The Theological Origins of Modernity

By Michael Allen Gillespie | Go to book overview

6 Descartes' Path to Truth

At the very beginning of his earliest philosophical reflections, René Descartes placed the surprising proverb: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”1 This work, which was never completed and which we know only from Baillet's biography and Leibniz's notes, was Descartes' earliest attempt to develop the science he had described to Isaac Beeckman a few months before in early 1619:

What I want to produce is not something like Lull's Ars Brevis, but rather
a completely new science, which would provide a general solution to all
possible equations involving any sort of quantity, whether continuous or
discrete, each according to its nature.… There is, I think, no imaginable
problem which cannot be solved at any rate by such lines as these.… Al-
most nothing in geometry will remain to be discovered. This is of course a
gigantic task, and one hardly suitable for one person; indeed it is an incred-
ibly ambitious project. But through the confusing darkness of this science I
have caught a glimpse of some sort of light, and with the aid of this I think
I shall be able to dispel even the thickest obscurities.2

The ultimate result of these efforts, renewed and sustained over a period of many years, was a new science based on the natural light of reason that revolutionized European thought and helped to bring the modern age into being. But how are we to understand the claim that stands at its beginning? We are prone to think of modernity as a secular age, and to think of Descartes in particular as one of those most responsible for the rejection of religion. How in this light can we make sense of his claim that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of this new wisdom?

The provenance of the proverb is probably coterminous with religion as such. In the Old Testament it points to “a wrathful God” who demands strict adherence to his law. The wisdom referred to in the proverb is thus not questioning and thinking, that is, not philosophy or science, but piety and obedience. Is this, however, what Descartes means when he puts the

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The Theological Origins of Modernity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction - The Concept of the Modernity 1
  • 1: The Nominalist Revolution and the Origin of Modernity 19
  • 2: Petrarch and the Invention of Individuality 44
  • 3: Humanism and the Apotheosis of Man 69
  • 4: Luther and the Storm of Faith 101
  • 5: The Contradictions of Premodernity 129
  • 6: Descartes' Path to Truth 170
  • 7: Hobbes' Fearful Wisdom 207
  • 8: The Contradictions of Enlightenment and the Crisis of Modernity 256
  • Epilogue 289
  • Notes 295
  • Index 363
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