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Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings

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A book by René Descartes

'This new translation is designed as a replacement for the old but still widely used translation by Elizabeth Haldane and G. R. T. Ross ... Unlike the Haldane and Ross edition which was translated from a composite text based on both the French and Latin … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: René Descartes
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
1 review about Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings

A rationalist approach to controlling human passions

  • Sep 25, 2009
I read Descartes The Passions of the Soul from the Philosophical Works Of Descartes, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothhoff, Dugald Murdoch, for a graduate class in ethics. This is the best translation of several I examined. I was particularly interested in studying Descartes' understanding of the virtue of courage. It is fitting that Descartes left the discipline of moral philosophy as his last project, considering years earlier, in his Principles of Philosophy, he metaphorically explains the whole order of philosophy by using a tree as his example. "The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals." (Principles of Philosophy, vol. 1 of The Philosophical Works Of Descartes, 186, (AT IXB, 14). Descartes' correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia produces the first fruit of his ethical theory when she asked him questions about how the "passions" (emotions) are ruled by either the "soul" (mind) or the body considering they are separate entities. Descartes' answer to the Princess was, that the body causes the soul to have feelings and passions, and the soul causes the body to move, through an inexplicable `union' between the soul and the body. After a year of correspondence in which she received more than a few obtuse answers from Descartes, she asked him to provide a definition of the passions so that they could be easily understood. With this mission before him, Descartes in The Passions of the Soul published in 1649, makes a rational study of people's ethical behavior, relying on physiological as well as psychological explanations regarding the interplay between the body mind and emotive passionate forces that take place within people beings and cause their actions.

In Descartes' first paragraph in his Passions, he challenges the wisdom of classical Greek notions of how people's passions influence ethics. "...the teachings of the ancients about the passions are so meager and for the most part so implausible that I cannot hope to approach the truth except by departing from the paths they have followed. That is why I shall be obliged to write just as if I were considering a topic that no one had dealt with before me." (The Passions of the Soul (AT XI, 327-328). Descartes divides his treatise on the Passions into three parts. Part I examines the mind and body relationship in physiological terminology, part II is a general classification of the passions and their functions, and part III makes a psychoanalytical study of individual passions.

However, when one reads Descartes' ethical writing, one finds that he is not a tabula rasa. There is a Stoic influence to Descartes' ethical project the overriding aim of the Passions is to inform the reader on how to master the passions so that they will be an indispensable resource for the will in determining right action. In addition, Descartes turns away from the dominance of the Church and Aquinas' theological approach to ethics. In Descartes' earlier work Meditations on First Philosophy, he argues against Aquinas' notion that contemplation of the divine will bring bliss in this life. Descartes believes the reward of divine contemplation is reserved for the afterlife. He argues that philosophical contemplation will bring joy in this life. (Meditations on First Philosophy, vol. 2 of The Philosophical Works Of Descartes, 36, (AT VII, 52). I find that in reading the Passions, one instantly recognizes Descartes' methodology. It is with a mathematician's precision that Descartes conducts his ethical investigation, befitting the "new science" of the Enlightenment in which to develop his notions regarding how the passions work in relation to people's conduct.

In article 40 of the Passions, Descartes gives his description of the role the passions have in conjunction with the human "soul" (reason or will) to manifest ethical action. For example, he states, "Thus the feeling of fear moves the soul to want to flee, that of courage to want to fight, and similarly with the others." In article 68, Descartes maintains that there are six main passions; wonder, love, hate, desire, joy, and sadness. In article 69, Descartes makes the point that there are a plethora of passions that fall under the six main passions listed in article 68 that act on the soul, and he devotes a good part of the rest of his book defining them. (Descartes, Passions, 352-353, (AT XI, 68-69).

However, in article 50 Descartes argues that everyone can use their powers of reason and judgment to subdue their passion of fear. "Even those who have the weakest souls could acquire absolute mastery over all their passions if we employed sufficient ingenuity in training and guiding them." (Descartes, Passions, 348, (AT XI, 50). This statement is very reminiscent of the philosophical notions that the Stoics had in regards to preparing one to act virtuously. In the closing section of his notion on how the passions work in relation to a person's will to do good Descartes states, "But the chief use of wisdom lies in its teaching us to be masters of our passions and to control them with such skill that the evils which they cause are quite bearable, and even become a source of joy." As cited in Descartes, Passions, 404, (AT XI, 212). In addition, Descartes theorizes that people's passions are aimed toward preserving the body, while our soul is directed towards using reason and the wisdom of judgment to perform "good" acts. With this backdrop on Descartes' theory of how people's passions interplay with judgment and will, it is time to hone in on his notions concerning courage.

In part III of Descartes' Passions, article 171 entitled Courage and boldness is where he defines both words. "Courage, when a passion and not a habit or natural inclination, is a certain heat or agitation which disposes the soul to apply itself energetically to accomplish the tasks it wants to perform, whatever their nature may be." (Descartes, Passions, 391, (AT XI, 171). Descartes believes that some people are inclined to act courageously or do so through habit, which presupposes one has been educated to do so, which is reminiscent of Plato's definition. Descartes then goes on to define boldness. "And boldness is a kind of courage which disposes the soul to carry out the most dangerous tasks." (Descartes, Passions, 391, (AT XI, 171). Descartes places the word courage in a scientific context when he further argues, "For we may regard courage as a genus which divides into as many species as it has different objects, and into as many others as it has causes: boldness is a species of courage in the first sense, and emulation in the second." (Descartes, Passions, 391, (AT XI, 172). In this article, Descartes is theorizing that an agent can perform acts of courage because she can "emulate" the courageous examples of others. In article 172, he further posits that, "Emulation is also a kind of courage, but in another sense." (Descartes, Passions, 391, (AT XI, 172). Descartes' definition implies a whole scale of actions that are not physically dangerous but recognized as courageous all the way up to acts of boldness, which run the risk of life or limb. Descartes also defines passions that work as opposite forces to the passions of courage and boldness--timidity and fear.

In article 174 of the Passions, Descartes juxtaposes timidity with courage and defines it. "Timidity is directly opposed to courage. It is listlessness or coldness which prevents the soul from bringing itself to carry out the tasks which it would perform if it were free from passion." (Descartes, Passions, 392, (AT XI, 174). In addition, boldness also has an opposite, fear, which he defines as well. "And fear or terror, which is opposed to boldness, is not only a coldness, but also a disturbance and astonishment of the soul which deprives it of the power to resist evils which it thinks lie close at hand." (Descartes, Passions, 392, (AT XI, 174). In articles 175 and 176, Descartes complains that he is at a loss to understand the real function that the passions of timidity and fear serve, since those whose souls are stymied by them have to be vigilant and increase their hope and desire to ultimately overcome these passions so the soul can perform good acts. "Although I cannot believe that nature has given to mankind any passion which is always vicious and has no good or praiseworthy function, I still find it very difficult to guess what purpose these two passions might serve." (Descartes, Passions, 392, (AT XI, 175). However, I posit that Descartes' juxtaposing courage with timidity and boldness with fear is somewhat reminiscent of the classical Greek notion of a virtuous person using the "golden mean" of moderation to strike the correct balance in their lives.

In article 45, I find that Descartes comes very close to Aristotle's interpretation of the virtue of courage in the following statement. "In order to arouse boldness and suppress fear in ourselves, it is not sufficient to have the volition to do so. We must apply ourselves to consider the reasons, objects, or precedents which persuade us that the danger is not great; that there is always more security in defense than in flight." (Descartes, Passions, 345, (AT XI, 45).

Essentially Descartes argues that people must use what the Greeks refer to as epistçmç [reason] to reject their weaker passions of timidity and fear from dominating their behavior. Therefore, Descartes' main break with the classical Greek model of courage is that Descartes has us rely on pure reason instead of relying on phronçsis [practical wisdom or acting well in human affairs] as our guide to act courageously. Thus, by Descartes relying on reason instead of practical wisdom, the world is thus stripped bare of particular and variable features, customary meanings and values, common sense beliefs, practical relations, human involvement--all accomplished through the reflective distance and `inward' turn of abstraction from the immediacy of lived experience. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Descartes, who is the paragon of reason in the history of philosophy, makes as his central tenet in his Passions the argument that courageous people use their powers of scientific reasoning, to become masters over their passions.

Compared to Descartes' vast and famous work in epistemology and analytical geometry, it is no wonder that so many philosophers have overlooked his later work on ethics. My investigation into Descartes' scientific explanation of the virtue of courage shows that within the evolutionary circle, it curves away from Aquinas' theological explanation of courage towards a more reason based and egocentric notion of how an agent performs a courageous act.

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