Thursday, 28 February 2013

Weeks 7 and 8 Readings

In Weeks 7 and 8 we move on to Spinoza. Note that these two sessions have swapped their original places and the schedule has been updated. In Week 7 Alex will introduce some physical topics; in Week 8 Minna will introduce some topic connected to the emotions. 

Spinoza texts are readily available online in both Latin and English translation: you can find the Ethica in Latin here and the Ethics in English here, for instance.

UPDATE: Spinoza's texts can also be found online here.

Week 6. Descartes, Virtue, and the Passions

(This post is by Susan James.)

Today we have two texts to consider.  The first is the opening section of the Discourse (Discours de la method pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la verite dans les sciences) which was published anonymously in Leiden in 1637.  The point of this work, Descartes explains to Mersenne, is not to teach the method but simply to speak about it, because it consists much more in practice than in theory.  It was published with what Descartes describes to Mersenne as three essays in the method, La Dioptrique, Les Meteores and La Geometrie.   Their content, he says, could not have been discovered without the method, and they enable us to recognise its value (Letter to Mersenne, Feb. 1637).   The second text is the final section of Les Passions de L’Ame.  As we saw last week, this text grew out of Descartes’ correspondence with Princess Elisabeth, in the course of which she says she’d like him to explain the passions more fully.  In 1646 he sends her ‘a little treatise on the passions’, a draft of the work he published three years later in November 1649, just before his unexpected death.

I’m going to focus, obviously, on Descartes debt to Stoicism, but I’ll begin by mentioning three important ways in which he doesn’t follow the Stoics.  First, he doesn’t think that passions are false judgments.  As far as I can see, his passions are too closely related to the body for that to be the case.  Secondly, he doesn’t think that virtue consists in surmounting the passions.  Passions can be useful as well as destructive, and we should cultivate the ones that support our efforts to live virtuously.  Finally, he doesn’t think, with Seneca for instance, that virtue is the only good, although it is the supreme good.  Like Aristotle, Descartes allows that there are many goods, some internal and some external.

Setting these dissimilarities aside, where do we find Descartes’ clearest affinities with Stoicism? Let’s begin with the morale provisoire outlined in Part III of the Discourse,  where Descartes considers the practical implications of using his distinctive philosophical method in order to extend his knowledge.  To acquire philosophical knowledge you have to be willing to doubt your ordinary opinions; but as Descartes points out, this is liable to make you indecisive.  Since life has to go on, an enquirer therefore needs to adopt some sort of moral code so that time and effort are not wasted in considering moral decisions one at a time.  It’s obviously going to be important that the code shouldn’t in any way impede philosophical enquiry.  This is why Descartes stipulates, in his second maxim, that you shouldn’t enter into any contract or vow that would limit your ability to alter  your opinions or way of life if these should turn out to be mistaken. (You shouldn’t, for example, vow obedience to any authority who might turn out to hold false opinions. And presumably you shouldn’t accept the patronage of anyone who might try to limit or direct your philosophical investigations.)  It’s also worth emphasizing that a moral  code of the kind Descartes discusses isn’t validated by the philosophical method it’s designed to facilitate. On the contrary, it’s provisional, and open to revision in the light of conclusions to which philosophical enquiry leads.

The code Descartes sets out has three maxims. First, you should obey the laws and customs of your country, follow its religion, and hold to moderate as opposed to excessive opinions.  Second, once you have formed moderate opinions, you should act on them consistently, even if they are only probable, and even if some other opinion is equally probable.  As long as you consistently act on the most probable opinions available to you you’ll have no cause to reproach yourself, even if things don’t turn out well. This form of constancy will enable you to avoid remorse and regret, two passions that belong to weak and faltering spirits.

Here we have a first Stoic motif: the idea that as long as you act rationally you have acted in the optimal way, and nothing that happens to you as a result is bad or a genuine ground of distress.  When we are dealing with matters that are uncertain, Descartes is saying, the rational and optimal course is to act on the judgment that one regards as most probable.  There is nothing more that one can rationally do.  

The third and final maxim of the morale provisoire explicitly takes up the further Stoic idea (discussed for instance in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations) that as one becomes wise one becomes impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune.   Since we cannot bring Fortune under control, Descartes points out, the only way to achieve this goal is to master our desires.  This, he goes on, was ‘the secret of those philosophers who in earlier times were able to escape from the dominion of fortune and, despite suffering and poverty, rival their gods in happiness.  Through constant reflection upon the limits prescribed for them by nature, they became perfectly convinced that nothing was in their power but their thoughts, and this alone was sufficient to prevent them from being attracted to other things’ (AT VI.26; CSM124).   

How should we set about imitating these philosophers of earlier times? If you think an object is impossible to attain, Descartes claims, you generally don’t desire it, So once you recognize that getting rid of a toothache, for example, is no more in your power than possessing the kingdom of China, you won’t desire to get rid of the toothache any more than more than you desire to have a body made of diamond or the ability to fly like a bird.  Here, learning to control your desires and the other passions that come with them, is a matter of learning to judge what is in your power.

The same line of thought is elaborated in The Passions of the Soul, where Descartes argues – also in Stoic vein – that we help ourselves to acquire the capacity not to desire anything over which we do not exercise control by coming to understand the workings of Providence. As Descartes now insists, there is no Fortune ‘which causes things to happen or not happen, just as it pleases’.  Instead, ‘everything is guided by divine providence, whose eternal decree is infallible and immutable to such an extent that, except for matters it has determined to be dependent on our free will, we must consider everything that affects us to occur of necessity and as it were by fate, so that it would be wrong to for us to desire things to happen in any other way’ (PS 146).  Suppose you need to go to Poitiers and can get there by two routes, one usually much safer than the other.  Suppose also that providence decrees that if you go by the usually safer route you will be robbed.  Reason still insists that you should choose the usually safer route.  However, when you are robbed you will have no cause to repine.  You will know that the evil was inevitable, and that all you had reason to do was what your intellect told you was the right thing.  Since you did everything you could and should have done, there are no grounds for feeling regret or remorse (PS 146).

In the Discourse, Descartes explains that he decided to adopt his three demanding maxims because it would prevent him from forming desires he couldn’t realise, and would thus spare him from discontent – from  distracting yearnings, hopes, disappointments or resentments.   But his morale provisoire also supports his philosophical project of reasoning his way to a true natural philosophy.  According to the third maxim, only our thoughts lie within our power.  So when Descartes devotes himself to understanding God and nature by means of reasoning, he devotes himself to an activity that lies within his power and is proof against the onslaughts of external things. Here, too, we find an echo of the Stoics, who held that that rationally understanding nature is what enables the sage to become both wise and good.  According to Seneca, for example, ‘no one can perform right actions except one who has been entrusted with reason, which will enable him, in all cases, to fulfil all the categories of duty’ (Ep. XCX.12).  Moreover, this reasoning is not just about people, but about the whole universe (Ep. XCX.12). As Augustine agreed with the Stoics, and as Descartes agrees, wisdom needs to be grounded in a metaphysical and theological order.  

So far, Descartes seems to be appealing to some of the resources of Stoicism to validate a way of life devoted to philosophical enquiry.  He recommends his maxims to would-be philosophers.  But are they meant to be rules that one must follow in order to pursue a specific professional?  Or do they apply to everyone and show us how to cultivate moral virtue?  These questions are not explicitly taken up until Descartes’ Correspondence with Elisabeth and The Passions of the Soul, where mastering yourself is presented not merely as a precondition of effective philosophizing, but as the core of virtue.

Descartes takes it for granted, I think, that a thought or action can only be wholly virtuous if it is one for which the agent is wholly responsible.  Unless a thought or action ‘belongs to us’ we should not be praised or blamed for it.  His discussion of virtue is accordingly guided by the question: what are we wholly responsible for?  In the light of the Discourse might expect him to answer: our thoughts. However, following out the argument of the Meditations, the answer he gives in The Passions of the Soul is in fact: our volitions.  We’re responsible for thoughts and actions that we will freely.  In addition, however, we’re responsible for the way we use our will, because we’re free to use the will well or badly.  Let’s now see where this takes us.

We learn in The Passions of the Soul that to ‘pursue (suivre) virtue in a perfect manner’ one must first of all ‘know that nothing truly belongs to us but our ability to dispose our volitions, and that we ought to be praised or blamed for no other reason than using this freedom well or badly’.  In addition, one must feel within oneself ‘a firm and constant resolution to use one’s freedom well – that is, never to lack the will to undertake and carry out whatever one judges to be best’ (PS153).  Here again we find echoes of the Stoics.  As we saw last week Descartes tells Elisabeth that Zeno the Stoic was right when he said that virtue is the only good that depends entirely on our free will. (c.f. Seneca, Ep. XCV 56-9).  

So virtue consist in using one’s will well by doing whatever one judges to be best.  But is that all?  Doesn’t virtue also depend on what one then goes on to do? Writing to Queen Christina in November 1647, Descartes notes that the supreme good is God, before passing on to consider what is supremely good in relation to human beings.  Reiterating that nothing can be good in relation to us unless it somehow belongs to us, he concludes that the supreme good of all human beings taken together is an aggregate of all the goods of the body, the soul and of fortune that can belong to a human being.  But the supreme good of an individual ‘consists only in a firm will to do well and the contentment that this produces.’ For individuals, it seems, there is no further end of virtuous action than the capacity to use one’s will as well as one can.  ‘Free will is in itself the noblest thing we can have, since it makes us in a way equal to God and seems to exempt us from being his subjects; and so its correct use is the greatest of all the goods we possess’ (ATV 82-3; CSM III 324.)  In this respect Charles Taylor is right to say that Descartes makes living virtuously an internal and procedural matter.

In The Passions of the Soul, however, Descartes seems to tell a different story.  In that work, someone who pursues virtue correctly is described as possessing the quality of generosite - a standard French word for magnanimity or nobility of soul that traditionally incorporates the idea of noble birth.  We find this use of the term, for example, in the work of another neo-Stoic, Du Vair, who claims that the seeds of generosite or baseness are passed from father to child and are formed in individuals at birth (FIND REF).  We also find Descartes acknowledging this connection.  It seems, he says, that ‘there is no virtue so dependent on good birth as the virtue which causes us to esteem ourselves in accordance with our true value, and it is easy to believe that the souls which God puts into our bodies are not all equally noble and strong’ (PS 161).  But although Descartes mentions the traditional understanding of geneorsite, he is not committed to it.  As he comments in the Discourse, (ATVI 2; CSM 111)  the power of judging well is naturally equal in all men; and as he goes in on the PS, a good upbringing can go a long way towards correcting defects of birth.  In principle, more or less anyone can cultivate generosite and in this respect pursue virtue.   Moreover – and this is the last thing I’ll say – somewhat as the Roman Stoics regard honestum as a comprehensive virtue that contains all the others, so Descartes argues that someone who possesses the apparently procedural virtue of  generosite will also possess a host of substantive virtues. It is, he says, ‘the key to the other virtues and a general remedy for the disorders of the passions’ (PS161).

What will these virtues be?  Bearing in mind generosite was traditionally regarded as  a virtue of the nobility, manifested in pride, magnanimity and a touchy sense of one’s own superior worth, we can see that Descartes’ interpretation of it revereses common expectations. His account of the good life, inspired in many ways by Stoicism, is also one of several seventeenth-century attempts to undercut an aristocratic culture, and to present a more egalitarian and co-operative ideal.  Instead of esteeming themselves for their birth, rank, beauty, or wealth, Descartes’ paragons cultivate respect for others and humility as regards their own capacities (PS 154, 155, 158).  They are led by generosite to do good to others, to disregard their own self-interest and to be gracious, and obliging (PS 156).  They are proof against envy (157).  They give God the reverence that is his due (PS 164).  They fear no evil for themselves and have a good will towards everyone (187).  The habits that constitute us as virtuous therefore unite a commitment to understanding with sociability.

Week 5. Descartes and Elisabeth

(This post is by Minna Koivuniemi.)

Descartes starts to converse with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680) on the 6th May 1643 when Elisabeth sends him the first letter through their common friend Alphonso Pollot. She also sends him the last letter to Sweden on the 4th December 1649. The correspondence begins after Elisabeth’s having read Descartes’ Meditations and being puzzled about the mind-body interaction. So thanks to Elisabeth Descartes needs to clarify his account on the mind-body relationship, and in general she is the initiator concerning Descartes’ views on emotions and moral psychology. They also discuss variety of other issues, like complex mathematical problems that Elisabeth does not have big difficulties to solve. 

Nevertheless there is a distinctive feature in the correspondence we had read. Namely it was not – at least Elisabeth’s letters – were not ever meant to be but their eyes only. Already in the first letter Elisabeth asks Descartes to observe Hippocratic oath. She considers him the best doctor of her soul. Nevertheless Descartes sends her letters 1647 to Pierre Chanut, a French ambassador in Sweden without her permission. After Descartes’ death Chanut wants to publish them, but Elisabeth still refuses. Claude Clerselier who compiles Descartes’s correspondence respects this and does not publish them. They are however in Adam’s and Tannery’s edition of Descartes’ works but not in the English edition the Philosophical Writings of Descartes I-III. Then in 2007 Lisa Shapiro publishes in English the whole correspondence (cf. Shapiro’s edition The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, also for further information on Elisabeth’s life, education and the discovery of her letters).

Due to Elisabeth’s persistent refusal to publish her letters, it is difficult to avoid from feeling intrusive when reading them. Nevertheless they provide us with lots of information on the way how emotions are often discussed in Western world, on the progress in Descartes’ views on emotions and on directions towards which Elisabeth might have taken us if she had written herself more on emotions.

I shall here mainly underscore two issues in their dialogue as regards the passions: the role of imagination and the attempt to relate to them as if they were scenes on the stage. Descartes does not often show his indebtedness to his predecessors, but it seems that these issues bear some resemblance between him and the Stoics or the Neo-stoics.

The Good Use of Imagination

The correspondence shows that emotional distress also makes Elisabeth physically ill. We learn for instance in Descartes’ letter to Elisabeth on the 18th May 1645 that she has had a low-grade fever accompanied by a dry cough that lasted three or four weeks. She recovered for five or six days but then they returned. Descartes thinks that causes of such state are sadness and “the stubbornness of fortune in persecuting [her] house continually”. As far as purely physical remedies are concerned diet and exercise that doctors had recommended her are good according to Descartes. However remedies of the soul are the best. Then he utters the great opening line as regards the power of the soul over the body that:

it is not by its will directly that the soul conducts the animal spirits to the places where they can be useful or harmful; it is only in willing or thinking of some other thing (on the 8th July 1644).

In a later letter to Elisabeth in May or June 1645 Descartes expands this a bit more. He considers unpleasant passions that Elisabeth is so often going through as “domestic enemies”. He says that one cannot oppose them directly or chase them away. According to him, there is only one remedy for this. It is to “divert one’s imagination and one’s senses as much as possible and to employ only the understanding alone to consider them when one is obliged to by prudence”

Imagination - or actually an active use of the imagination - therefore is the opening key in Descartes’ mastery of the passions. Why is it something that Descartes thinks that really works? Passions are, as Descartes then later defines them in the Passions of the Soul “perceptions, sensations or emotions of the soul which we refer particularly to it, and which are caused, maintained and strengthened by some movement of the spirits” (PS, art. 27). They inhabit the realm of third primitive notion, the mind-body union, to which Descartes refers the interaction between the mind and the body. As he explains it in a letter to Elisabeth on the 21st May, on the union depends “the power the soul has to move the body and the body to act on the soul in causing its sensations and passions”. This interaction results in an experience of being one thing with the body, but it is about two things, the mind and body, interacting with one another. The union is thus, as Henri Gouhier had stressed, inherently a dynamic concept.

In this Cartesian framework, then passions are thoughts caused by body. Their most proximate causes are animal spirits that are bodily entities. According to Descartes imagination brings us to the state that is emotionally charged. By thinking of pleasant or disagreeable objects also our body becomes respectively activated, thus causing bodily modifications appropriate to the emotion at stake. In the letter to Elisabeth May or June 1645 he writes about two kinds of persons. One of them has all the reasons to be happy but considers continually all sorts of tragedies and is thus occupied by sadness and pity. Descartes continues by describing how these sorts of thoughts are closely connected to certain type of movements in the body: the heart closes itself up and emits sights, the circulation of the blood becomes blocked and slowed, the larger particles of the blood attach one to another and grind up the spleen, more subtle particles retain their agitation and alter the lungs and cause cough.

The other person on the other hand has many real causes to be unhappy but he does his best to consider only the objects that gives him joy and contentment. Descartes thinks that this inclination is related to such bodily modifications that make him healthy again. Even in the case, he says, where “spleen and lungs were already ill disposed by the bad temperament of the blood caused by [--] sadness”. Medical remedies would strengthen the recovery curing obstructions in the blood. So what Descartes says to Elisabeth is that she should clear her mind entirely of all sorts of unhappy thoughts, occupy her mind with thoughts of “the greenery of a wood, the colors of a flower, the flight of a bird” as if she thought of nothing. This way she would gain “perfect health, which is foundation of all the other good that one can have in this life”. Descartes gives an example of his own life. He tells that he had inherited a dry cough and a pale color from his mother who had died of a lung disease soon after his death. Doctors thought that it would cause him an early death. Nevertheless his inclination has always been to look at things from the most favourable perspective and to base contentment on himself only. Thus he could cope with this indisposition fairly long time, until he was hit by the cold winter in Sweden and Queen Christina’s demands in 1649-50.

Although Elisabeth likes the affection Descartes has to offer she is not very thrilled by his advice. Elisabeth thinks that it is very difficult not to think of those unpleasant things that are continuously represented in her imagination and senses. She writes that she does not know how to put this practice “until the passion has already played its role”. In particular she says that her body becomes “so strongly disordered that several months are necessary for [her] to restore it, and those months hardly pass without some new subject of trouble”.

Presumably it is because of these bodily elements in the passions that Elisabeth then a few months later in the 16th August 1645 dismisses Seneca’s De vita beata as a book that does not really instruct in issues that it deals with and encourages Descartes to correct him. Nevertheless there is an aspect in which Descartes feels affinity with Seneca. This is that true happiness as Descartes writes in a letter to Elisabeth on 18th August 1645 “consists only in the contentment of the mind”. There are kinds of contentment that depend on the body but the solid contentment is that of the mind. Sovereign good leads us to this happiness, which for both Seneca and Descartes involves virtue. For Seneca virtue means wisdom and reason to follow the nature of things and conform to “its law and example”. Descartes stresses that to follow virtue is “to have a firm and constant will to execute all that we judge to be the best and to employ all the force of our understanding to judge well”.

Internal freedom is crucial for both thinkers. Later in the Passions of the Soul Descartes insists that that the will is so free that it cannot ever be constrained (art. 41). The function of the passions according to Descartes is to dispose the soul to want what they prepare the body for (art. 40, 52). Because the will however is by nature free it is not compelled to accept those thoughts that are caused by the body, e.g. the passion in case. In a similar manner Seneca stresses our freedom when he thinks that we do not need to give our assent to propassions, the physiological reactions we feel, and to judge that something good or bad is at stake. It is this metaphysical sense of freedom that Elisabeth seems to dismiss in her approach to emotions. So does Echart Tolle in his Power of Now when he considers that the idea of the stream of thoughts fully explains Descartes’ view of our internal nature. Our mind consists in thoughts but they are not caused without our active participation. We can only think, but our will is free in choosing what to think. We are creators of our own reality when we choose to where we direct our attention. It is not necessarily our inherent solitude that Descartes points to but our internal activity and power as regards our thoughts. A good shaman is a master of the mind in the sense that he understands his power concerning what sorts of thoughts he holds, and he thinks what he wants to.

Emotions as Scenes on the Stage

Elisabeth however is in difficulties to choose some other thoughts than those ones to which she is inclined due to the bodily causes. She seems to identify herself mainly with the embodied self, and thus it is hard to detach from emotions. In a way her case shows the struggle with emotions when the focus is still on externals. She has not yet really grasped her own internal power and its worth. Emotions are overburdening as long as one values external and material things most. When the focus shifts, the picture however changes, and it can change quickly. Somebody trained by Tibetan lamas once said that the power of an emotion ceases when one holds attention on something else during a minute and an half.

Sounds as an exaggeration but Descartes also thinks that mastery of the passions does not necessarily need to involve year long practice. He says this in the Passions. Because even dogs can be re-trained, humans can be so yet faster (art. 50). Nevertheless it can be that it takes some amount of studies and life experience until one realizes what is fundamental. After that it can indeed happen quite easily that passions do not bother to a greater extent any more and people relate better to another when they are not so motivated by greed and envy often attached to external goods.

Descartes is however understanding to those people who experience strongly their emotions. In June 1645 he writes to Elisabeth that “it is ordinarily the best minds in whom the passions are the most violent and act more strongly on their bodies”. However he thinks that all events can be considered from a positive angle. If not otherwise, so at least from this one: adversities function as excellent occasion for us to improve ourselves. Descartes writes to Elisabeth that:

Your Highness can draw this general consolation from all favors of fortune: that they have perhaps contributed a lot toward enabling her to cultivate her mind to the point that she has (in June 1645).

Here Descartes comes pretty close to what we found in Lipsius’ On Constancy. Setbacks are really important because they train us and make us thus better. There is a real reason for a soul to be tightly intertwined with the body and to feel deeply its inclinations: they teach it. In this frame of mind, human life is really a classroom. Those who live materially great life do not use the opportunity to elevate their souls. Descartes writes to Elisabeth about the significance of hard life:

This is a good that she should value more than an empire. Great prosperity often dazzles and intoxicates in such a way that it sooner possesses those that have it than is possessed by them. [--] it would all the same furnish her with fewer occasions to exercise her mind does adversity.

Although Descartes thinks that the soul is so closely united with the body that it forms as if one thing with it, he still thinks that the soul is metaphysically more prior than the union. The soul is immortal and in its usage of the will, it is free. So unlike Elisabeth Descartes identifies himself with the soul’s view point rather than with the embodied self, and in this sense he is able to detach himself from the passions. He is more or less an observer of the passions that he still feels them and even acts on them. Several times he relates the passions to watching a play in a theatre. People who esteem this life much less than eternity

they give events no more consideration than we do events in comedies. Just as those sad and lamentable stories which we see represented on a stage often entertain us as much as the happy ones, even though they bring tears to our eyes, in this way the greatest souls [--] draw satisfaction in themselves from all the things that happen to them, even the most annoying and insupportable (on the 18th May 1645).

Then again in January 1646 he writes that we can prevent by the good use of our free will all evils from entering our soul in the same way as happens to sadness that comedians excite in us by representing tragic events to us. He adds however that “one must be very philosophical to arrive at this point”.

Elisabeth does not really understand the comparison of the real emotions with those ones that we feel when watching a play. She thinks that we can enjoy the sadness that tragedies excite in us because we know that it cannot really harm us (on the 28th October). If she however thought like Descartes that her soul were eternal and indestructible and if she identified herself with that entity, then she would think as well that emotions she feels cannot really harm her and she could understand what Descartes means when he talks about them as if scenes on the stage. They cannot ever truly threaten our internal core. The same idea occurs in the Passions as well. There Descartes relates it to internal emotions of the soul that the soul causes itself. Again Descartes refers to scenes on the stage or reading a book: they arouse different emotions depending on the objects represented to us that in turn cause pleasure in us, which is the soul’s internal emotion. Descartes considers internal emotions very powerful because they affect us most intimately: they are caused only by our soul, our true self.  

Although Elisabeth does not really seem to get there where Descartes tries to take her, she shows to be greatly receptive to emotions, which as such is a good thing, at least in two ways. She starts to understand that although emotions can be hard, they are not necessarily evil but they carry a message for the person who experiences it. On the 13th September in 1645 Elisabeth writes to Descartes that some people thinks that emotions only subject reason to it but she does not really believe it. Namely she adds that experience has shown her that there are passions that do carry also to reasonable actions. Furthermore, she thinks in the letter on the 25th April 1646 that in civil matters one should always rely on experience rather than reason. It would have been very interesting to see how she would have elaborated these issues if she had had a chance.

Another issue concerns empathy that quite likely is going to increase when people experience hard times. Elisabeth is apparently still so preoccupied by the setbacks that hit her and her family that she is mainly concerned by the pain that she herself feels. In a way empathy occurs in Descartes’ letter on the 18 May 1645. Those people who are able to relate to the passions in a way that Descartes recommends, they do their best to help others. They feel compassion at their friends’ ill fortune when they see these friends under some big burden. They might even expose themselves to death when trying to help them. Furthermore in a letter on the 6th October 1645 Descartes speaks on the behalf of charity. He thinks that the pure affection we feel for others will always win sadness and pain we might experience when feelings with others suffering some affliction.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Week 6 Reading


In week 6 we shall read Descartes' Discourse on Method 1-3 and Passions of the Soul 3 (AT VI 1-31, XI 443-88 / CSM I 111-26, 383-404). You can find the Adam-Tannery text online: Volume VI and Volume XI.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Week 5 Reading

For Week 5 we shall read Descartes' correspondence with Elizabeth in which the pair discuss Seneca. There are many relevant letters (D-E: 8 July 1644, D-E 18 May 1645, E-D 24 May 1645, D-E May or June 1645, E-D 22 June 1645, D-E June 1645, D-E 21 July 1645, D-E 4 Aug 1645, E-D 16 Aug 1645, D-E 18 Aug 1645, E-D Aug 1645, D-E 1 Sep 1645, E-D 13 Sep 1645, D-E 15 Sep 1645,E-D 30 Sep 1645, D-E 6 Oct 1645, E-D 28 Oct 1645, D-E 3 Nov 1645, E-D 30 Nov 1645, D-E Jan 1646, E-D 25 April 1646, D-E May 1646 A, D-E May 1646 B, D-E Nov 1646, E-D 29 Nov 1646, D-E Dec 1646, E-D 5 Dec 1647, D-E 31 Jan 1648, D-E 22 Feb 1649; also the Descartes-Queen Christina Correspondence: 20 Nov 1647; D-Chanut 20 Nov 1647; D-Chanut 31 March 1649), most of which we shall read from The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, ed. and trans. Lisa Shapiro (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 81-139, 147-69. Many of these can also be found in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes III: The Correspondence, trans. J. Cottingham et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 237 ff. 

The most significant letters to focus on are D-E 21 July 1645, D-E 4 August 1645, E-D 16 August 1645, D-E 18 August 1645, E-D August 1645, D-E 1 September 1645, E-D 13 September 1645, D-E 15 September 1645, E-D 30 September 1645, D-Queen Christina 20 November 1647.

The French texts can be found in volumes IV and V of Adam and Tannery's Oeuvres de Descartes, available online: Volume IV and Volume V.

Week 4. Bacon on the Good and the Culture of the Mind

(This post is by James Lancaster (Warburg Institute). Page numbers refer to a section of The Advancement of Learning in Francis Bacon, The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford, 2002), pp. 245-65.)

The Division of Moral Philosophy [p. 245]
Bacon begins his discussion of moral philosophy in The Advancement of Learning (1605) by dividing it into two parts: the ‘Exemplar’ or ‘Platform of Good’ (which addresses the nature of the good); and the ‘Regiment’ or ‘Culture of the Mind’ (which prescribes rules for how to ‘subdue, apply, and accommodate’ the will of man to the good). The goal of moral philosophy is, accordingly, ‘to instruct and suborn action and the active life’ through a ‘Georgics of the mind, concerning the husbandry and tillage thereof.’ The Georgics is a poem by Virgil, whose title derives from the Greek word ‘to farm’. Bacon’s expression, however, appears to be original to him.

1. The Nature or Platform of the Good [pp. 245-246]
Knowledge concerning the Platform or Nature of the Good is further subdivided into two parts: ‘Simple’, which refers to the kinds of good; and ‘Compared’, which refers to the various degrees of good. Bacon criticizes the ancient philosophers for having been led to ‘infinite disputations’ about the nature of the highest good. It was not until Christianity freed men from the ‘philosopher’s heaven’—a kind of unwarranted belief in the natural capacity of man to achieve happiness—that such ‘heathen divinity’ could be put to an end. Faith teaches us that the highest good consists in hope for ‘the future world’, followed (presumably) by actual beatitude. All the same, had the ancients ‘consulted with nature,’ Bacon believes they would have given ‘a great light to that which followed.’ For, the ‘roots of good and evil, and the strings [i.e., smaller roots] of those roots’ were discoverable even to those who lived before the coming of Christ.

1.1 The Double Nature of the Good [p. 246]
Bacon explains that there ‘is formed in every thing a double nature of good’: first, ‘as every thing is a total or substantive [i.e., possesses an independent existence] in itself’; and second, ‘as it is a part or member of a greater body.’ It is the latter which is the ‘greater and the worthier, because it tendeth to the conservation of a more general form.’ Bacon’s example here is not metaphorical: the affection of iron for the loadstone (particular good) or the world (greater good) is grounded in what he elsewhere calls the ‘summary law of nature’; the appetites (appetitus) impressed upon matter at Creation. The appetite of all natural objects to unite with other natural objects—foremost for the sake of self-preservation, but more crucially for the conservation of the whole—forms the natural foundation of the good. These same appetites for the good are, moreover, even ‘more engraven upon man, if he degenerate not; unto whom the conservation of duty to the public [greater good] ought to be much more precious than the conservation of life and being [self-preservation].’ And, of course, there is nothing which ‘so plainly and highly exalt[s] the good which is communicative, and depress[es] the good which is private and particular, as the Holy Faith.’

1.2 The Contemplative versus the Active [pp. 246-247]
The private, lesser good and the communal, greater good are further distinguished by means of the ancient distinction between the contemplative and the active life. The active life, for Bacon, is clearly superior, as it contributes to the greater good. Defending what quite deceptively appears to be the contemplative lifestyle of monks, he argues that that ‘contemplation which … [is] finished [i.e., self-contained] in itself without casting beams [i.e., communicating with] upon society, assuredly divinity knoweth it not’ (Bacon is likely drawing upon Cicero, De officiis I. xliv, 158 here).

1.3 Censuring the Ancients [pp. 247-248]
Resuming his earlier criticism, Bacon singles-out a number of ancient beliefs about happiness which were wrongly-held on account of the fact that proper cognizance of the communal nature of the highest good, as taught by nature and affirmed in Christian teaching, was not taken. The opinions of the Stoics Zeno and Herillus are briefly discussed. Bacon seems to prefer the belief of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262), the founder of Stoicism, that the greatest good (happiness) consists in the exercise of virtue in society, over the belief of the Epicureans, that happiness consists in pleasure. Next—and being the place in which Bacon appears to come closest to an outright rejection of ancient Stoicism—he argues against the opinion of Herillus of Chalcedon (c. 3rd century), who ‘placed felicity in [the] extinguishment of the disputes of the mind, making no fixed nature of good and evil, [and] esteeming things according to the clearness of the desires, or the reluctation.’ Interestingly, he views this as the same opinion that led to the heresy of the Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Germany.

1.4 The Active and the Passive, Private Good [pp. 248-250]
In the following section, Bacon discusses the nature of the ‘Private or Particular Good’—that is, the good of self-preservation—by dividing it into two types: the active, private good and the passive, private good. Locating the platform of the good again within nature, he argues that this division between the active and passive, private good ‘is formed also in all things; and is best disclosed in the two several appetites in creatures, the one to preserve or continue themselves, and the other to dilate or multiply themselves; whereof the latter seemeth to be the worthier.’ Bacon identifies the passive, private good with the Stoic notion of oikeiôsis (οἰκείωσις); that is, with the perceptive capacity of natural beings which enables their self-preservation. The active, private good, however, is the worthier, because it is grounded in the desire of all natural beings not only to self-preserve, but to self-preserve through multiplication. There is ‘impressed upon all things a triple desire or appetite proceeding from love to themselves,’ of which, he contends, the desire for ‘multiplying and extending [one’s] form upon other things’ is the greatest. Once a man realizes that he is mortal and subject to fortune, he will not only conserve himself (e.g., eat, sleep, and avoid danger), but will attempt to gain some form of immortality (e.g., beget children, cultivate fame and honour). For, ‘to preserve in state is the less, to preserve with advancement is the greater.’ Nevertheless, although sometimes conducive to it, one should never assume that the active, private good has any strict ‘identity with the good of society’ (i.e., the greater good).

1.5 Cultivating the Passive, Private Good [pp. 250-251]
Bacon’s identification of oikeiôsis with the passive, private good has already been noted above, however it should also be said that in all likelihood he adopted this concept from the Italian natural philosopher Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588) rather than any Stoic source per se. It is in this passage that Bacon’s criticism of the Neostoic ideals of Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) can be found. Bacon poses the question of whether it is better to contrive that which brings comfort to our current state of being through cultivating a pure ‘equality’ or constancy of mind (which, he says, has less ‘mixture of evil’); or through making alterations in our life (which, he notes, has more ‘power for good’). Drawing upon Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, he argues that, on the one side, the happiness of he who cultivates a constant mind is like the happiness of ‘a block or stone’; but the happiness of he who is continually altering his life is, on the other, like the happiness of one who does ‘nothing but itch and scratch.’ Bacon argues that neither is superior to the other; that the cultivation of a constant mind is just an attempt to conserve what good is already present, while continual change can never rightly achieve its end. He claims that those ancient philosophers who attempted to make the mind ‘uniform and harmonious’ were hypocrites because, while they were trying to discipline other men’s minds, ‘they themselves were men dedicated to a private, free, and unapplied course of life.’ He argues, therefore, that men should ‘imitate the wisdom of jewellers; who, if there be a grain or a cloud or an ice which may be ground forth without taking too much of the stone, they help it; but if it should lessen and abate the stone too much, they will not meddle with it: so ought men to procure serenity as they destroy not magnanimity.’ In other words, he is using this metaphor to say that the conservation of a constancy of mind is a good thing so long as it does not detract from the active life; from ‘magnanimity’ [i.e., generosity or a charitable state of mind].

1.6 Duty and Vocation [pp. 252-254]
Last but not least, Bacon locates his view of what the active, passive good entails on a pragmatic level within the Protestant notion of vocation. He writes that duty—‘the regiment and government of every man over himself, and not over others’—is the principal aim of cultivating the active, passive good. Following Luther and Calvin, he argues that it is each man’s responsibility to engage in that particular vocation in which he is able to attain personal betterment and, through this means, contribute to the betterment of the commonwealth.

2. The Culture of the Mind [pp. 255-256]
The second aspect of moral philosophy concerns the cultivation or ‘husbandry’ of the mind towards the good, without which the good would be merely ‘a fair image or statue.’ This notion of the culture of the mind originates in the celebrated dictum of Cicero, ‘cultura… animi philosophia est’ (Tusculanae disputationes, II, 5:13-4). And, as such, it is based upon a broadly Stoic conception of moral philosophy as consisting in a process of liberating the mind from false opinions and disruptive passions. However, there are a number of features to Bacon’s cultura animi that distinguish it sharply from the original, Stoic conception. The first point of difference to note is that the justification which underscores the need for a culture of the mind whatsoever is, according to Bacon, the theological doctrine of the Fall. In this Augustinian view, the mind is perceived as having been damaged as a result of original sin, thereby necessitating a medicine to subdue the unruly passions. In these passages of the 1605 Advancement, Bacon contends that ‘the cure of men’s minds belongeth to sacred Divinity,’ a view which adheres to the traditional, medieval view of philosophy as ‘a wise servant and humble handmaid’ to theology. The religious justification for the culture of the mind, moreover, is strongly mediated through the Protestant conception of charity (caritas). However, with the publication of the Novum organum in 1622, Bacon excerpts the culture of the mind from its traditional role as a servant to theology, and cements it within the foundational stage of the new philosophy. Nearly twenty years later, the culture of the mind—the clearing of perturbations and presuppositions (‘Idols’)—becomes the principal duty of the natural philosopher. It might be noted, however, that he is already referring to the medicine of the mind as a means ‘to awake the sense [i.e., revive man’s power of sensation]’ in The Advancement.

2.1 The First Article: Distribution of the Characters and Tempers of Man [pp. 256-258]
Bacon claims that his culture of the mind is to be a scientia; that is, a procedure based upon empirically verifiable knowledge. The first challenge, or ‘article’, of the culture of the mind is to create a record of the ‘true distributions and descriptions of the several characters and tempers of men’s natures and dispositions.’ Since, ‘in the culture and cure of the mind of man,’ there are ‘two things … without our command; points of nature, and points of fortune,’ it is expedient to discover what can and what cannot be altered. Such knowledge includes men’s various tempers, whether they be ‘sensitive’ and ‘dry’ or ‘humorous’ and ‘impulsive’, as well as the effect of those external forces (i.e., of nature and our body) upon the mind, such as climate and gender. The best place to discover all these varieties of the human mind, argues Bacon, is in ‘history, poesy, and daily experience,’ which are ‘as goodly fields where these observations grow.’ Bacon seems closest to Montaigne in passages like these: his insistence that men possess varying tempers which, in order to accommodate the medicine of the mind thereunto, must first be recorded, are certainly reminiscent of Montaigne’s humanist, rather than philosophical, disposition.

2.2 The Second Article: The Passions [pp. 258-260]
The second article concerning the culture of the mind is the ‘the inquiry touching the affections [i.e. passions].’ For, just ‘as in medicining of the body’ it is crucial to know ‘the divers complexions and constitutions, secondly the diseases, and lastly the cures,’ so too ‘in medicining the mind,’ after we possess a knowledge of ‘the divers characters of men’s natures,’ we must ‘know the diseases and infirmities of the mind, which are no other than the perturbations and distempers of the affections [i.e. the emotional disturbances or agitations of the passions].’ Bacon praises the Stoics in this passage, writing that ‘better travails [i.e., pains] I suppose [have] the Stoics taken in this argument, as far as I can gather by that which we have at second hand.’ The obvious point to note is Bacon’s admission to not having had access to Stoic texts (whether or not he had read the editions of Lipsius, even by 1605, seems to be called into question here). The second point to note is his overall praise for Stoic treatises on the passions (Vickers’ notes that Bacon is probably referring to the writings of Plutarch and Seneca on anger and consolation). Finally, Bacon’s indebtedness to Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) surfaces here. He suggests that, just as in the maintenance of the state, part of the medicine of the mind involves a knowledge of how ‘to set affection against affection, and to master one by another.’

2.3 The Third Article: Custom and Habit [p. 260]
The third article discusses those aspects of the culture of the mind ‘which are within our own command, and have force and operation upon the mind to affect the will and appetite and to alter manners’, including: ‘custom, exercise, habit, education, example, imitation, emulation, company, friends, praise, reproof, exhortation, fame, laws, books, [and] studies.’ Bacon is particularly critical of Aristotle in this respect for having held the opinion that ‘of those things which consist [i.e., remain settled] by nature nothing can be changed by custom; using for example, that if a stone be thrown ten thousand times up, it will not learn to ascend’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ii. 1, 1103a19 ff.). Bacon admits that even though ‘in things wherein nature is peremptory [i.e. positively fixed]’ Aristotle is correct, ‘yet it is otherwise in things wherein nature admitteth a latitude.’ Here he provides examples of the flexibility of nature, including: ‘that a strait glove will come more easily on with use’ and ‘that a wand [i.e., a stick] will by use bend otherwise than it grew.’ And man, of course, is the most flexible part of nature.

2.4 The Fourth Article: Precepts and Exercises of the Mind [pp. 260-262]
The fourth article outlines the nature of those practical ‘Precepts or Exercises’ which Bacon believes are necessary to bend the mind towards the good. Although the mind might have a natural inclination or instinct to the greater good—Bacon frequently refers to the Stoic notion of ‘sparks’ (igniculi) or ‘seeds’ (semina) of natural reason in this respect—the effect of the Fall is such that the mind requires ‘helps’ or ‘aids’. In his later writings, Bacon suggests that it is his Novum organum, or ‘new instrument’, that will function as a ‘compass’ to straighten the mind. However, in the Advancement he prescribes four exercises as examples of the practical method to be employed for the cultivation of the mind. In the end, however, he cautions men not to take such exercises (‘doctrines of morality’) too strictly, for sometimes they ‘make men too precise [i.e., strict in observing rules], arrogant, and incompatible [i.e., unsociable].’ Bacon likely has Calvinist treatises of conscience in mind here and, in particular, their popularity amongst Puritans, of whose extreme self-righteousness he disapproved.

2.5 The Fifth Article: Cultivating Charity [pp. 262-265]
The fifth and final article, which concerns the cultivation of charity, brings the text full circle to the nature of the highest good. Bacon claims that this last part is ‘sacred and religious.’ For, it involves ‘the electing and propounding unto a man’s self good and virtuous ends of his life, such as may be in a reasonable sort within his compass to attain.’ In other words, while the end goal of a man’s life is the most critical aspect of the culture of the mind, it must be something that is within his individual capacity to attain. Employing an analogy from nature, Bacon argues that, like nature when she ‘makes a flower … she formeth rudiments of all the parts at one time,’ if a man sets himself the correct, virtuous end, then he will cultivate all good habits simultaneously. But far from suggesting that there are multiple ends suitable to each individual life, what he is actually saying is that there is one end suitable to all; and that this is ‘charity’. We must cultivate that natural spark of charity which God implanted in our souls, for only ‘it comprehendeth and fasteneth all virtues together.’ Bacon thus identifies charity as the greater good or good of the whole. Nonetheless, it is possible to see that the potential ways in which charity can manifest itself through the active life are vast. It is this cultivation of the active, charitable disposition that ultimately gives our earthly life definitive meaning.