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sensational schools. The enormous space he occupies in the annals of subsequent speculation may be estimated by the fact (almost literally true) stated by M. Cousin, that from the era of the publication of the 'Meditations' (1637) to the end of the century, no philosophical work of any mark appeared that was not for Descartes or against him, or at least about him. Nor, lastly, amongst his merits, must we forget the beneficial influence he has exerted as a most robust thinker and a most admirable writer. This, after all, constitutes not the least of his claims to the admiration of mankind, and it is one he will never cease to possess. Since, probably, the most signal benefit conferred by metaphysics, is the tonic influence they exert in the discipline and development of the mind,—as a strenuous gymnastic for the faculties, an important instrument of education,— the value of philosophical writings (paradoxical as it may sound) is not always to be measured by the amount of truth they embody. There are authors who, in spite of some enormous errors (supposing those errors to be either morally innocuous, or completely exploded,) are so imbued with vigorous thought, and distinguished by such mastery of expression, that they will do more to stimulate and invigorate the young than writings which attain a far nearer approximation to uniform truth, but which are unaccompanied by any of the vis vivida of genius. Among these will ever be reckoned Descartes; and the same 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 con
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
* 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.
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 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 tells 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 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
* 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.
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