Commentary: The French Revolution, Part 3

I will continue today with my analysis of the French Revolution and try to draw some parallels with our own American Revolution. Previously, I spoke of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Now we turn to Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650). I first read some writings from Descartes back in 1995. Although Descartes is hated by the Catholic Church, his writings made a profound difference in my life.

The two writings that I am speaking of are the following books:

  • Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences
  • Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated

It has been a long time since I have read these books; but I will explain what I came away with, and what I do remember. Descartes made a retreat to a country cottage during an epidemic in France. There in the silence, he did some thought experiments. I will explain these two books in a nutshell:

  • Nothing that we know from our 5 senses can be known for certain. This is like the “boy who cried wolf”. One already knows this boy is a liar, so why believe anything that he says?
  • If our senses cannot be trusted, then we cannot know anything.
  • Descartes then begins to meditate and empty his mind of all thought, all knowledge, all the material things that he knows.
  • In the end, Descartes says that it is impossible for him to empty his thought of God. When all is dumped out of his head, the only thing that is left and cannot be removed is the concept of God.
  • Descartes says that he is unable to stop thinking about God; thus, if he is thinking then he knows that he exists. He might not know about anything else in the universe with certainty, however, he does know that he is thinking; thus, “I think, therefore I am”.

As I mentioned, these books are very beneficial to me; but, I am also suspicious of them. For centuries Christian and Jewish theologians had stated that, “God is all intellect and man is made in God’s image because man has intellect”. So, Descartes is sort of plagiarizing when he says, “I think; therefore, I am”. I know Descartes knew that since he studied Church law. Descartes’ contemporaries must have noticed it right out of the gate.

The reason why the Catholic Church hates Descartes is because once he proved the existence of God, all within his own mind, he made the mistake of slowly backing out of his mind and states that he can know everything else in the universe from within his own head. I think psychology calls that schizophrenia.

Although Descartes made a huge blunder, he is not all bad. Like I said, his writing helped me profoundly. The reason why I bring him up, however, is to highlight the method being used by these Age of Enlightenment philosophers – namely, “clean slate”. The problem for Descartes is that he could never get the slate clean. Maybe that is why I like him? It goes to show that this method is not “evil”. Actually, it can be very beneficial. It just appears that this method has been used insincerely to come up with some pretty twisted ideas – and ultimately leading to the French Revolution.

Descartes was a great guy. The Cartesian coordinate system is named after him. He is the inventor of Analytic Geometry. I was pretty much a ZERO in high school mathematics. However, when we studied analytic geometry, my mind came to life. No longer was there a need to measure angles, measure lengths, nor look for congruent angles. With analytic geometry, I could map the whole world, all right inside my head.

My first year out of college, I used a tremendous amount of analytic geometry to write computer software that designs tube sheets for heat exchangers. There was no need to take out a ruler nor use a protractor. The universe was at my fingertips, all within my own mind. Poor Descartes, he had problems with being trapped in his own head.

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