Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

By A. J. Krailsheimer | Go to book overview

2: DESCARTES

WHAT happened in the sixteenth century may be regarded, according to one's point of view, as a felix culpa or a damnosa hereditas for the seventeenth century. For Descartes it no doubt seemed to be both. But for the vigour of the Counter-Reform, the Jesuit school of La Flèche would not have been able to offer the young Descartes the best education then available in Europe; but for that same vigour Galileo might have escaped condemnation and Descartes might not have found prudence commanding him to spend his life in voluntary exile. Unsatisfactory as the lingering Scholasticism was, a century of revived classical philosophy proved no better alternative, so that even before he left school Descartes was impressed more than anything else by the doutes et erreurs which the current state of philosophy inspired. Anyone who has had to tidy a lumberroom will appreciate the sheer relief of deciding that chaos has now passed the point where the labour of sorting is justified. There is a dustbin for ideas as there is for other junk. Seeing that things could be no worse, Descartes felt confident enough to scrap the lot and start afresh, prepared to salvage anything which might subsequently come in handy. If this is the felix culpa, there is also the damnosa hereditas of civil and religious strife which is never far from his mind. In his refusal to run the slightest risk on this account, he made difficulties for his growing system which ultimately led to graver risks than those so carefully avoided.

Descartes starts where Montaigne leaves off, with doubt. Anyone who questions the importance of doubt in his thought, should conduct a pilot survey of Descarte's main works.1 The obsessive fear of all that is doubtful or false is referred to in the opening lines of every one, and the words 'doute, erreur, faux, tromper' continually recur up to the point in each one where

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1
References are to pages in the 1937 edition of the Essais in Bibl. de la Pléiade.

-31-

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