Archive for August 5th, 2009

Wisdom from Rene Descartes

I was criticizing the perspective of the “Cartesian ego” a week or so ago, and noticed today something I’ve had on my wall for twenty years in my office.   It’s an excerpt from Descartes’ “Discourse on Method,” and I wrote above it “Something to remember in the hedonistic and materialist late twentieth century.”    I used to read this passage over quite a few times and think about it, and I think it shaped how I try not to let things get to me.  So day I’ll give Rene Descartes the floor (unfortunately I have to retype this since its been so long since I made my last copy):

“My third maxim was to try always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believe that there is nothing entirely within our power but our own thoughts: so that after we have done our best in regard to the things external to us, our ill-success cannot possibly be failure on our part.  And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent my desiring anything in the future beyond what I could actually obtain, hence rendering me content; for since our will does not naturally induce us to desire anything but what our understanding represents to it as in some way possible of attainment, it is certain that if we consider all good things that are external to us as equally beyond our power, we should not have more regret in resigning those goods which appear to pertain to our birth, when we are deprived of them for no fault of our own, then we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico.

In the same way, making what is called a virtue of a necessity, we should no more desire to be well if ill, or free if in prison, than we now do to have our bodies formed of a substance as little corruptible as diamonds, or to have wings to fly like birds.

I allow, however, that to accustom oneself to regard all things from this point of view requires long exercise and meditation often repeated; and I believe that it is principally in this that is to be found the secret of those philosophers who, in ancient times, were able to free themselves from the empire of fortune, or, despite suffering or poverty, to rival their gods in their happiness.  For, occupying themselves in considering the limits prescribed to them by nature, they persuaded themselves so completely that nothing was within their own power but their thoughts, that this conviction alone was sufficient to prevent their having any longing for other things.  And they had so absolute a mastery over their thoughts that they had some reason for esteeming themselves as more rich and more powerful, and more free and more happy, than others who, however favored by nature or fortune they might be, if devoid of this philosophy, never could achieve all they wanted.”

Of course, a key line is “after we have done our best in regard to the things that are external to us…”   How do we know if we’ve done our best?   I don’t agree with all of how Descartes frames this — I think thoughts influence (and if new theories in physics are to be believed, perhaps constructs) the so-called “external,” and that the stark distinction he makes between internal and external is misguided — but generally the idea is that we should not be driven crazy or upset by that which we cannot change.   Or as I often say in a very shortened form of this: “change what you can, adapt to what you cannot.”  To this I’d usually add “resist what is morally wrong,” since adapting to what cannot be changed shouldn’t, in my opinion, mean joining in activities one holds as immoral or unethical simply because it’s accepted (for more on this, see the post on Sophie Scholl, “Moral Courage.”)