Descartes, A Character Assassination

Written in response to an exam question in 2007; 2017, same.

  1. How does Descartes understand himself?

The Discourse on Method is without a doubt a peculiarly autobiographical book. It stands right up there with Augustine’s Confessions (and perhaps OJ Simpson’s If I Had Done It) as a work that demands immediate intimacy with and sympathy of the reader. Often, I am tempted to read some great book or other as telling more about the author than they quite imagined. (Virginia Woolf quite properly points out that our greatest authors, e.g. Shakespeare or Austen, do the best job of saying nothing at all about themselves and everything about their subject.) Today, talking about character as if we could learn something about the content of an author’s thought is perhaps justifiably dismissed as mere psychology; but when an author begs us to judge his life for ourselves, as Descartes does in Part I, and lays so very many of his personal opinions before us, albeit in the most servile of manners, can we do otherwise but to consider his life, thoughts, and manner in the strictest of lights? We will only be doing what he asked us.

I have never met with an author quite so vain as Descartes. Indeed, sometimes he appears to me to be the wickedest of men, though to be fair, it is from considering the result of his vanity, in fact the general dissemination of it, that makes me particularly severe. Of course his rhetoric is constantly making me angry; using the language of moderation, humility, and decent self-doubt, he manages to say the most outrageous things about his general excellence and prowess, and still have many a reader, unused to judging character, believe he is basically a humble man. In his youth, he tells us, he learnt all that philosophy, poetry, theology, or history could teach him, and thus abandoned what he had so quickly learnt to see through. While still in his youth! Learned all there was to know! Many a teenager has made this claim before, in their heart, and many will make it in the future. Of course he was very intelligent, perhaps one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. But I am used to praising thoughtfulness and wisdom, and polumaqhw, as Heraclitus has said, is not that. Absolute self-determination, a desire to be disciplined only by one’s own imagination, is the natural result of hardened vanity, and the god loved Descartes enough to allow him to think up a way the content of his thoughts could be precisely consistent with his own childish willfulness. Vanity and the god allowed him to claim the centrality of his rock-solid belief in himself as the only thing, and the best thing. His first principle is himself, and well might he find it relatively easy to doubt the rest of the world before breakfast. What wonder in the outside world could compare to the wonder of seeing himself in it?

But perhaps, I hear someone say, Descartes was vain. Perhaps he only knew himself part-way. But doesn’t his marvelous statement of his partial self-knowledge, cogito ergo sum, have some merit abstracted from his character? A common defense of the partial knowledge modern mathematical knowledge gives us is that “it works.” It builds bridges, cures diseases, and so forth. Mastery of nature, or rather, trying to wrench out parts from its whole that will be immediately useful, does indeed work—partially. It has indeed brought us partial goods. The non-organic compounds we make give us cancer, and the ones we made to cure diseases have led to diseases getting stronger. The too-large cities we have built with our bridges have given us all ‘stress’ and depression, and their distance has allowed us to live altogether too far away from our families. Descartes gave us the beginning of the mathematical tools that would allow us to become isolated as he was isolated, to participate in his vanity and eschew the self-knowledge that comes from the painful things our families tell us, our neighbors tell us. It allows us to push off the day when we come face to face the necessity of nature, real nature, as we hope to somehow avoid our own death. We shall all, I suppose, have an opportunity to judge the success of this.


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