Thursday, 28 February 2013

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.