person, but a person is defned as a rational suppositum.

Pascal concedes the ontological unity of man at ( so to say) the macroscopic level; but stresses that this unity, at a lower scale, vanishes.

Link to Micraelius' Lexicon : https://www.iliesi.cnr.it/Lessici/page.php

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