Although they appear to consist of ideas and jottings, some of which are incomplete, it is believed that Pascal had, prior to his untimely death in 1662, already planned out the order of the book. Those responsible for his effects, failing to recognise the basic structure of the work, handed them over to be edited, and they were published in 1670. The first English translation was made in 1803 by Thomas Chevalier, a British surgeon of French Huguenot descent. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that scholars began to understand Pascal's intention. In the 1990s, decisive philological achievements were made, and the edition by Philippe Sellier of the book contains his "thoughts" in more or less the order he left them.
Several attempts have been made to arrange the notes systematically; notable editions include those of Brunschvicg, Louis Lafuma, and (most recently) Sellier. (See, also, the monumental edition of his Oeuvres complètes (1964–1991), which is known as the Tercentenary Edition and was realized by Jean Mesnard; this edition reviews the dating, history, and critical bibliography of each of Pascal's texts.) Although Brunschvicg tried to classify the posthume fragments according to themes, recent research has prompted Sellier to choose entirely different classifications, as Pascal often examined the same event or example through many different lenses .
The original layout of the individual notes was in fact recorded in situ, although this was not reflected in published editions of the work until recently, because the colleagues of Pascal who edited his notes after his death switched the order of the book's two main sections. Early editions led off with the traditional Christian content, leaving Pascal's reflections on the human condition until the end. The structure of the apology Pascal intended is best described by H. F. Stewart D.D. in the preface to his translation of the Pensees: Part I shows "from Nature" that man is wretched without God, Part II shows "from Scripture" that Jesus is the Redeemer of mankind. Part I subdivides into Ia (man without God) and Ib (man with God) to show man's inherent wretchedness. The themes of Part I are largely in the tone of vanitas mundi, after the tradition of the Hebrew Bible's book of Ecclesiastes, while the many short maxims inserted into the text are reminiscent of the Book of Proverbs.
"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."
"He who sees himself thus will be frightened by himself, and, perceiving himself sustained... between these two abysses of infinity and nothing, will tremble... and will be more disposed to contemplate these marvels in silence than to explore them with presumption. For in the end, what is man in nature? A nothing in respect to the infinite, everything in respect to the nothing, a halfway between nothing and all. Infinitely far from comprehending the extremes, both the end and the beginning or principle of things are invincibly hidden in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he has been drawn, and the infinite in which he is engulfed."*
"Nothing is so conformable to reason as to disavow reason."
"To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher."
"What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe. Who shall unravel this confusion?"
Quelle chimère est-ce donc que l'homme? quelle nouveauté, quel monstre, quel chaos, quel sujet de contradictions, quel prodige? Juge de toutes choses, imbécile ver de terre, dépositaire du vrai, cloaque d'incertitude et d'erreur, gloire et rebut de l'univers. Qui démêlera cet embrouillement?
"All men naturally hate one another; there could not be four friends in the world."
"How hollow is the heart of man, and how full of excrement!"
"Man is but a reed, the most feeble (thing) in nature; but he is a thinking reed.* The entire universe need not arm itself in order to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But when (even if) the universe would (were to) crush him, man would (still) yet be more noble than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying (that he dies) and the advantage (which) the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of it (of this)."
"Bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you*—will quiet your proudly critical intellect."
"Go to confession and communion; you will find it a relief and a strengthening."
"It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist; that the soul should be joined to the body, and that we should have no soul; that the world should be created, and that it should not be created, etc.; that original sin should be, and that it should not be."
"We understand nothing of the works of God unless we take it as a principle that He wishes to blind some and to enlighten others."
"This is what I see, and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet. If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator, I would repose peacefully in faith. But seeing too much to deny [Him], and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state, and I would wish a hundred times that if a God sustains nature it would reveal Him without ambiguity."
Pascal subsequently identifies the major problem of a "double meaning" reconciliation.
In the fields of Mathematics, Computer science and Information theory Pascal is widely regarded to be the "father of modern probability theory", the branch of science that underpins Cryptography. Pascal's strangely disembodied conclusion to his closing argument for the "double meaning" divinity of the Bible, and his choice of the word "cipher", which was the technical word for "cryptogram" in its day, has been cited frequently in the context of "Bible codes", referring to information that is purported to be encrypted in the Torah of the Old Testament.
"Atheism shows strength of mind, but only to a certain degree."