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descartesI have a recurrent nightmare. I dream that I never had the opportunity to teach the history of the West. I invariably awaken drenched in a cold sweat, wondering how my own intellectual development would have been stunted had I not been compelled to explain to undergraduates the accomplishments and failures, the complexities and tensions, the incongruity and dissonance, which have forged Western Civilization. The prospect is unthinkable and, after such an ordeal, a return to sleep is impossible.

When I began my teaching career at Randolph-Macon College nearly a quarter century ago, all members of the history department taught at least one section of Western Civ. every semester. We called it “The Foundations of the Modern World.” We are now reduced to two, both taught by the American historians. The Europeanists want nothing to do with such an old-fashioned, out-dated, apparently irrelevant course.

Before congratulating me on my resolute vindication of the West, readers ought to know that my interpretation would hardly please those who seek a coherent narrative of superiority, triumph, and heroism. In their attempt to eliminate the political biases that have made an ideological plaything of the past, many conservatives have done more harm than good. Disregarding evidence that challenges their own views, they diminish or reject the intricacy of the past. As a result, their conclusions are too facile. They explain nothing, or next to nothing, and fail to illuminate reality, even as they reveal the pinched and haggard condition of our minds and souls.

Despite my objections to their approach, I have some sympathy for those who exalt the West, even if they do so by distorting its past. They sense—sense more fully than they understand—that Western Civilization is deadlocked. It has lost its way. It seems incapable of moving forward or backward. The West remains active and dynamic, though it neither advances with a clear, unitary purpose nor seems capable of turning inward to face itself. Most of all, it lacks the sense of possibility that dominated the Modern Age. It may have been such a predicament that Jacques Barzun had in mind when he wrote:

Our culture is in that recurrent phase when, for good reasons, many feel the urge to build a wall against the past. It is a revulsion from things in the present that seem a curse from our forebears . . . . This passion to break away explains also why many feel that the West has to be denounced. But we are not told what should or could replace it as a whole. Anyhow, the notion of western culture as a solid block having but one meaning is contrary to fact. The West has been an endless series of opposites—in religion, politics, art, mores, and manners, most of them persistent beyond their time of first conflict.[1]

Falsifying the past to accommodate present attitudes and sensibilities is not the answer. The study and writing of history excite creativity and engage the imagination, but those who undertake such tasks must distinguish between what is true and what they feel or want to be true. For, as Eric Hobsbawm insisted, “the difference between historical fact and falsehood is not ideological.”[2] No one may use history for their own purposes. In many ways and for many reasons, these concerns have become central to my courses on the history of Western Civilization. Chief among them, perhaps, is a quiet effort to oppose the arrogance of the modern mind.

UnknownWhen I was a child there was a game show on television called Truth or Consequences. It never occurred to me then that the consequences were just as important, potentially more important, than the truth. Like so many others, I never presumed that I ought to be skeptical of the truth and to think hard about the consequences. Yet, for lack of such wariness, the earth on which all life depends is now in jeopardy. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are being contaminated and poisoned by the misapplication of scientific truth, to say nothing about the threat of annihilation from chemical and nuclear weapons.

I try to impress upon the minds of my students that in the context of Western history, the rise of science performed an indispensable service. Science produced many beneficent results. Among the principal exponents of science, René Descartes believed that it would facilitate “the invention of an infinity of devices to enable us to enjoy the fruits of agriculture and all the wealth of the earth without labor, but even more so in conserving health, the principal good and the basis of all the other goods in this life.” [3] Steady improvement in standards of living, material welfare, and longevity throughout the Western world confirm Descartes’s hopes. Emerging as it did in an era of intense sectarian rivalry and violence, science also provided a common language and a cooperative enterprise that permitted some to escape religious animosity and to engage in intelligent and productive collaboration. In a society fallen into disarray and wavering on the edge of disintegration, science introduced a vision of, and a respect for, order.

At the same time, science eliminated all other values and objectives, all other forms of knowledge, except the pursuit of scientific truth. The early advocates and practitioners of science believed that they had fashioned a higher order of reality when, in fact, they had merely fashioned a higher order of conceptualization and abstraction. For all of its contributions to betterment of humanity, science in this respect impoverished the mind, enfeebled the soul, and damaged the self.

Descartes’s Discourse on Method offers a preface to, and a synthesis of, modern scientific thought, establishing the intellectual and ideological parameters of the age.[4] He explained his conviction that:

It is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life; and that instead of the speculative philosophy now taught in the schools we can find a practical one, by which, knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us, as well as we now understand the different skills of our workers, we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature. [5]

3_frans-hals-portret-van-rene-descartes-magDescartes’s language and ambition connected the various and dissimilar figures that were coming to dominate the social, economic, and political life of the sixteenth century: the explorer, the conquistador, the merchant capitalist, the speculative financier, the scientist, and the nascent manufacturer. All pursued the same end.

Descartes could not have anticipated that his effort to render men the lords of nature carried with it a hidden peril: not the ruin of the earth but the dispossession of humanity. For him, the subjugation of nature remained principally a mental exercise, leading to greater understanding of self and world rather than their deepening exploitation and enslavement. Knowledge, according to Descartes, was not power but freedom. He was confident, for example, that:

if it is possible to find some way to make men in general wiser and more clever than they have been so far, I believe that it is in medicine that it should be sought. It is true that medicine at present contains little of such great value; but without intending to belittle it, I am sure that everyone, . . . will admit that everything we know is almost nothing compared with what remains to be discovered, and that we might rid ourselves of an infinity of maladies of body as well as mind, and perhaps also of the enfeeblement of old age, if we had sufficient understanding of the causes from which these ills arise and of all the remedies which nature has provided.[6]

The practical benefits that science yielded were far more important to Descartes than the power that it enabled men to assert over nature, or the profits they might derive from such an enterprise.

Nevertheless, the politics implicit in The Discourse limit, if they do not abrogate, Descartes’s commitment to freedom. Descartes embraced absolutism as the means of establishing and maintaining order, both in politics and in thought.[7] It is the duty of the faithful subject to obey the edicts of the monarch, just as it is the duty of the rational mind to obey the laws of nature.  The objective of both science and politics was to render all thought and conduct predictable, compliant, and submissive.

God reigned as the ultimate despot, before whose authority men stood in mute reverence and awe. His majesty was of greater proportion the more distant He remained from them. Descartes found salvation through his faith in reason. This faith rested on the assumption that God was not a liar. He could not deceive. What God willed to be true was true. God had thus created an ordered world, and had equipped the rational mind with the ability to understand it. Reason was the antidote to chaos and the consolation against despair.   “Be not afraid, . . . ” Descartes wrote to Marin Mersenne in 1630, “to assure and proclaim publicly everywhere that God has established these laws of nature just as a king establishes laws in his realm.”[8] Moreover, Descartes’s God had endowed men with the capacity to think, and thinking was the foundation of existence.

“Cogito, ergo sum,” he famously declared. “I think, therefore, I am.” But Descartes’s celebrated axiom was not an exaltation of independent mind. It led him back to God, the absolute ruler upon whom everything in the universe depended. “If there were in the world bodies, or even intelligences or other natures that were not wholly perfect,” Descartes argued, “their being must depend on God’s power in such a way that they could not subsist without him for a single moment.”[9] In their dependence, men owed abject, unconditional obedience to God. They were no more than instruments in His hands, automatons subordinate to the perfect ruler, to use as He would. Only in this way could existence have meaning and purpose, and avoid the explosion of irrationality that threatened to cast it spiraling into the abyss.

During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Descartes had witnessed much of Europe—Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and the Germanies—drenched in blood. These events terrified him.   He dreamed of being haunted by ghosts and swept up in a whirlwind. To ease his nearly irrepressible anxiety and fear, Descartes resolved to fashion a method of thinking that would safeguard humanity from illusion, falsehood, absurdity, and evil. He set out to prove that reason, rightly cultivated and applied, could illuminate the mathematical order of nature that God had made. Through the use of reason, men could ascertain, measure, and count all things on earth and in heaven. The vast immensity of the universe could thereby be rendered orderly, certain, uniform, and intelligible.

Human experience, not merely as studied but also as lived, felt, and remembered, is the missing element in Descartes’s analysis.   He rejected the importance of the past.  He split the world in two, dividing spirit and matter. The first was pure, the second debased. “I then examined closely what I was,” Descartes began, “and saw that I could imagine that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place that I occupied, but that I could not imagine for a moment that I did not exist. “ Although he desired to promote the advancement and welfare of humanity, Descartes left no room for joy in the human or for delight in being alive.

In his dualism, in his partition of the universe into the material and the spiritual, Descartes exhibited what Allen Tate called “the angelic imagination.”[10] “If I had ceased to think while my body and the world and all the rest of what I had ever imagined remained true,” Descartes continued, “I would have had no reason to believe that I existed during that time; therefore I concluded that I was a thing or substance whose whole essence or nature was only to think, and which, to exist, had no need of space nor any material thing or body. Thus it follows that this ego, this mind, this soul, by which I am what I am is entirely distinct from the body . . . and that even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it now is.”[11] As befits the angelic imagination, Descartes wanted to see and comprehend everything at once; he sought to know the thing in itself through the application of omnipotent reason. Immaculate, uncontaminated by matter, Descartes condensed reality to a few geometrical figures and a few mathematical formulae.

torenbabelDescartes’s rationalist philosophy was more utopian than scientific. He was concerned less with natural science, less with observation and experimentation, than he was with discovering first causes. In Descartes’s Kingdom of Reason, no problem was beyond solution; no invincible secrets, no indomitable mysteries confounded the rational mind. Ideas about reality were evident and reliable. Ambiguity had disappeared. Quantitative deduction had emancipated mind from error and superstition.[12] His was an instance of the baroque will to power, an expression of the destructive arrogance that has come to define much modern thought.

“There was a dictator hidden in Descartes,” concluded Friedrich Herr, “who imposed his laws on things and dictated to them how they were to be.”[13] His dismemberment of the world into matter and spirit was false. It issued in part from the sense of doubt and pessimism that followed the wars of religion. His method represented a monumental effort to bring the world into focus, to impress upon nature and humanity the artful organization and clarity of mechanism, to hold at bay the most destructive human passions that, once unleashed, had done their worst. The rejoinder to Descartes’s grand system lies in a deepening consciousness of self and history—in a turning inward to face the self in history—which reverses the expectations of heaven on earth that accompanied the heartless quest for truth whatever the consequences. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”[14] By contrast, those endowed with the humble recognition that their knowledge is forever incomplete and their understanding forever imperfect are disinclined to contemplate utopia. They embrace instead the flood of days, words, laughter, and tears that men call life.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), xiii.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, “Identity History is Not Enough,” in On History (New York: The New Press, 1997), 272.

[3] René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations. Trans. by Laurence J. LaFleur (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1960), 45-46.

[4] In The Intellectual History of Europe, Volume II: The Counter-Reformation to 1945, Trans. by Jonathan Steinberg (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1968), 125-26 Friedrich Heer likens Descartes both to Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. Like Aquinas, though more briefly, Descartes attempted a synthesis of all knowledge. Like Luther, who overcame his experience of anxiety, fear, and chaos by “faith alone” (sola fide), Descartes imposed order on creation though the power of rational thought and the application of the scientific method to all phenomena, including human beings. As Heer writes: “The door to mechanical and mathematical explanation of the cosmos was opened.”

[5] Discourse on Method and Meditations, 45.

[6] Ibid., 46.

[7] Heer points out that Descartes dedicated his books to Cardinal Richelieu, which may have been at once revealing and politic. See The Intellectual History of Europe, 125.

[8] Quoted in Ibid., 128.

[9] Discourse on Method and Meditations, 26-27.

[10] Allen Tate, “The Angelic Imagination,” in Essays of Four Decades (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999), 401-22.

[11] Discourse on Method and Meditations, 25.

[12] See Mark G. Malvasi and Jeffrey O. Nelson, “Preface,” Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge: A Reader (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), xiii.

[13] Heer, The Intellectual History of Europe, 130.

[14] T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” in The Waste Land and Other Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1934), 20.

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  1. “Cartesian Enlightenment Abstract Rationalism” versus “Humean Counter-Enlightenment Historical Consciousness” may also be said, at its deepest philosophical level very broadly speaking, to represent the inherent differences between the Antebellum North (New England in particular) and the Antebellum South respectively prior to the War commencing in 1861.

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