Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ecstasis and Telos: Renè Descartes and His Dreams

"COGITO ERGO SUM," the Cartesian Coordinate System (x, y, z), methodological doubt, and the pineal gland as seat of the soul (if Homer nods, Descartes lapsed into a full coma with that one) are some of the first things that come into mind when Renè Descartes (1596-1650) is mentioned. Commonly regarded the "Father of Modern Philosophy," Descartes ushered in what has been called the "epistemological turn" (Wolff) or "epistemological crisis" (MacIntyre), making him the watershed so to speak, between modern philosophy with its focus on epistemology (how or even if we know) from the philosophy before that time which focused on ontology or metaphysics (what we know). Some philosophical wag (Whitehead) said that the history of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. We may fairly say that the history of modern philosophy is a footnote to Descartes. The proto-skeptic (or perhaps more accurately the proto-neo-skeptic) Descartes looms large in any history of philosophy.

This is obviously not the forum to discuss Descartes in any depth, nor do I have the competency to tackle that subject, but we ought to identify and summarize those parts of Descartes's philosophical system (loosely called Cartesianism) that contradict the classical or traditional (read Christian) theory of Natural Law. The most important of these relate to Descartes's notion of Nature and of Man. Specifically, his rejection of any teleology in Nature, which constituted a rejection of the notion of an Eternal Law. We may also point to his theory of body and soul (what has been called "angelism" or "mind in the machine").

Although there are exceptions and qualifications (there almost always are), generally speaking, before Descartes, man's nature or substance was generally perceived hylomorphically, that is, as a blended duality, both matter and form, body and soul. (Hylomorphism is a word formed from two Greek words, ύλη (hylo), meaning "wood," and by extension, "matter," and μορφή (morphē) meaning "form" or "shape"). That notion is particularly prevalent in Aristotle's philosophy. In his philosophical musings, Descartes vehemently rejected such a conception. Descartes viewed man's nature as a duality of natures that lived in an uneasy joinder. The soul was seen as a sort of angelic pilot, a spiritual humuncular, a mini-spirit, which piloted the ship of the body. For Descartes, the great unprejudiced one, this navigation was done through the pineal gland. Jacques Maritain called this Cartesian teaching "Angelism": "Cartesian dualism breaks man up into two complete substances, joined to another no one knows how: on the one hand, the body which is only geometric extension; on the other, the soul which is only thought—an angel inhabiting a machine and directing it by means of the pineal gland." (Maritain, The Dream of Descartes, 179).

Like the poet Mallarme's aged dying patient in the hospital who was unwilling to accept the human condition, Descartes may be said to have exclaimed:

Je me mire et me vois ange!
I admire myself, and see myself angelic!

(Stéphane Mallarmé, Les fenêtres, "The Windows")

Matthew Levering views Descartes's thoughts on the relationship between body and soul as being of great significance (Levering, pp. 86 ff.) Among other places, Descartes's efforts in trying to derive a new philosophy is reflected in his Meditations. In the Sixth Meditation, Descartes addresses the relationship between body and soul.

It is manifest that Descartes distinguishes his "I" from his body, viewing his body as something wholly separate, though very closely engaged to or "mingled" with his "I." Levering, 90. Though his senses play well-enough the role of informing the body reliably of its needs, the senses are unreliable in the area of truth. Descartes views the body as a complex organic machine, "so built and composed of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin," and responsive to laws that are independent of the mind. He repeated his fascination with the body as a "machine" both his Discourse on Method as well as his in his Treatise of Man, where he stated: “I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us.” The "I" is uncoupled and independent of the body. For Descartes, "it is not necessary to the 'I' that it have bodiliness, since even were bodiliness proven to be an illusion, the 'I' would be real." Levering, 89. It is this "I" alone, and not the "I with the body," which thinks. It is this "I" alone, and not this "I with the body," which certainly exists. Descartes is as far as can be from John Paul II's "theology of the body."

Descartes arrived at his views through intensive introspection in a series of meditations and the application of a methodology of radical doubt. Although Descartes's "looking within" for answers is not particularly novel or objectionable, what was new and what has turned out to be significant was his notion, as Charles Taylor in his Source of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) puts it, that the moral sources are within us exclusively, and bear no relationship to any external reference, such as our body or the cosmos at large. Descartes brought about "a transposition by which we no longer see ourselves as related to moral sources outside of us, or at least not at all in the same way." (Taylor, Sources of the Self, 143.)

Descartes abandoned the notion of an Eternal Law, at least to the degree that it manifested itself in God's created world, the cosmos, including the body and mind of man. As Charles Taylor succinctly puts it: "Descartes utterly rejected [the] teleological mode of thinking and abandoned any theory of ontic logos." Sources of the Self, 144. And Levering concludes: For Descartes "Neither the 'I' nor the machine-body are identified by teleological ends." Levering, 90.

Descartes clearly had no patience for the philosophers and theologians before him. Convinced that he was fated to derive a true philosophy, Descartes jettisoned the past, and tried to start the philosophical journey afresh. There is thus another spirit in Descartes of which we should be aware. His distrust of received teaching, of tradition, of inherited culture was notable. He may have considered himself enlightened and unburdened by what he viewed as unreasonable prejudices of the past. But what blinded him was that he himself suffered from a prejudice perhaps more vicious. Descartes suffered from what Hans-George Gadamer would call "das Vorurteil gegen die Vorurteile," the prejudice against prejudices, which, of course, is a prejudice in itself. This impatience with the past simply because it is the past is something that the Enlightenment seems to have foisted upon us, and it carries particular weight in our country. Too often, this dissatisfaction with the past leads to a state of unrootedness, restlessness, a thirst for novelty, and frequently banality. The theory with the best press is the "newest" theory, the theory that claims to debunk an "old" theory, the titilating theory, and not necessarily the best theory.

Though there is obviously room for critical thought, and blind enslavement to the past simply because it is the past is never to be fostered, there has to be room for a prudent and intelligent reserve against change in favor of the inherited traditions of our culture. The critical intellect has to recognize the validity of St. Paul's injunction to "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." (2 Thess. 2:15) Else we run the risk of flailing in the winds of novelty.

There are few who can build a philosophy of life from scratch within their lifetimes. And Descartes's effort was audacious. Even if we have the talent, the honesty, and the grace, we will not have the time to think all things anew. With respect to the American penchant for rejecting the past, and embracing some progressive future, de Tocqueville observed: "Of all the countries in the world, America is the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed." (Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America (Geroge Lawrence, trans.) (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1969), 429.) This spirit is markedly different from that embraced by G. K. Chesterton, who, in his Orthodoxy, noted that "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

Foundations once destroyed, what can the just man do? (Cf. Ps. 11 [10]:3). Though it was easy enough to pursue his methodological doubt, and reject a teleology in nature and the unity of body and soul, Descartes seems to have been at a loss in deriving a substitute basis for morality. While he nursed his doubts in his Discourse, Descartes advanced a "provisional morality" (une morale par provision) composed of four maxims. Though this provisional morality is one of outward conformity and practical conservatism, it is cowardly prudent, and not particularly edifying. It is hardly persuasive as a recipe for the good life that God calls us to live. In a way, Descartes is a type of the modern ethics which, in light of its inability to know the universal good, also calls for a highly dissatisfying "provisional morality," one largely based upon secular presumptions, and process not substance.

About 2,000 years ago, between Christ and Barabbas, we chose Barabbas. About 400 years ago, between Christ and Descartes, we chose Descartes. Perhaps its time for a reassessement? Perhaps its time for a turn?

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