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John Bruce Leonard

The Enlightenment’s Ouroboros: Descartes as the Father of Ideology – Part 5

Series: The Enlightenment’s Ouroboros: Descartes as the Father of Ideology

Descartes’ philosophy originated ideology as we understand it today, and the consequences of this tremendous invention have yet to cease reverberating.

The Birth of Ideology

We have at last cleared the way for understanding the wider social and political consequences brought by a man who almost never wrote on the social and political at all. We have so far shown Descartes’ hidden agenda, the reasons he had for hiding it and the aims that he wished to achieve through the use of a new kind of esoteric writing which was directed more at altering the groundwork of society itself, than at concealing views which might be damaging to the same. This Enlightenment-style esotericism, which has been largely forgotten by late Modernity, makes it difficult to discern Descartes’ true project, and makes it easy for us – particularly insofar as we are persuaded by the follies of historicism – to suppose that Descartes and the other early moderns were but blindly groping across a broad new landscape in the attempt to find something solid. In point of fact, it is we who are blind, and they who saw with exquisite clarity their goals and their means. The limits of their knowledge did not lie in what they believed or in what they attempted, but rather in the consequences that their attempt would have on the world, and the Western world in particular; and the horrendous finale of these consequences can only be averted insofar as we understand what has led us to this moment, and how we might disentangle ourselves from its grasp.

Descartes’ work appears to take on the aspect of an ingenuous portrayal on the one hand of his method (with the Meditations), and on the other of a history of how he came to that method (the Discourses). In point of fact, the Discourse is not history so much as intentional fable, and the Meditations are meant to create a new myth to replace the old religion.1 Descartes suggests the fable-nature of the Discourse almost at once:

But regarding this Treatise simply as a history, or, if you prefer it, a fable in which, amongst certain things which may be imitated, there are possibly others also which it would not be right to follow, I hope that it will be use to some without being hurtful to any.2

This noteworthy passage is shortly followed by an explicit discussion of fable and history, in which Descartes seems to acknowledge the limitations of both and to suggest that a wise man will obey neither:

[F]ables make one imagine many events which in reality are not so, and even the most accurate of histories, if they do not exactly misrepresent or exaggerate the value of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, at least omit them in all the circumstances which are basest and least notable; and from this fact it follows that what is retained is not portrayed as it really is, and that those who regulate their conduct by examples which the derive from such a source, are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance.

3

We cannot resist observing that the greater part of Descartes’s more naive followers have followed precisely that arc which he outlined here. Be that as it may, the more important point here is that Descartes was hardly ignorant of the fact that his remarkable ‘method’ would lead to ‘extravagances’ on the one hand and ‘projects beyond the power of performance’ on the other. He wrote with this in mind, so as to curb precisely these excesses. His true method is not meant for everyone: ‘The simple resolve to strip oneself of all opinions and beliefs formerly received is not to be regarded as an example that each man should follow’.4 He describes ‘two classes of mind’ of which ‘the world may be said to be mainly composed’: the super-sophisticated, who will lose themselves in tangles of ever subtler doubt, and the simple-minded, who would do well to cleave to some authority. Descartes’ method is for the few, and not the many. Yet he presents, in both books, a model which is clearly indicated as an example for everyone to follow, and he offers on more than one occasion the tempting suggestion that his method is capable of reducing the natural differences in human gifts to a bare minimum by producing an artificial route by which the truth can be won: the foolish as much as the clever, the learned as much as the ignorant, the gifted as much as the unfavoured, can derive benefit from its use. His method, in its explicit presentation, is thus offered to the many; the few, those who are capable of reading and thinking with care, would see his true aims and would discriminate between that which was meant in truth and that which was meant merely as a smokescreen, a cultivation of new ground precisely so that those few can use his method in liberty, and security and sincerity.

The horrendous finale of the consequences of what Descartes began can only be averted insofar as we understand what has led us to this moment, and how we might disentangle ourselves from its grasp.

The problem, which we have pointed to at least twice in the course of this essay, and which we have called the problem of the Enlightenment itself, is that the few cannot pursue this new method save as the many are made amenable to it. The sophisticated doubters must be given grounding so evidently solid that they cannot dispute it; the credulous many must be given a new religion which will permit adequate space to the few and their use of a new method. Descartes sought to achieve both of these aims through the fabrication of the notion of ‘clear and distinct ideas’, a new authority which would provide the social support for the new science. This is the great Cartesian project, which has been so successful in its efforts that we no longer even perceive that any other worldview might be possible: the new science, which presently is so integrated into our world that not one of us spends a single waking moment of our lives out of contact with it or its products, has indeed arrived at a position of absolute apotheosis.

We have to some extent extricated the true Cartesian agenda from the merely apparent one. Of what remains of his true agenda, we shall limit ourselves to restating once more that Enlightenment, liberalism and science cannot be detached the one from the others; each project overlaps considerably with its neighbours, to such an extent indeed that one is tempted to draw a strict equivalency between them all. Be that as it may, we are interested presently rather in the effect that Descartes attempted to produce on the many, and the actual consequences which followed therefrom.

We have noted how Descartes speaks throughout both of his works of building anew – building philosophy from the ground up. This metaphor is not chosen haphazardly. It is indeed intended with a double purpose. In the first place, it is meant to indicate to the assiduous and discerning reader that much of what he is doing here is merely artificial, the production of a structure intended with very definite ends in mind – a building with walls and windows and doors precisely where Descartes sees fit to arrange them. On the other hand, he also means to indicate a core tenet of modern science: only that which a man has made can be fully understood. This is the oil which the early moderns hoped would unravel the knot of ages – the continued disputations of the philosophers, the endlessness of their bickering and argumentation, the apparent insolubility of the riddle of the world. ‘[T]here is nothing imaginable so strange or so little credible that it has not been maintained by one philosopher or another’; this scandalous diversity had to be vanquished, and Descartes believed he had found the means of doing so in the mathematization of philosophy, which is identical to saying the abandonment of philosophy in the birth of modern science.5 But this modern science could not be practiced by the many, nor even accepted by them save as their native views provided room for it. Since the religious and social beliefs of Descartes’ day did not, they had to be modified.

This modification is the greater part of Descartes’ work, and it consists, as we have seen, of the substitution of artificial pieces of circular reasoning for existing religious and social beliefs or conventions. Since the capacities of the many are strictly limited, Descartes believed that they would accept only those ideas which seemed to them ‘clear and distinct’; and since their limitations prohibited them from piercing into the depths of an argument, the ‘clearest and most distinct’ of any argument would be the circular argument, the argument that twists back upon itself and thus appears to men of poor discrimination to be self-sustaining and self-evident – ‘clear and distinct’. Descartes’ malicious genius consists in his almost diabolical ability to produce such arguments, to given them all the fanfare and appearance of genuine novelties and discoveries, and to present them to a gullible public as though they were intended in all sincerity and produced in all philosophical rigor. These little rings of thought were as bait to the fish of the popular sea, and the fish, alas, most readily gobbled them one by one, replacing their old beliefs with new beliefs, even while they believed they were merely adopting better ways of defending the old. A transformation was thus effected in the popular mind, which took several centuries to reach culmination, but which was implicit from the beginning: no longer beliefs justified by the chrism of faith and the armor of tradition, but beliefs justified by the powers of unaided rationality, are henceforth to be considered the basis of all right social and political order.

At the moment this transformation attained practical predominance, was the moment of the birth of ideology in this world.

Ideology is a curious term. Like ‘philosophy,’ it can be discussed in the singular and the plural; one can speak of ideology as such, or of ideologies in the particular. Yet ideology in the singular, as opposed to philosophy, is utterly contentless. Chambers Dictionary gives its definition as ‘a body of ideas, usually political and/or economic, forming the basis of a national or sectarian policy’. To speak of philosophy in the legitimate sense already indicates certain features of the matter; it indicates a certain concern with truth, a certain will to question, a certain approach to such questions as are broached, a certain attitude and bearing in the face of human things, of social and political matters. To speak of ‘ideology’ in general indicates nothing of the kind; generically, it is grey, arid and characterless. In its special forms, on the other hand, it is diverse, variegated, and often of violently brilliant hue. In the abstract, ‘ideology’ is quite tedious; in the specific, it is capable of being even revolutionary. In a certain real sense, ideology is inherently a pluralistic concept.

Descartes attempted to produce an ideology of the Enlightenment, and was successful in this; but he wrongly believed that this ideology would remain singular.

Ideology, the original work almost totally of René Descartes, has in our day taken the place of religion. It was permitted to do so through the serpentine endeavors of the early moderns. Religion is rooted in tradition; ideology may be rooted in tradition, but may equally be emergent, spontaneous, developed here and now to overthrow and outrage tradition – as indeed was the ideology developed by Descartes himself. Ideology, lacking both the absolute uncompromising dedication to reason of philosophy as well as the anchor of any concrete religion, is mercurial and protean. Descartes attempted to produce an ideology of the Enlightenment, and was successful in this; but he believed that this ideology would remain singular, and either would establish itself as the ideology in all of Europe, or would slowly give way to a more truly scientific view as the religious drive waned and men became more inured to rationality, if not more rational themselves through the powers granted them by an inherently egalitarian method. But as subsequent history has shown, Enlightenment ideology is far from being the only one possible, and the great success of the early moderns in creating this ideology opened a kind of Pandora’s box containing ideologies of every imaginable shape and colour.

We have been afflicted with countless ‘ideologies’ ever since. So many and so prolific are they that it seems a new one emerges each time one turns one’s back on them. Moreover, each ideology wants to be king; each ideology wants to uproot and destroy every other. Ideology produces the ground for a new kind of ideological warfare between individuals, peoples and nations on the basis of the idea – one is tempted to say, on the basis of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas – and at the same time produces a new class of men, known as ‘intellectuals’, who are the caretakers and the producers of ideology, and who have been granted by this same ‘dialectic’ a remarkable degree of influence in or even over society, despite their own often excruciatingly palpable limitations of character, knowledge, ethics and wisdom. Simultaneously, ideology forms the absolute and necessary precondition for the emergence of metapolitics.6

Societies and nations have always warred with one another, openly or silently, and in a great many cases the bone of their contention has been some disagreement regarding customs or beliefs. Religion has famously played a central role here. It is therefore tempting then to see in ideology but the latest expression of the old drama of human conflict. Yet ideology differs fundamentally from past forms of belief, because it emerges from the minds of single human beings (in the Second Discourse Descartes himself establishes the importance of this) and purports to be based exclusively on reason. Its emergence as a political and social power accounts in large part for the effervescence and restlessness of modern times; we owe our modern disequilibrium and our frenetic changeability to the Enlightenment and to men like Descartes.

Given the incredible influence we have ascribed to him, it is tempting to say that Descartes and his brother figures of the Enlightenment were triumphant. But in point of fact, the forces that they unleashed have turned against themselves; the drake they attempted to master after they had freed it has taken to swallowing its own tail in the forced confinement of its cage. Descartes wished to produce an ideology conducive to science, and was successful in this; but in replacing stable traditions and long-standing religions with the seemingly clear products of the mind of single (and often quite mediocre) individuals, he also laid the groundwork for the emergence of ideologies which might run counter to science, which might loathe science and fight against it, which might attempt to undermine civilization as such and replace it with primitivism or fairy-tales based on history or on a misunderstanding or romanticization of history, or else based on the future and an exaggerated and unrealistic estimation of future possibilities, built inevitably around this or that ideological famework. Put in the terms he has yielded us, Descartes replaced history with fable; put in our own terms, he replaced tradition with ideology. The children of this momentous change include such luminaries of modern times as Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong, the Founding Fathers of the United States, Hitler, Robespierre and a veritable host of similar individuals, both great and small. None of these men would have been possible had it not been for the work of a Descartes.

It is the terrible and sanguinary irony of Modernity his that Descartes’ writing should have gone on to produce the most terrible bloodlettings in all of human history.

In discussing his method, and likening it to building and to city planning, Descartes avers that ‘It is true that we do not find that all the houses in a town are rased to the ground for the sole reason that the town is to be rebuilt in another fashion’.7 Elsewhere, he exhorts his readers to live in a more or less conservative fashion, and at one point goes so far as to denounce the political agitators of his time, the ‘turbulent and unrestful spirits’ who ‘have always on their minds some new reform’.8 Part of this, to be sure, is but Descartes’ caution; yet we must recall that he had experienced war first hand, and had escaped to Holland for that very reason;9 he was a man in solid Hobbesian tradition who valued his own skin and knew with instinctive precision how to preserve it. It is likely that he is not speaking altogether falsely in these passages relating to war and conservatism; his own revolution was meant to be a quiet one, effected through writing and ratiocination alone. Whatever else may be said of the Enlightenment thinkers, their overriding concern with peace is one of the most visible aspects of their metapolitical work. Yet it is the terrible and sanguinary irony of Modernity itself that the writing of such men, Descartes very much included, should have gone on to produce the most terrible bloodlettings in all of human history; and if he himself was satisfied to leave the houses of his native towns stand, they were razed nonetheless, both intentionally and unintentionally, by the nether powers that he himself had unleashed upon the world – the forces of science, of rationalism, of Enlightenment, as well as the reactionary, unwholesome and unprofound ideological movements against these same things, which attempted to supplant science with reckless mysticism, rationalism with blind passion and animal instinct, and Enlightenment with totalitarianism.

We, who are the heirs of both these strands of Modernity, must turn to neither of them in our attempt to transcend an era which is fast coming to a close. Let it not be ours to tear ourselves apart in the fires of a gratuitous war; let us guard ourselves eternally from the error of participating in the chaos of our times by birthing new and superfluous ideologies. We must cultivate, no longer science, rationality, instinct or mysticism, but philosophy and religion. The time has come, and well nigh passed, when it is needful for us to breach the charmed circle of Enlightenment, of ideology itself, and to hurl ourselves hence once more into the dark that lies beyond, no longer afraid of doubt, of dispute, of disagreement, but courageously and manfully aware once more, as all ages prior our Modernity have been more clearly aware, that this life of ours is replete with paradox and riddles that are not easy of the solution – that our existence here in this weird plane is not ipso facto the more scandalous, but instead the more exhilarating and vital. And if we crave stability and shelter, as of course we as mortal men atimes well must, let it not be to the transient ramshackle refuge of some poor ideology that we turn, but rather to the faith and the fortress of our forefathers.

References

1On the Discourses as fable, see p. 5; for the difference between history and fable, pp. 6–7.

2P. 5.

3Pp. 6–7.

4P. 12.

5It is no accident that the word ‘philosophy’ is carefully avoided by Descartes in both of these books; he refers to it in the Discourse only either to speak of his own education or else to ridicule or belittle the philosophers; in the Meditations he uses the word exclusively in the title (Meditations on First Philosophy) and in the prefaces, and no where else in the body of the work. The use in the title telling: Descartes was producing a first philosophy, a new philosophy which was meant to wholly supplant the old. That new philosophy has since arrogated to itself the epithet ‘science’ and no longer refers to itself even in passing as philosophy. This is altogether in line with Descartes’ intentions. Cf. also the names of several other prominent works in the new science: Bacon’s Redargiutio Philosophiarum, Instauratio Magna, Novum Organum Scientiarum, New Atlantis; Galileo’s Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze; Huygens’ Novus cyclus harmonicus; Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Everywhere in those early days one hears the echoes of it: rejection of the old, embrace of the new. This is revolutionary language, and rightly so; for nowhere in all of history, save with the birth of philosophy itself, has such a revolution been inaugurated, as occurred in the first two centuries of Modernity.

6I have already noted in my essay on metapolitics how metapolitics is a strictly modern phenomenon, without clear analogue in pre-modern times. The present remarks can be taken as complementary and supplementary to my thoughts therein.

7P. 11.

8See the opening of the Third Discourse, particularly pp. 17–18, and his disclaimer on pp. 11–12.

9He himself discusses this at the end of the Second Discourse, p. 22.

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