The Enlightenment fell upon the West like a hammer. Its consequences, effects, ramifications are truly remarkable to behold: within the space of but a few hundred years, it had destroyed and rebuilt almost everything in Europe. A great many mechanistic and scientistico-causal explanations have been adduced to explain this astounding transformation, but all of them fall short from the human perspective; they attempt to reduce human motivation to non-human factors, which is like to planting a tree in a bed of concrete. It cannot satisfy the man of wider views and deeper understanding.
Many of those who see this fact with tolerable clarity, and particularly those who are hostile to or suspicious of the Enlightenment, fall prey on the other hand to a different error. They are wont to picture the Enlightenment as a troop of rationalistic, deist intellectuals at the head of disgruntled masses, moving from nation to nation like a swarm of locusts and swallowing everything before them. And while the effective epochs which installed Enlightenment-style democracies and republics throughout the West really did have this feel (one thinks immediately of the revolutionary period in the mid nineteenth century, from about 1848 to 1849, in which it seemed as if a fire had caught on the continent and was proceeded from one dry and brittle field to the next), this overlooks a fundamental problem, which occupied the greatest minds of the Enlightenment for centuries prior: before the disgruntled masses could be marshalled and the intellectuals enlisted, before a new world could rebuilt, the old had first to be undermined.
The first thinkers of the Enlightenment or the proto-Enlightenment were scandalized by the irrationality of politics, both that contemporary with them and that which had historically ruled in the West. It was not an insight unique to them that human societies are founded on prejudice; every philosopher who has ever lived has perceived as much. But the early Enlightenment thinkers were the first to see in this fact a reason for reprobation and resistance. The beautiful variety of human societies which had filled the world prior to Modernity was for the Enlightenment nothing but a problem to be solved. Put more sympathetically to the Enlightenment or proto-Enlightenment thinkers, they believed they had discovered a way to produce, for the first time, a new rational society, built upon the foundations of reason and dedicated to justice and to light.
In this, they failed to appreciate the protective power of the ‘prejudices’ which founded societies, or the way in which, at their highest, these ‘prejudices’ formed a wan but visible reflection of divine things or superhuman truths, and were therefore transfigured by their antecedents into something greater than the mere narrow and limiting horizon they might seem to be to a man of wider views. The Enlightenment thinkers were especially sensitive to the inadequacies of these orders, and especially obtuse to their virtues. The reasons for their own limitations of vision, as well as the reasons they had for this change in perspective, fall beyond the purview of the present essay:1 what is of note here is merely that the Enlightenment thinkers were certainly among the most audacious and ambitious, not to say hubristic, men ever to walk the Earth. In the face of their goals and their achievements, the deeds of an Alexander the Great or a Charlemagne take on the semblance of mere childish scheming, mere sandcastles brought low by the earliest wave. But the Enlightenment thinkers were confronted from the first innumerable obstacles to the realization of their vast ambitions in the form of traditions, religions, social orders, not to speak of myths, ethnicities, ties of family and city, etc. – all of which they regarded as being nothing but prejudices, superstitions and injustices.
These obstacles, however, could not be eradicated at a whim or a will. It is a special characteristic of all human customs that opposition to them tends to lead, not to their abandonment, but rather to their reinforcement and even ossification; when one attacks a human custom, those who hold to it make of it a redoubt and take up their arms to defend it. For it is the instinct of men to defend whatever is theirs, no matter its inherent worth, the moment it comes under attack. In our own day, the Alternative Right has failed to understand this fundamental fact again and again, and so has found itself in the embarrassing situation of having been overthrown by a stationary enemy.
Here, then, was the Enlightenment problem: the old orders had to be dismantled, but it was worse than useless to come at them with swords and hammers bared. But if these institutions were not dismantled, however, men generally could never be made into rational, humanistic beings; for the old orders were the instigators of prejudices and presuppositions; and without rational, humanistic beings to form up the troops for this war, the old orders could never be stormed and reformed. The Enlightenment philosophers, in their dream of establishing a rational society filled with rational citizens, found themselves caught in a vicious circle. It was the awful innovation of its founding figures to break this circle.
It was no Machiavelli who saw to this nefarious work – Machiavelli, that aristocrat in soul, who wrote his words to princes and noble men of the Renaissance. Neither was it a Bacon, who instinctively wrote to the ‘aristocrats’ of the first natural sciences. Nor still was it a Hobbes, that fierce imp, who so scandalized his time with his writings that he paradoxically disarmed himself by fighting, and would surely have been discarded as a madman by future generations had he not been recovered and sanitized by later philosophers and thinkers. Machiavelli, Bacon and Hobbes were among the true Fathers of Modernity, the audacious and reckless souls who prepared our present world; but they were not its builders.
It says everything that these men, whose work forms the very foundations of the Enlightenment are almost never included in that period of time. They are not associated with the Enlightenment save by those who know; generally speaking, in, say, textbooks or encyclopaedia entries, or in the work of intellectuals and conventional scholars, they are never so much as mentioned in discussions on the Enlightenment save as they are called its precursors;2 such works as these limit themselves to other names, as for instance Voltaire, Diderot, Cesare Beccaria, John Locke, Descartes, Helvétius, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Adam Smith and Spinoza. The first three in this list were, so far as philosophy goes, palpably, and often painfully, superficial thinkers, who gained notoriety for their contrariness and obstinacy rather than for their originality or profundity. As for the others, the earliest of them were John Locke and Descartes, which chronologically speaking calls our attention to them. For it was indeed in these men that the problem of the Enlightenment was solved. If the three names we have mentioned above were the Fathers of Modernity, then John Locke and René Descartes were its midwives; we can say almost with perfect surety that if it had not been for them, or for others who might have accomplished the same acts in their absence, the Enlightenment should have been stillborn.
The study of these men would therefore seem to be a study of secondary or at least subsidiary importance with respect to the study of the true Fathers of our time. But in truth, from the pragmatic, strategic or potential point of view, the study of these men is of primary importance.
John Locke was born an old fox. The measure of his cleverness is this: that his name appears everywhere nowadays, even in totally opposite camps, from that of the capitalists to that of the conservatives to that of the classical liberals to that of the neoliberals. This chameleon-like nature of his is what has stood him so well in the test of time; it is nigh impossible to get one’s hands around his throat. For that reason alone he is worth some study, and his influence is sure not to be denied. We focus presently, however, on Descartes, for two primary reasons. First, he preceded Locke by some decades in his work; second, he, as opposed to Locke, is often ascribed the title of ‘father of modern philosophy’, epithet which is as inaccurate as it is indicative, and which offers him to our investigations particularly.
For we may say of the instinct which lays this epithet upon him, that it is as inaccurate as it is indicative – that it is wrong, without being altogether erroneous.
I. Reading Descartes
Before we can even pick Descartes up, there are a number of modern prejudices which we must overcome; to this extent, the investigation of the origins of Modernity is already itself an education in its uprooting.
First of all, we moderns are wont to instinctively suppose, when approaching the works of the past, that they are ‘old’ and therefore incomplete and limited. We are excessively impressed with all things new, and are infatuated with a certain kind of youth. Descartes to us is an ‘early modern’ thinker, and therefore must have been in his way a childish thinker; he was surely subsequently improved upon by later thinkers.
Let us disabuse ourselves of this view. In the first place, there is no reason in the world to suppose a priori that earlier thinkers were less knowledgable, sophisticated, intelligent, aware, conscious, or correct in their views than later thinkers. Such an idea is itself the thoughtless child of the dangerous dogma of progress. In truth, wisdom can be as easily lost as gained in this world, and indeed perhaps more easily, for reasons that a careful consideration of the following words will easily bring to light.
Furthermore, if we do not suppose from the start that Descartes may have something to teach us, we will never have cause to take him seriously enough to understand him. And if we cannot understand the so-called ‘father of modern philosophy’, how can we ever understand ourselves who are the children of that philosophy? For that reason, among others, it behoves us to take as our simple presupposition a fact which ought not to be controversial to us: Descartes deserves the fame that has been piled upon him, and even if we finally end up rejecting his thought, we cannot do so until we have understood that thought. The supposition that Descartes was simply wrong is unworthy of us as thinkers and prejudicial to our own quest for the truth. We must ever shun the temptation of approaching the past as though it were perfectly known, or as if the final judgement on it already been cast; for a man may judge rightly only insofar as he has comprehended rightly. Comprehending: that means, grasping something completely.
To be sure, Descartes makes our task difficult. On first approaching him, one is impressed by the fact that the surface of his writing appears to immediately corroborate the prejudices we have just discussed. This in two ways.
First, Descartes’ major philosophical writings, as opposed to his major mathematical writings, seem riddled with contradictions, hasty and unwarranted conclusions, logical contortions, and indeed the rejection of the very principles that Descartes himself is so famous for having introduced into philosophy (for example, the principle that all past thought must first be thoroughly rejected if we are to arrive at certainty, or the principle that we should only accept ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, etc.). The Father of Modern Philosophy appears to have been uniquely incompetent as a philosopher. More confusing still, at times, this Father of Modern Philosophy does not at all appear to be identical to the Father of Modern Geometry, as Descartes is also often said to be. There seem to be two distinct Descarteses, one an excellent geometrician, the other a rather infantile philosopher. This in and of itself would be nothing new; we could say with Pascal that Descartes was a man of the spirit of geometry and not of the spirit of finesse, just as Einstein proved himself to be with his embarrassing ‘political philosophy’. But there is a difference here: for Einstein is not regarded by any serious thinker as being a groundbreaking or even particularly qualified political thinker, whereas Descartes has the reputation of being one of the great modern philosophers. Account has to be given then for this reputation.
The second problem we face is the question of Descartes’ overall consistency. Descartes says all manner of blatantly contradictory things. As but a single and singularly important example of this, he is, by his public protestations, a religious man (indeed, even a relatively keen-eyed observer of human affairs such as George Friedman could make the incredible claim that Descartes was a ‘devout Catholic’),3 yet there are conclusions and comments in his work which obviously contradict this fact, for as a pious Catholic could not in good conscious ever hold to such ideas. More generally, there are many statements in certain of Descartes’ works which are contradicted in others of his works. One can approach this problem in one of three ways: 1.) one can assume that Descartes was a poor thinker, which inadequate notion we have already addressed; 2.) one can attempt to find the way in which Descartes himself reconciled these evidently contradictory views, which leaves one with the burning question of why Descartes never bothered to sufficiently explain this reconciliation in his own words, when he would have clearly seen the pedagogical value in doing so; or 3.) one can suppose that some of these statements were not written sincerely or were written for purposes other than expressing Descartes’ true thoughts.
We elect for the third path, though it is an unpopular one. It is sorely tempting, not doubt, to both our complacency and our vanity to simply supposed that Descartes was a second-rate thinker and to leave the matter at this. But to say it again, Descartes is universally recognized as one of the ground-breaking revolutionary figures of the Enlightenment and thus of Modernity itself; are we then to suppose the foolishness of his contemporaries, who took so fumbling a thinker as being in some way profoundly original? Are we to suppose that we ourselves are so much the superiors of prior generations, that we are privy to a sound perspective on Descartes, where they were all of them swept up by some inexplicable and totally irrational revolutionary furore by his words, and failed to note the evident flaws in his ideas? Are we really to suppose that the reputation he has been given is absolutely incompatible with his quality? Even if lesser men had fallen under the spell of his inadequate thinking, surely the philosophers that followed him would have wasted no time in deconstructing him? Unless we are to suppose that the whole period was affected by a strange kind of somnolence and ignorance?
We, who are not prone to supposing the imbecility our forefathers, resist this conclusion. We are then led to another: Descartes wrote in such a manner as to hide his true views. The reasons he might have had for doing so are not hard to find so soon as one ceases to stare at the past idiotically through the distorting telescope of the present. Broadly speaking, all of these reasons fall under the ‘problem of the Enlightenment’ which we have sketched above. It is worth, however, specifying the meaning of this problem more concretely to see what it meant for the revolutionaries of that time.
Descartes did not live in a society which was at least nominally dedicated to protecting ‘freedom of speech’; in his day, there were dire consequences for so much as critiquing the standing order. Men could be, and often were, jailed, persecuted and even in extreme cases killed for publicly maintaining heterodox beliefs. But State and Church had their laws to this effect; the Enlightenment thinkers, who radically opposed both of these powers, could not speak their minds without putting themselves into immediate danger. An intelligent man would therefore hide his true views in one way or another; for, despite a prejudice which is common to contemporary democracies, martyrdom, whether the soft martyrdom of the political prisoner or the hard martyrdom of the murdered man, does not in and of itself ever lead to revolutionary change.4
In consideration of this last fact, a few observations. First, we note again the marvellous discrepancy between Descartes’ mathematical rigour and his apparent philosophical laxity. It is difficult to imagine that a man who wrote La Géométrie would not have noticed the frequent errors of thought which occur in so short a book as the Meditationes, or even in single sections or paragraphs or sentences of the same. If we can see these errors, we who are manifestly incapable of producing so noteworthy a development in mathematics as analytic geometry, then so could he. Put somewhat more pointedly: only a fool or a hasty reader could claim that Descartes was a fool or a hasty writer.
This thought is reinforced in us by the simple recollection that Descartes dedicated himself to bringing the spirit of geometry to rule in the realm of philosophy; a man undertaking a task like this would be a thousand times more and not less sensitive to those elementary errors in logic which today even schoolboys can discover in Descartes’ words.
Finally, we note that some of Descartes’ works were published openly, and were dedicated to high-ranking political figures of his day; others of his works were published more privately or for smaller and more select audiences, or else were published posthumously from his private writings. The former are characterized by evidently fallacious logic in defence of popular pieties; the latter are characterized by sometimes remarkably open declaration of scandalous and revolutionary ideas, couched in careful logic. It is evident why the tone and subject matter should change in these cases given the different audiences, and this recognition points us toward the core of Descartes’ true thought – though it might not lead us to our destination.
We can therefore establish the following principles for reading Descartes. 1.) All evident contradictions in his texts must be understood with a view to his will to protect himself from persecution on the one hand, and to disclose his true views to careful readers on the other. 2.) Where a moderate or conventional thought is contradicted in one part of his oeuvre by a radical or unconventional one in another part, we are entitled to suspect that the latter is nearer to Descartes’ true views; this, particularly if the conventional thought is evidenced by manifestly poor reasoning, or is expressly aimed at a conventional audience.
There is a third and intimately related aspect of Descartes’ writings which characterize them in a peculiar way, and which indeed is largely responsible for the fame of the man himself; but this is so far from being a principle of our reading of Descartes, that it is the very thing we mean to discuss and to demonstrate in the course of this brief consideration of his work. It can be summarized as follows: Descartes solved the problem of the Enlightenment by inventing ideology.
We will pursue this in the next section of this essay.
1The author mentions in passing that to date he has to find a single compelling explanation for this fact, and would be most curious to hear the thoughts of his readers, should they have some special insight into this matter. The reasons for the emergence of the Enlightenment attitude remain, so far as the author can see, a mystery – and one which it is incumbent upon us to attempt to unveil.
2For present purposes, it will be quite sufficient to note the Wikipedia article on the Enlightenment, which mentions Hobbes and Bacon in merest passage, and does not nominate Machiavelli so much as even a single time, quite as if he had never written his Discorsi. In the context of the present essay, we cannot resist noting the extent to which this makes Wikipedia the rightful heir to the Enlightenment Diderotesque Encycopeadist tradition; the ‘open source encyclopaedia’ with all its democratic fanfare and its fervent belief in the power of the masses to produce accuracy and truth through crowdfunding and collective critique and such not, cannot even understand its own genealogy with any degree of completeness.
3In his book Flashpoints (Doubleday: New York, 2015).
4Men who perish or are persecuted in this manner can, of course, become symbolic and inspirational to future generations or outright revolutionaries, as for instance Oliver Cromwell, Michael Collins in Ireland, Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno became. But whatever their examples might have later meant, at the moment of their deaths the consequences were generally trivial at best, and indeed largely moved in the opposite direction of that which they might have wished: those who followed these men at the time ‘went underground’ in a variety of ways and grew less bold than they might otherwise have been. One could of course offer up the counterexample of the Christians who gained power through a period of martyrdom (not to speak of the primary martyrdom of Christ himself); their example is both different and similar to that of the others. It is similar, insofar as here, too, the effects brought by the martyrs were anything but immediate, as is proven by the sheer numbers of Christians who had to perish under the Roman sword, and the number of years that passed, before the cross was hung upon the throne. It is different, insofar as the Christians finally did win the day, no doubt in great part through the weight of their dead; but here, we are dealing not with the death of a single remarkable man, but of hundreds of more or less common men, the power of which example is obviously greater for most human beings. For a single remarkable man, no matter how just his cause or how high his mind, can easily be disregarded as a fool or a madman by those who are lower and weaker and less intelligent than he, whereas this dismissal becomes more difficult in the face of a movement of mass-martyrdom. Moreover, particularly as this remarkable man is a philosopher, he is likely in his fall to influence only other philosophers: consider Socrates, Boethius, and Sir Thomas More. Before the modern era, philosophers were not commonly firebrands; a shift was effected in Modernity, which invented both the revolutionary philosopher and the figure of the intellectual. The question of why this shift occurred brings us back, not to the martyrs of Modernity, but to its philosophers: it brings us back, among other men, to Descartes.