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His Philosophic Temperament.
may be said of Plato, Aristotle, and Bacon. But though the chief glories of Descartes consist in the points we have mentioned, it must not be considered that his actual contributions to human science were inconsiderable. He has certainly done more as a pioneer than as an architect, but still not a little even in the latter capacity; something in optics, and far more in pure mathematics and metaphysics. Let us not forget that, though the majority of his physical speculations lie, and have long lain, in utter ruin, he has immortalised himself as the founder of Algebraical Geometry.* He has also exhibited his power and originality as a mental analyst by many acute observations on our intellectual phenomena; and especially in so clearly discerning that the sole organon of all mental science consisted in a perpetual appeal to the facts of consciousness.
We propose in the present article to offer some observations on the principal features of Descartes' character, on the evolution of his philosophy as a system, and, lastly, on some of the chief doctrines of that system itself.
Never was the philosophic temperament more strongly marked than in Descartes,-scarcely ever so strongly. Though he played many parts in life,-was a traveller, a soldier, a man of the world, he never really appeared but in one character, that of a philosopher; the dress was changed, but, let it be what it would, the persona was the same. That intense tendency to abstract thought, which procured him at the age of thirteen the name of The Young Philosopher,' never for a moment deserted him. Thus, though he spent his days in a far greater variety of scenes than usually vary the lot of a philosopher, and indulged prodigiously in locomotion, we know comparatively little about him, except as disclosed in that history of his thoughts, which is supplied in his own writings;—his life was a Meditation.
Even amidst the bustle of a camp in the time of war, or the ennui and dissipation of a soldier's life in peace, he was silently excogitating his philosophy. Like many other military men of that fighting age (who, however, were no philosophers), he seems to have been rather too philosophically indifferent
* Whatever the light he may have derived from the notable improvements in algebra effected by Vieta and Harriott, still that which peculiarly constitutes the step in the application of algebra to geometry—the method of co-ordinates and the expression of curves by its means, is incontestably his own. The subject of his imputed plagiarisms we shall briefly touch hereafter.
with whom or against whom he bore arms, -for what cause, or whether for no cause at all. The simple fact is, however, that he was no soldier; he was simply a philosopher somewhat fantastically arrayed in Dugald Dalgetty's uniform.
This passion for philosophy absolutely possessed him; every thing else was stale, flat, and unprofitable,' in comparison. Having, fortunately for himself, a competency, he could abjure, and he seems most willingly to have abjured, not only all the rewards of ordinary ambition, but all the delights of society, in pursuit of his cherished occupation. How strongly, and in some respects how favourably, contrasted with Bacon, whom nature equally destined to be a philosopher, but whose versatile ambition also made him almost all things besides! In order to meditate securely the great themes of his philosophy, Descartes, on one occasion, secluded himself for a long period so completely from all the world, that his friends knew not what had become of him; and on several other occasions (as he himself records) he assiduously concealed his precise whereabouts,' that his correspondents might not know where to address him. His chief reason for exiling himself to Holland for so many years was, that he might pursue in comparative solitude, and in the enjoyment of intellectual freedom, his task of life-long abstraction.*
To judge of him from one particular trait, many men would think him very lazy and self-indulgent; — he used to lie very long in bed! But these hours were often spent in intense meditation; as he himself tell us, he found his imagination particularly active in that luxurious condition. Father Charlet, rector of the college at La Flêche (so says one of his biographers), had conceded to Descartes, amongst other privileges, that of lying long in bed, as well for reasons connected with health, as that ‹ he observed in him a mind naturally inclined to meditation.' Discerning instructor of youth! It was a privilege which the philosopher took care to enjoy all his life; and, if we may judge from the confessions of many other great men besides Descartes,statesmen, philosophers, poets, we may be justified in inferring that the couch, with its still midnight hours of sleepless musing, or its calm morning after sleep, has inspired as many brilliant and powerful thoughts, as it may have quenched in that sloth to which it has too often invited. Only let none of our young readers straightway imitate—with the affectation too customary
* He has recorded his grateful sense of the value of this asylum in one of his letters to Balzac. (Epistol., Part I. No. 102.) It contains also a lively description of the people among whom he sojourned.
Fragments of Autobiography.
in other cases- one of the questionable traits of genius, and imagine that, because a philosopher may profitably lie long in bed, all one has to do is to lie very long in bed in order to be a philosopher.
Though a large portion of Descartes' life lacked not external variety, his biography, for the reasons already assigned, is, in fact, the life of une chose pensante.' Its most interesting facts— we might almost say all its essential facts-are given by himself in his letters, and in those charming fragments of mental autobiography which are scattered over his Method' and ‹ Meditations.' With one or two extracts from the former, which give the key to his whole interior history*, more clearly than could any words of ours, we will here present the reader:
'I was nurtured to letters from my childhood; and, as I was led to believe that by their means we might acquire a clear and certain knowledge of all that is useful in life, I had an extreme desire to attain proficiency therein. But as soon as I had completed all that course of study, at the termination of which one is usually admitted into the rank of the "learned," I entirely changed my opinion; for I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors, that, as it appeared to me, I had derived no other benefit from the pursuit of knowledge than this-that I had thoroughly discovered my own ignorance. And yet I was in one of the most celebrated schools in Europe, where I thought that there ought to be learned men, if such there were in any spot on earth. I had learned there all that others had learned; nay, not contented with the sciences taught us, I had run through all the books, (treating of such subjects as were esteemed the most curious and rare), which had by chance fallen into my hands. At the same time I knew the judgment which others formed of me; and did not see that they esteemed me inferior to my fellow-students, although there were already among these some who were destined to fill the places of our instructors. Lastly, our age appeared to me as flourishing and fertile in great minds as any which had preceded it; all which made me take the liberty of judging of all other men by myself, and of thinking that there was no such science in the world, as I had been previously led to hope.'
*We have pleasure in pointing the attention of the reader to the ably executed translation of the Method,' (prefaced with a brief introduction), the title of which will be found at the head of this Article. In the short extracts we have given, we have used our own translation; not because we thought it better (unless it be as somewhat more literal), but because it was executed with a view to the possible requirements of this Article, long before the publication in question appeared. We are glad to find that the author proposes to add the translation of the Meditations' to that of the 'Method;' we would suggest that they should be accompanied by the Objec'tions' and 'Replies.'
After declaring his respect for various branches of science and literature, the languages, history, eloquence, poetry, mathematics, theology, and at the same time his dissatisfaction with them all he thus speaks of philosophy.
Of philosophy I shall only say, that seeing it had been cultivated by the most powerful minds during many ages, and that, nevertheless, no single thing is to be found undisputed, and by consequence, which is not doubtful, I had not sufficient presumption to hope for better success than others; and that, considering how many different opinions may be held touching one and the same thing, all maintained by learned men, while it is not possible that there should be more than one true, I regarded nearly as false every thing which was only probable. For this reason, as soon as my age permitted me to escape from under my teachers, I quitted entirely the pursuit of learning, and resolving to seek no other science than that which might be found in myself, or rather, in the great book of the world, I employed the rest of my youth in travel, in visiting courts and armies, in mingling with people of different humours and conditions, in collecting a varied experience, in making trial of myself in the situations in which fortune placed me, and in forming, perpetually, such judgments on what occurred as might be of advantage to It is true that while employed only in considering the manners of other men, I scarcely found anything of which I felt certain, and observed scarcely less diversity than I had before remarked in the opinions of philosophers; so that the greatest advantage I drew from it was, that seeing many things, which, however extravagant and ridiculous they may seem to us, are, nevertheless, commonly received and approved by other great nations, I learned not to think too positively of that of which I had been persuaded only by example and by custom; and thus I gradually liberated myself from many errors which have sufficient power to darken our natural light and incapacitate us from listening to reason. But after I had employed some years in thus studying the book of the world and in attempting to acquire some experience, I took one day a resolution of studying myself, and of employing all the force of my mind in determining those paths I ought to follow; which succeeded much better, it appears to me, than if I had never quitted my country or my books.'
We have here indications of that intensity and ardour with which Descartes pursued his philosophical vocation. It must be added in justice, that it was the pursuit of philosophical truth which thus animated him. It was not the stimulus or the pleasure of intense thought,—not the luxury (for such it is to minds like his) of conscious activity of intellect,―still less the vanity of intellectual distinction which thus possessed him; he evidently sighed, thirsted, panted for scientific and philosophic truth amidst those doubts and perplexities in which a
Thirst for Philosophic Truth.
retrospect of all previous speculation and his own profound meditations had involved him. Curious enough, in the earlier period of his history this desire was so fervent, that it transiently wrought in him some of the usual effects of a more vulgar enthusiasm, and made his reason the dupe of his imagination. Thus he himself tells us, that on one occasion (after prolonged meditation in absolute solitude-a tolerably sufficient explanation of the phenomenon) he had three dreams, of so singular a character, that he could hardly avoid accepting them as an omen of success sent him from above! They occurred rather suspiciously, it is true, on a merry evening-St. Martin's Eve; but he gravely assures us that he went to bed perfectly sober. In the ordinary sense he no doubt was; but, as he tells us that he retired to rest in a rapture of hope at the first glimpses of the wonderful philosophy 'he was meditating, he was, no question, intellectually as tipsy as ever nitrous oxide could have made him. Not only was he willing to accept an omen of success from these three dreams, but he superstitiously vowed a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin at Loretto, if she would but graciously smile upon his efforts! Philosophy,' a malicious wit might say, has often had its dreams, and at those we do 'not wonder; but who could have suspected it of being so • devout?'
It is also affirmed by his biographers, that when a youth in Germany he sought to gain an introduction to the Rosicrusians, half hoping that they were as profound as they professed to be. He was even in some danger from evil tongues,' on account of his imputed intimacy with these illuminati. But he assured his friends, that when sought they had been true to their character, and had remained invisible.
Descartes' intense thirst for philosophic truth is also manifested in the patience with which he listened to objections to any part of his system, come from what quarter they might, and the strenuousness with which he endeavoured to meet them. His formal commission to Father Mersenne and others to obtain the remarks and criticisms of the most celebrated men in Europe on the unpublished manuscript of the Meditations,' is highly creditable to him. These ample Objections,' and equally voluminous Replies,' fill considerably more than one volume out of the eleven, of which M. Cousin's edition of the entire works consists. But the same traits of character appear as strikingly in his letters.
Any applications for information from any person, introduced or not, seem to have met with a courteous reception, and an endeavour, at least, to satisfy the querist. His correspondence,