Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Poor Descartes

I'm working on the chapter of my manuscript that traces the genealogy of human rights discourse through the Enlightenment, and I had the opportunity today to re-read Descartes' Letter of Dedication that prefaces his Meditations on First Philosophy. What a hoot! (Admittedly, I may be getting a little punchy and it might not be that funny...)

For those of you unfamiliar with the Letter, it is written to "Those Most Wise and Distinguished Men, the Dean and Doctors of the Faculty of Sacred Theology at Paris." After positing the clear superiority of philosophy over theology for establishing things like the existence of God and the eternality of the human soul, and after claiming that unbelievers will only be convinced by his arguments and their appeal to natural reason (since atheists don't listen to religious folk anyway), and after suggesting that his arguments "equal or even surpass" those of geometry in "certitude and obviousness," after all that, poor little Descartes still finds it necessary to solicit ecclesiastical sanction for his Meditations. Why? You can almost hear Rene's sigh of resignation when he explains:

And therefore, regardless of the force of my arguments, because they are of a philosophical nature I do not anticipate that what I will have accomplished through them will be very worthwhile unless you assist me with your patronage.

I must have read this very sentence hundreds of times before, but for some reason today it cracked me up. It read just like it could've been written by Eeyore ("It's not much of tail. I'll likely lose it again...")


Chet said...

I always teach that letter, because I find it so at odds with the rest of the Meditations. The purpose in the Letter is theological/political, whereas the purpose of the Meditations (Med. 1) seems merely epistemological/scientific.

But I don't know, because I dont' know enough about Descartes, possibly, if I think that his final comment is so belabored as you put it. I tend to think he knows the challenges laying before him, particularly the problem of ridding oneself of certain prejudices, and his plea is a kind of naive and honest request for patronage.

At any rate, I'm glad I'm not the only one who loves reading that letter (particularly the first page of it, that is).

petya said...

so happy you are back!