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How did Descartes open the doors to the Enlightenment?


It is often a matter of wonder to the men of the Right today how the Enlightenment was able in such a short period of time to upheave the world and to establish new forms in the place of the old – particularly as, looking back on the principal thinkers of the Enlightenment, one is sometimes surprised to find how little revolutionary they appeared to be, especially compared to those who followed. This has led some to seek the causes for the death of tradition in other sources, as for instance in the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of capitalism, the development of technology, etc. To the author of the present essay, all of these attempts are strictly parallel to our present medical habit of confounding symptoms for causes, even while the patient is expiring of his disease.

What characterizes modernity is first and foremost a revolution in philosophy, not in social or political order.

For these historical changes, revolutionary though each of them no doubt was, did not emerge in society as independent and unstoppable historical forces – contrary our retrospective moderns like Marx, who look back on history and see only the mechanical shifting of socio-economic gears. Other historical commentators, such as Isabel Paterson, have looked into the distant past and have noted that the very ‘historical developments’ which have so starkly marked our modern times, for good and ill, could have been imagined in prior eras and epochs; it is conceivable that something like them might have arisen among the Greeks or the Romans, since it would appear that these were in no way lacking the ingenuity. The question as to why they should have arisen in our time in and not in some prior time indicates that other causes must be sought.

As we have briefly seen in the first part of this essay, what characterizes modernity is first and foremost a revolution in philosophy, not in social or political order; this revolution in philosophy, and especially this revolution in the relation of philosophy with respect to religion on the one hand and the attitude of the great thinkers with respect to society on the other, opened the way for these further changes. We have already noted how the earliest moderns appear somewhat tame and even naive in comparison to the later moderns, which would seem to qualify this view. But in point of fact, it was not the Enlightenment thinkers who were ingenuous writers or thinkers, but we who are ingenuous readers. Until we lose our innocence in this matter and learn to view the early moderns with a wickeder eye – at once keener, more ruthless, and at the same time more judicious and honest – we will be swaddled forever in the illusions common to our day, and will, like the insect seeking to free itself of the spider’s web, but entangle ourselves the more completely, the more that we struggle to escape.

I enjoin us to subtlety. We have taken Descartes as the subject of this present essay for a variety of excellent reasons. To speak of but one of these, he provides an education in the methods and means by which the Enlightenment thinkers sneaked into the castle of tradition, slew its guards, tore its banners and set the edifice aflame. Descartes is a specially good teacher in this, for he was one of the few Modern philosophers enjoyed an appreciable reputation in his day, and who at the same time who never faced oppression or persecution at the hands of the authorities. He was not, like Hobbes, violently mistrusted in his day anathema to future writers; he was not, like Spinoza, excommunicated from practically every group to which he belonged. He never required rehabilitation, like Nietzsche, was never scandalous to polite company like Voltaire, was never forced to flee a nation on accusations of political sabotage as even the judicious Locke was once forced to do. The suspicions that rose around him – and there should have been far, far more – were tenuous and were restricted to isolated individuals of abnormal perspicacity and to two institutions; these lasted a very brief period and were quickly put down to the satisfaction of the authorities by a mere response from Descartes himself.1 He had the keenest sight for the thin line dividing the orthodox from the heterodox, and, while never passing over it, but blurred its edges sufficiently to make all subsequent discernment impossible.

To comprehend how he was able to do this, we will consider Descartes’ Method, which encompasses not only the famous Cartesian doubt (meant to replace Socratic ignorance), but also a style of writing which conceals as much as it reveals. Esoteric writing obviously did not arise with Descartes; esotericism is perhaps almost as old as writing itself, and has been characteristic of philosophers in all ages. Yet Descartes represents an important break in this tradition. Premodern esoteric writing was characterized by a secret teaching concealed beneath the layers of a publicly acceptable or beneficial exterior. Descartes, together with Machiavelli and to a lesser extent Hobbes, was the first man to write in a way which presents an apparently conventional exterior, itself designed to corrode the very conventionality it seems to second, while at the same time carrying a secret doctrine which will replace this conventionality once it has been disintegrated. We may liken modern esotericism to a shelled seed; the hard exterior protects its contents until such a time as it has decomposed, and only then does the plant itself make itself known.

The most famous, if not the most important, of Descartes’ philosophical works properly so called are surely his Discourse on Method (1637) and his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). They are in a way twin productions, both of them divided into six parts and dedicated to discussion of the same subject, namely, Descartes’ method. The question naturally arises as to why he should have written two books, rather than only one.

The Discourse and Meditations are separated in their publications by a space of some four years, and it is possible that Descartes simply found it necessary to publish a more comprehensive or complete treatment of his method in the form of the Meditations; but prior to investigation of the two books, we cannot assume that this was his principal motivation. Indeed, upon reviewing these books, one finds the difference between them to reside far less in their substance than in their form; they are organized in two totally distinct ways, presented in two totally distinct ways, and finally aimed at two totally distinct audiences. Upon an immediate review, it would appear then that the purpose of these two books is not reducible to mere progress in Descartes’ new method, but has other motivations attending to it.

The Discourse, which is a public work and does not immediately specify the audience to whom it is directed, was published anonymously by Descartes; his reasons are not immediately evident, though in a private letter to the contemporary scholar Mersenne, who was also responsible for distributing his work, he states that he wishes the author to be ‘hidden behind the picture so as to hear what is said of it’. This is a curious statement; in the first place, because technically it is not true (Descartes, whether anonymous or not, will not be present at the private reading of his work, as opposed to a painter hidden behind a painting), and in the second case because it seems to change nothing at all whether those who respond to the Discourses target their words at Descartes or at an anonymous writer. This begs the question: in what way is Descartes ‘hidden’ behind his work?

The Discourse does not present the method, but speaks about it; both in the Discourse itself and in private correspondence with Mersenne, Descartes states that his intention is not to teach the Method.2 It is in some way then to be a propaedeutic to the method. In its original publication, it was published together with three other texts of a scientific nature, in which the method was apparently put to practical application. The Meditations, on the other hand, which is surely the most immediately accessible of all Descartes’ writings on his method and which today is probably the most famous of all his works, is written explicitly for the Theology Faculty of the Sorbonne in Paris, and was presented to that Faculty in his own name. He indicates in his introductory letter to the Faculty that his ‘motive’ is an ‘excellent’ one for writing to them, but intriguingly does not clarify what this motive might be.3 The Meditations appear, toward the fulfilment of this secret motive, to present in full the fruit of Descartes’ new Method: ‘[A]ll that I could accomplish in this matter is contained in this Treatise.’ Yet the scope of ‘this matter’ is perhaps not so clear; he is evidently referring to ‘veritable demonstrations’ of God and the soul. If this is so, then we may say that the Meditations, as opposed to the Discourses, is meant as a stand-alone work, and while the character of the works published with the Discourse is scientific, the character of the Meditations itself is evidently theological. Yet the Meditations is presented in a much more logical and rationalistic way than the Discourse.

This strange discrepancy in style, so evidently unfit to the two audiences and subjects of the works, to some degree explains the curious fact that the audience to whom the Meditations was proposed is very seldom taken into account in the consideration of this book; one forgets its intended readers, because it seems to have been written for the public generally. The Dean and Doctors of the Theology Faculty are taken to be accidental to, rather than fundamental to, Descartes’ reasoning, presentation or conclusions. The conventional idea runs as follows: Descartes a pious man, intended to prove theological matters through reason alone and via the use of his new method, and wrote a treatise to that effect; at the same time, he craved the support of one of the greatest theological institutions of his time, perhaps the greatest in all of France, to spread the word regarding his discoveries, and so he happened to send it on to them as well. Yet there are a few curiosities in the letter which lead us to question this conventional view.

We note but one of them – to wit, his statement toward the end of the letter to the Dean and Doctors: ‘And finally … there will be none who dares to doubt the existence of God and the real and true distinction between the human soul and the body. It is now for you in your singular wisdom to judge the importance of the establishment of such [a belief]’.4 One has but to scratch the surface of this statement before several troubling facets emerge. First of all, the belief that Descartes seems to be indicating would appear to be nothing more than the Christian belief in the existence of God and the soul; with what right, however, and with what possible meaning, could one hope for the ‘establishment’ of beliefs which had ruled in Europe since Constantine? To be sure, Descartes was living in a time of waning religiosity, and it might be to this that he refers; he might, as a pious man, be attempting to dispel the recent bout of secularism in his age. Yet one would expect him in such a case not to speak of establishment so much as renewal. This all the moreso insofar as he continually employs throughout this work to the building of a house as the metaphor for his methodological revolution in the sciences. In truth he is making a new foundation, a new establishment; the belief that he would establish is itself new. Yet, as we shall shortly see, Descartes vehemently denies the novelty of his findings.

Descartes at a blow confirms the faithless in their faithlessness, leads the sceptical away from belief, and defends himself against all charges to this effect.

We are perhaps given a hint as to how to interpret this ‘establishment’ by the curious fact that Descartes refers to a single belief, when he has evidently clearly indicated two; is he suggesting that one of these beliefs is already established or not worth the establishment, while the other is still in need of right establishing? The two beliefs he indicates are ‘the existence of God’ and ‘the real and true distinction of the human soul from the body’; logically, a reference to ‘this belief’ (cette créance) after two items would indicate the latter of them. The existence of God was surely well-established in Descartes’ day, despite the increase in deism and atheism; as indeed was the belief in the soul. But Descartes’ addition here of ‘real and true’ (réelle et véritable) indicates that the standing belief in the soul is somehow false and erroneous, in need of rectification. Somehow, his work is attempting to alter the understanding of the distinction between body and soul; and he requires the authority of the Theology Faculty of the Sorbonne for the establishment of this new belief.

Descartes famously opens his letter to the Dean and Doctors with a flattering display of piety:

[A]lthough it is absolutely true that we must believe there is a God, because we are so taught in the Holy Scriptures, and, on the other hand, that we must believe in the Holy Scriptures because they come from God (the reason of this is, that, faith being a gift of God, He who gives the grace to cause us to believe otherwise can likewise give it to cause us to believe that He exists), we nevertheless could not place this argument before infidels, who might accuse us of reasoning in a [C]ircle.5

This enigmatic statement is, to my eyes, the key to understanding the Meditations. A few notes on it, then.

First, while this is presented as a unitary argument, two causes are in fact adjoined for belief in God: the first, that one learns of his existence in the Holy Scriptures; the other, that God himself implants this faith in us. These two causes are not necessarily connected; what a man is taught (enseigné) and that which God gives (donne) might have nothing to do one with the other. There are in fact two foundations for faith suggested here. Descartes refers to the evident circularity of the argument, but he is clearly referring only to one of these points, and not to both. It is circular to claim that we must believe in God because the Scripture tells us to, and that we must believe the Scripture because God has provided it; it is not circular to claim that the belief in God is a gift of God. The latter is nearer the true teaching of the Church;6 the former is clearly a caricature of the same. The former includes a barbed critique of the very idea it purports to present, by indicating that if God can provide us with belief he can also provide us with non-belief, so that God himself, rather than the individual human, becomes the arbiter and party responsible for our faith or lack thereof; this theological virtue is not a virtue at all, but a matter standing beyond our power. As for the latter argument, it is difficult if not impossible to believe that Descartes would have submitted to such puerile reasoning. This admittedly circular logic is nothing but an open mockery of faith, hidden slyly behind an impenetrable veil of disingenuous piety. It is a brilliant rhetorical turn; no man, upon reading it, can accuse Descartes of impiety, for in so doing he opens himself to the accusation that he in fact perceives the absurdity of such reasoning and is thus himself suspiciously suspect of faith; at the same time, Descartes has indicated the hollowness of this kind of reasoning through a brutal reductio ad absurdam. He has at a blow confirmed the faithless in their faithlessness, led the sceptical away from belief, and defended himself against all charges to this effect.

Descartes means to recraft the entire terrain of Christian and thus European spirituality.

The centrality of this passage does not consist merely in its concealing a venomed barb beneath its murky surface; it lies rather in the question of the ‘Circle’, which word Descartes goes so far as to capitalize here. We will have much more to say on this, as well as the question of God’s implanting faith in the heart of man, which has certain other evident consequences for Descartes’ further arguments; but a few more words have first to be spent on Descartes’ presentation to the Sorbonne.

Following these false protestations of faith, Descartes continues by indicating his will to prove the existence of God and the soul. This proof is the ostensible reason for his writing to the Theology Faculty in the first place; he presents himself as a humble defensor dei. He must before anything defend the orthodoxy of his intention to prove what appears to be an article of faith alone; he does so with support of both Scripture and Papal decree, thus placing himself tacitly in the ranks of the ‘Christian philosophers’. He is very insistent that he is doing nothing new with any of this;7 he is merely walking in the worn tracks of men who came before. He claims that he is but selecting and presenting ‘the best of these reasons’ for believing in God and the soul, for ‘it is almost impossible to invent new ones’. Note well this ‘almost’.

He similarly claims that his ‘Method’ (word which he himself capitalizes) is not new; but here again, the reasons he adduces in support of this view are rather suggestive. He does not state that any man before him has discovered or employed this method; rather, his method is not new ‘since there is nothing more ancient than the truth’.8 The Method is a discovery, but a new discovery; the proofs that flow from it, meanwhile, are old. This of course begs the question of why he should apply his method to this matter at all, if it will but reproduce arguments that can exist without the method. Descartes indicates that his presentation will somehow permit these old proofs to have a new power: ‘it will henceforth be evident to everybody that they are veritable demonstrations’;9 his book is not worthwhile because it is original, but because it is a clear presentation of the best of past arguments. Yet he later states that ‘I … apprehend that [my demonstrations] cannot be understood by many, both because they are also a little lengthy and dependent the one on the other, and principally because they demand a mind wholly free of prejudices, and one which can easily be detached from the affairs of the senses.’10 He goes so far as to say that the demonstrations he makes use of ‘are equal to, or even surpass in certainty and evidence, the demonstrations of Geometry’,11 yet in the passage almost immediately following, he indicates why philosophical arguments, evidently even the most certain, do not persuade men with the same power as geometrical arguments, and for this reason he requires the authority of the Sorbonne:

That is why, whatever force there may be in my reasonings, seeing they belong to philosophy, I cannot hope that they will have much effect on the minds of men, unless you extend to them your protection.12

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Descartes’ idea does not stand on its own legs, or cannot persuade the many; the authority of the Sorbonne is necessary to produce its ‘establishment’. Descartes is not interested in presenting this idea merely to the small number of men who might understand it, but wishes for this idea to be disseminated by an authoritative body and promulgated to the public under that aegis. Why? Perhaps out of a pious desire to silence doubt and to promote the true faith. But this, in its turn, is self-defeating logic; for Descartes would be saying in effect that his ideas should be promoted because, while they are not new, they are of a novel power with respect to the old ideas; yet that power depends on the authority of the Sorbonne, which already grants its authority, and therefore like power, to the old ideas, which have evidently proved insufficient despite this authority. The argument is senseless.

We must press further. As we shall see, his second proof of God (there are two) is in fact nothing but a reprisal of Anselm’s ontological proof of God, which, as Descartes well knows, had been taken to task by generations upon generations of scholastics, including no lesser a figure than Aquinas himself. Yet Descartes himself, in his ‘Synopsis of the Six Following Meditations’, states that his second proof of God is a ‘new proof’,13 thus contradicting both his insistence to the Sorbonne that he is merely restating the best of old demonstrations, and his evident intellectual debt to Anselm. It would seem to make more sense to refer to his first proof of God, the proof from perfection, as being the ‘new’ proof. We are left with the riddle of how the second proof could in any way be considered ‘new’. The form of it is clearly old; it must then be the God that issues from that proof which is somehow new, which is permitted to be new on account of the first proof of God and more generally on account of the Method which produces it.

Let us, navigating this sea of manifest contradictions, recapitulate. Descartes has stated his intention to prove two matters: the distinction between soul and body, and the existence of God. As for the former, he will present the ‘real and true’ distinction, thus replacing or rectifying the false and erroneous distinction presently reigning; as for the latter, he will present a new proof of a new God. Descartes, this evidently humble and retiring man, who claims merely to be rehashing old arguments in clearer form, who claims to submit altogether to the authority of the Sorbonne in the critique of his work, who seems conflicted as to whether his work will be geometrically persuasive or whether it is in fact in fundamental need of the support of authority, is in fact trundling in his secret intentions under the auspices of merest modest repetition of prior and better men. He is in truth the purveyor of a project of astounding ambition and dizzying hubris: he means to recraft the entire terrain of Christian and thus European spirituality, altering the idea of the soul and recasting the image of God Himself. And he is doing so, as we shall subsequently argue, so as to provide the public foundation for radical new science built on a radical new Method.


1The institutions in question were the Universities of Utrecht and Leiden, particularly the first. See for instance the entry for Descartes’ ‘Theological Controversy’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2See Discourse on Method and Meditations (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2003), translators Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, p. 5 and The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 109. All subsequent references, unless otherwise stated, are to the first of these publications.

3P. 55.

4P. 59. In the Haldane and Ross translation, ‘belief’ is in the plural, but the original French of the Meditations has the singular here. (The Latin refers to ‘these things’.) The French version could be rendered thus: ‘It is for you now to judge of the fruit which might be drawn from this belief, if it were well established.’ It is understandable that Haldane and Ross should have inserted the plural here, as it makes more sense even grammatically; but to traduce the specific choices of great authors, especially when these choices appear idiosyncratic, is to obscure their meaning.

5P. 55. The translators of the Dover edition have seen fit to suppress Descartes’ unwarranted and odd use of the capital C for ‘Circle’ in the original French, rather than to ask themselves what significance it might have. We hope in the present essay to indicate that this was not an accidental or arbitrary choice of Descartes’; this emphasis on ‘circle’ is in fact an essential part of his presentation.

6See for instance Fides et ratio, and in particular §9.

7Pp. 56–57.

8P. 57.

9P. 56.

10P. 57.

11P. 57.

12P. 58.

13P. 64. It is of course possible that he simply means this proof is ‘new’ in the sense of being a second proof, a proof that follows the first. Yet to state it once again: Descartes’ use of words is selected with exceeding care, and the fact that he employs a word here which plays so central a role in his introductory letter compels us to take it as intentional and meaningful.

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4 years ago

It gives me an uneasy feeling reading about the subtle changes to the original text described in your footnotes. Making “belief” plural and lowering the case of the ‘C’ in circle… Translators and editors were, and still are, assuming that the original author was merely mistaken in their ingenious writings. How much of what we read has been edited by someone who was simply trying to make the text more readable while unwittingly removing extremely important detail. It is chilling. I appreciate your diligence in finding these otherwise seemingly innocuous alterations.

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