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.”)

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  1. #1 by ollda97 on August 5, 2009 - 17:07

    good points, glad i came across this today.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on August 6, 2009 - 20:30

    “to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world” reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite science fiction novels: “Kick the world, break your foot.”

    Controlling our thoughts and desires is hard, hard work. And not work that is encouraged by our culture today! Instant (and constant) gratification is more fun, right?

    I wrote about Rudolf Steiner’s guide to mastering our inner selves here a while back, from the perspective of parenting. But really these meditative exercises could be applied to our relationship with money, or any other area in which we are lacking control or consciousness.

  3. #3 by ollda97 on August 6, 2009 - 20:54

    Hmm…who is encouraged to pursue instant and constant gratification? And, more importantly, can the pursuit of them be a form of controlling them? Can control be missing even in the presence of consciousness?

  4. #4 by henitsirk on August 6, 2009 - 21:05

    Oh, I think our entire culture pretty much encourages instant gratification. Considering the level of personal debt and the usually negative savings rate (though this last has improved ever so slightly) in the US, I’d say we’re pretty darn focused on it.

    I think I could choose some form of gratification and pursue it in a controlled way. I suppose I’m doing that right now, in trying to buy a house: in many senses it’s not necessary for my family’s health or well-being, since we can continue to live in our much less expensive apartment, but it would please us to own a home. So that’s a form of gratification. However, we’re being very careful about how much we’re willing to spend and to get the most value for our money. That’s the control.

    All of that takes consciousness. However, I think it is easy to be conscious and yet not in control: last night I ate “just one more” piece of pizza, knowing I was really full already and yet allowing my irrational desire for that pizza taste to make the decision for me. If I had really been “in control,” I would have weighed the probable damage to my digestion and weight against the gratification of my temporary desire. But I pretty much just gave in, even as I knew I wasn’t thinking fully about it.

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on August 7, 2009 - 02:00

    Ollda, thanks for posting! I think that we often live rather like we’re hypnotized. We don’t reflect, we react, and use our minds primarily to rationalize our drives (which can be manipulated by politicians, advertisers, and other people). The more we do it, the more it becomes habit. I think people can break out of that, but it takes honest self-reflection and self-observation to do it. Even then, to use Freudian terms, I think the id remains very powerful.

  6. #6 by ollda97 on August 11, 2009 - 21:06

    The id does remain very powerful, even now I find myself struggling against it, but feeling as though the morality at times socialized and expected at the ego and super-ego are in continuous conflict. That the reason the id remains very powerful is because of the limitations of our morality within the reality that surrounds us, don’t you think? I find this difficult because it can be used to justify what may be perceived as indifference and yet sometimes the restraints internalized by socialization are contradictory…

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