In completing my book on the history of moral thought I had to reduce the original manuscript by some 30,000 words to get it to a reasonable size. Much of what has been lost is better off left on the cutting room floor. There are, however, some sections coherent enough to be worth reading. So, I am running an occasional series publishing some of the more cogent ‘lost pages’ from the book. The first was on Machiavelli. This extract is on Descrates and his influence (it has not been entirely cut from the book, but is considerably condensed). The book itself, which is called The Quest for a Moral Compass, will be published early next year.

Vermeer Girl
Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted around 1657, reveals wonderfully the new eyes through which painters now viewed their subject. It shows a woman, ensconced in her own world, absorbed totally in reading the private words of another. There is a startling stillness about the room. Its physical features, the walls, the drapery, seem to define the boundaries of her mental world. She is alone in the room. There is an open window to the world beyond but she has eyes only for the letter in her hand. Reflected in the window is not the world beyond but her own face. The window is both a portal to the world outside and an opening to her thoughts inside, an expression both of her yearning to break the constraints of her domesticity and her total absorption in her own little world. There is an intimacy about the scene that is truly breathtaking.

For many years, it was thought that the Girl reading a Letter at an Open Window was the work not of Vermeer but of his slightly older contemporary Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s real genius, however, was in self-portraits. The intimacy that Vermeer brought to portraits of others, Rembrandt brought to portraits of himself. When we view his paintings, particularly of old age, we come face to face, almost for the first time in history, with a person, a self. We are forced to view Rembrandt with new eyes because Rembrandt is viewing himself with new eyes.

The kind of sensibility that Vermeer and Rembrandt worked into a canvas, Shakespeare brought to the stage. When Macbeth or Hamlet or Falstaff speak to us, they do so in a different way to most previous literary figures because they possess a new kind of self-consciousness. As the American critic Harold Bloom puts it, ‘Insofar as we ourselves value, and deplore, our own personalities, we are the heirs of Falstaff and Hamlet, and of all the persons who throng Shakespeare’s theater of what might be called the colors of the spirit’. Bloom’s ‘Bardolatory’, as he himself calls it, may sometimes seem as overwrought as Lady Macbeth’s imagination, but he is to the point in his insistence that part of Shakespeare’s greatness lies in the new windows he opens to the inner self.

Just as Shakespeare was writing the final lines of Hamlet, there was born in Touraine in France the man whose philosophical ghost still haunts us. A man who would not only give philosophical shape to the new idea of the inner self being sketched out by Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Vermeer, but in so doing would lay the ground for modern philosophy and establish the key modern conundrum about human nature. René Descartes was born in 1596 into a family of minor landed gentry in La Haye, a small village near the Loire that was later renamed after its most famous son.  Trained by Jesuits at their famous College Royal Henry-Le-Grand in La Flesche, Descartes went on to study law at the University of Poitiers. He had been ‘nourished on letters since my childhood’, he wrote in the autobiographical introduction to his Discourse on the Method, and had been ‘given to believe that by their means a clear and certain knowledge could be obtained of all that is useful in life.’ But his studies inculcated ‘so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my own ignorance.’ So ‘as soon as age permitted me to emerge from the control of my tutors, I entirely quitted the study of letters. And resolving to seek no other science than that which could be found in myself, or at least in the great book of the world, I employed the rest of my youth in travel, in seeing courts and armies, in intercourse with men of diverse temperaments and conditions, in collecting varied experiences, in proving myself in the various predicaments in which I was placed by fortune, and under all circumstances bringing my mind to bear on the things which came before it, so that I might derive some profit from my experience.’

Frans Hals Descartes

It was a time of great religious turmoil in Europe, the continent torn asunder by wars between Catholics and Protestant. Descartes enlisted on both sides of the great religious divide, first as a volunteer with the Protestant Prince of Orange, then in the army of the Catholic Duke Maxmillian of Bavaria. Eventually, in 1627, having sold the estates he had inherited from his father, he settled into a life of thought, and despite his lifelong Catholicism, living most of his days in Protestant Holland. Unlike medieval scholastics Descartes never taught at a university. Like most Renaissance humanists he worked within a network of scholars independent both of universities and of the Church.  And like many intellectuals of his age, he wrote not in Latin but in a language of the common people, in his case French, and in a style that made it readable ‘even to a woman’ as Descartes himself put it.

Descartes was an outstanding mathematician, making major advances particular in geometry (it is to him that we owe ‘Cartesian coordinates’). He dabbled, too, in physics, especially optics, studying the nature of light, lenses and the eye.  His true greatness lay, however, in philosophy. The philosopher AC Grayling has compared Descartes’ impact to that of Thales, the earliest of the Presocratics, with whom, Bertrand Russell suggested, ‘Western philosophy began’.  Thales, Grayling observes, ‘asked questions about the nature and origins of the world, and formulated answers that relied solely on reason and observation, making no appeal to supernatural explanations – to gods, legends, myths or ancient scriptures. He assumed that the world is a place at makes sense and that the human mind is capable of understanding it.’ What Thales achieved for the ancient world, Descartes contributed to achieving for the human mind at the beginning of the modern age.’ He helped ‘restore human reason to a status which allowed it to address questions until then regarded by religious orthodoxy as dangerous.’

Descartes’ Europe was beset not simply by religious but also by intellectual turmoil. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation had helped erode medieval Christian worldview, crafted by Aquinas, Dante and the Scholastics. Scholasticism had descended into fruitless and arid debates, satirised by the English churchman William Chillingworth as amounting to ‘Whether a Million Angels may not fit upon a needle’s point’. The growth of the empirical study of nature, encouraged by the Renaissance, and in particular of the heavens, was undermining faith in Biblical accounts. The collapse of the authority of the Church, in the face of disenchantment and corruption, and the emergence of the idea that every individual had to find his own relationship with God, encouraged scepticism about old sources of authority, and yet there was no new criterion of truth to replace the old.  The new age of exploration, exemplified by the voyages of Columbus, Magellan and Vasco de Gama, brought to the attention of Europeans different cultures and moralities. ‘The laws of conscience’, wrote the sixteenth century French humanist Michel de Montaigne, the first and perhaps greatest essayist,  ‘which we say are born from nature, are born of custom. Each man holding in inward veneration the opinions and the behavior approved and accepted around him.’ In a time of doubt, of what could we be certain? This was the question that Descartes addressed.


In 1637 Descartes published the Discours de la Methode, his most significant philosophical work, and one whose influence is matched by only a handful of philosophical texts – Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Ethics, Kant’s Critique.  It contains perhaps the most famous line in all of philosophy: cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Yet it was a book that was written almost by accident.

Five years earlier Descartes had prepared for publication a substantial work called Le Monde that would explain ‘the nature of light, the sun and the fixed stars which emit it; the heavens which transmit it; the planets, the comets and the earth which reflect it; all the terrestrial bodies which are either coloured or transparent or luminous; and Man the spectator.’ At the heart of his exposition was the heliocentric model of the cosmos, propounded in 1543 by Nicolaus Copernicus in his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), in which the Earth was not at the centre of the universe but just another planet that revolved around the sun.  Just before it was due to be published, however, Galileo was condemned by the Church for defending the Copernican model. Descartes placed Le Monde under lock and key, never to be published in his lifetime. Instead, he wrote three texts on dioptrics, geometry and meteorology. He wrote, too, an introduction, ‘a discourse on the right way to use one’s reason’.  The three scientific treatises are barely read these days, but the Discourse on Method has become Descartes’ defining work – and indeed the defining work of modern philosophy.

Descartes’ starting point in the Discourse was the attempt to uncover a fundamental set of philosophical principles that were not open to doubt.  Paradoxically, Descartes observed, the very fact that he was able to doubt revealed the one thing of which he could be sure: that he existed, and exited as an entity that could think. For if he doubted, he must exist in order to doubt. Or, as Descartes put it, ‘whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the “I” who thought this should be somewhat, and remarking that this truth “I think, therefore I am” was so certain and so assured that… I could receive it without scruple as the first principle for the Philosophy for which I was seeking.’

This method of doubt led Descartes to two basic fundamental principles that shaped his entire work and much of modern thinking about human nature, the human mind and our moral lives. The first was the importance of the self both as a defining feature of human being and as a means of acquiring truth.  For Descartes, certainty began with what he himself knew. When Descartes uses the pronoun ‘I’, he does so in a very different sense to previous philosophers. Prior to Descartes, scholars discussed reason as a general condition of being, not as the product of an individual’s mind. When Descartes writes that ‘I’ did this or ‘I’ did that, he does so in a much more modern sense – as a personal reflection on his thoughts and the workings of his own mind. His Discourse on the Method is written almost as a narrative, with Descartes himself as the hero, in search of he Holy Grail of truth. ‘In this Discourse‘, he writes, ‘I shall be very happy to show the oaths I have followed, and to set forth my life as in a picture, so that everyone may judge of it for himself.’

descartes l'homme

Descartes not only gave philosophical shape to the new idea of the individual, he also redrew the boundary between body and mind. For Aristotle, and those who followed him, which included virtually all medieval philosophers, what made humans distinct was the possession of intellect and will. For Descartes it was the possession of consciousness, the phenomenal aspect of human being. With Descartes the mind became fully interior and the private possession of the individual.

If human beings were thinking substances, defined by the possession of consciousness, nature, however, was a machine. This was the second principle that permeated Descartes’ work.  ‘There is no difference’, he wrote, ‘between the machines built by artisans and the diverse bodies that nature alone composes.’  It was a view in direct contrast to that of Aristotle, for whom the cosmos was more like an organism than a machine. Every object was defined by its purpose, leading Hobbes to ridicule the Aristotellian notion that ‘stones and metal had a desire, or could discern the place they would be at, as man does.’ In the new philosophy articulated by Descartes the teleological view of nature was banished. During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Aristotelian universe, full of purpose and desire, gave way to an inert universe compose of purposeless particles each pursuing its course, mindless of others. Here were the philosophical foundations of modern science.

What Descartes is best remembered for, however, is neither his concept of the ego nor his clockwork universe, but rather his failure to connect the two. Mind and matter, for Descartes, inhabited radically different realms and comprised distinct stuff. Matter was knowable to humans using science and reason. Mind, however, was foreclosed to human inquiry, at least through scientific means. Cartesian dualism still shapes much of the way we think about the world and humanity’s place in it but the sharp distinction Descartes drew between the material world and the world of the mind has long been criticised, and rightly so. It was, the philosopher Richard Rorty has suggested, ‘an unfortunate bit of residual Aristotelianism’.

In fact Cartesian dualism was both much more and much less than that.  It expressed a fundamental conundrum that the modern world faces in thinking about what it is to be human. On the one hand, science has encouraged us to perceive nature in largely mechanistic terms, a process that has driven out magic and mysticism and ‘disenchanted’ the natural world. Humans, too, became part of the natural order and amenable to be understood in naturalistic terms – that is, independently of divine grace. On the other hand, we view humans as possessing consciousness and agency, qualities difficult to express in physical terms. We are happy to view human bodies – including human brains – as machines but what we value about our fellow humans is that they act not as machines but as persons. If they did act as machines we would think that there was something wrong with them, that they were not quite human. The very idea of morality relies on viewing humans not as machines but as conscious agents capable of making choices and taking responsibility for their actions.

botticelli chart of dantes hell

From one perspective, the naturalistic worldview expressed in the mechanical philosophy can be seen as dethroning humanity from its privileged position in the traditional Christian view of the cosmos. The arrival of the heliocentric universe displaced not just the planets, but humanity too. With the Earth no longer at the centre of the universe, but merely one of the planets orbiting the sun, human beings seemed to become more peripheral, an insignificant part in the order of things. ‘Modern neurosis’, the American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy has written, ‘began with the discoveries of Copernicus.’

But if Christian theology had placed Man at the centre of the cosmos, it was also ambiguous about his role there. A special place in the cosmos did not connote special virtue. Man was a Fallen, corrupt creature, the Earth home to a miserable and corrupt existence. Indeed, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the actual centre of the cosmos was not the Earth, but Hell.  By contrast, the new naturalism may have displaced the earth but it also exalted humanity, and accorded to humans a hitherto unknown dignity. As the historian Roger Smith has put it, ‘When Copernicus placed the earth in orbit, philosophers both feared he had displaced man from his central position in the universe and enthused about the elevation of man to the heavens.’

Developments from the Renaissance and Reformation onwards, therefore, both removed humanity from its exalted position, placing humans within the natural order, and celebrated the human ability to understand that order. This contradictory sentiment has played an important role in our understanding of what it means to be human.


The images are, from top down: Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window; Frans Hal’s portrait of Descartes; Descartes’ Discours de la Methode; illustrations from Descartes’ De Homine, the last chapter of Le Monde published separately after his death in 1662; Botticelli’s fifteenth century illustration of Dante’s Hell.

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  1. mikealx

    Interesting, but a pity we didn’t really get onto the moral implications of dualism vs materialism (for my money, David Hume had a pretty good take on this). Was Descartes’ rejection of teleology that novel? Weren’t the Epicureans thinking along those lines 2000 years earlier?

  2. Very interesting analysis, @mike ancient Indian civilizations practiced life very consciously differentiating mind (manas), body (bootha) and soul (atma or chethana), the Upanishads explains in detail about the nature of self attributed to 3 qualitative categories called Satvic, Rajas and Tamas and there are detailed explanations of how mind functions in accordance to the self and how to overcome the mind to realize the self

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