Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere

By A. J. Krailsheimer | Go to book overview
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MORE than half a century has passed since Lanson first made his challenging comparison between the psychology of Descartes, as represented by the Traité des passions, and that of Corneille in his dramas. The question of reciprocal influence is easily settled by chronology, which shows that at all relevant times neither Descartes nor Corneille could have copied the other, but the question of common influences remains worthy of investigation. Both men had received a Jesuit education, and the cultured society in which both grew up was roughly the same, but above all it was the circles in which their influence was felt that were closely related. Philosopher and dramatist alike may be said to interpret the same Zeitgeist, each depending on his chosen medium, reflecting and transforming the historical image.

Descartes's philosophy starts from a position of confident strength and looks forward to a horizon of unclouded optimism, but behind this confidence and this optimism lie potential dramatic tensions of a high order. Claiming like a new Archimedes that with the lever of his thought he could move the world, Descartes exhibited hubris of authentically tragic significance. Though he himself remained unpunished, very many of those who heeded his prompting: `Eritis sicut dei . . .' knew a full measure of tragedy. Even without his presumptuous claims on the universe, Descartes had in his dualism sown the seeds of conflict within the very heart of man. The Cogito is achieved at the price not only of severing all the traditional bonds by which man had been joined to other men and to the world around him, but also of splitting in two the personal union of mind and body and expelling the instincts of the latter. In his Discours Descartes warns weaker spirits that the path he is about to follow is perilous and testing; looking back the way we have come we cannot pretend ignorance of its dangers. For all this, as it stands Cartesianism is not a dramatic, let alone a tragic, philosophy, but its stability


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Studies in Self-Interest: From Descartes to La Bruyere


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