"I have never written about the infinite except to submit myself to it, and not to determine what it is or not..."
Philosopher Rene Descartes
Were he alive and intellectually active in these times of terrorism and uncertainty, of AIDS and anthrax and animal cloning, what would Rene Descartes be doing? Were he awakening these mornings in 2003 to recount his expansive dreams in writings, and generate his geometric formulae, while the drumbeats of war numb the mind and pictures of African children break the heart, what would Descartes be planning? And were Descartes among us today, while the utter folly a/la Joe Millionaire (will Joe choose Sara or Zora?) occupies "civilized" dialogue - and suicide bombers pull the switch in crowded public places - what would he be writing? Moreover, wouldn't it be refreshing - and curative - to have a prolific mind, a true visionary genius such as Descartes, in our midst, to help us ask the pertinent questions nobody is asking, to educate our children, and find that elusive human perspective hitherto missing in action?
There was much talk about "heroes" following the attacks on the World Trade Center (9/11/01) - and indeed men and women died trying to help others, and they are heroes. But isn't humankind today craving a purely cerebral hero, a giant of a scholar / philosopher who would show the kind of leadership that might lift us from the carnage of a crazed world?
Meanwhile, as an alternative to waiting for another Descartes to arrive and give a weary world the boost, why not have every parent and every teacher in every language in every corner of the world spend a few moments every day to share with young people - through easy-to-digest explanations - the great writings of Descartes? There would be no conflict with constitutional issues, or with native spiritual traditions and cultural values, since Meditation II is about looking inward, about learning to think, about questioning reasons for existence, and Meditation III can be left to parents to share, since it alludes to God.
All children dream. So did Descartes. "I have frequently, during sleep, believed that I perceived objects which I afterward observed I did not in reality perceive," Descartes wrote in Meditation II. "Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am - I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be."
Herein we see Descartes challenging his own existence, his own being. Thinking - not necessarily brainstorming some issue or trying to solve some personal problem - just thinking, letting thoughts write their silent truths without interference. And then, in his case, cataloging them in writing for the world's future enlightenment.
It seems that this passage could be translated into any language, and bright, caring teachers could stir in children the joy of inquiring within themselves. For it's apparent that in a world of nattering TV sets, mesmerizing 3-D video games, movies and near-constant annoying music - we're allowing technology handle the accepted wisdom for us. We're bombarded with static, with noise, with advertising nonsense, with distorted hard-sell generated by arrogant agencies in tall steel buildings - so much so that we can't hear ourselves think, let alone think for ourselves. Imagine Descartes' astonishment if he could witness Chicago's downtown mid-morning, with half of the pedestrians blabbing on cell phones. Or imagine his chagrin, while enjoying a lovely dinner in a fine eatery, when the shriek of a cell phone explodes at the next table. This is a man who challenged existence - far, far, far from any maddening new world of gadgets and tedium.
In Meditation II (#6) Descartes declared: "I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind...I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing." How refreshing in its simplicity and yet, it's profundity.
Now, take his concepts to a point of pragmatism that could help our world. Imagine for a moment a parent, lovingly turning off the television and the CD player, and sitting on the sofa with a 14-year-old daughter. The sofa looks out on a lush green lawn with leafy trees bending over it. The mother puts one arm around the girl, and has a book in the other hand, and before reading, shows her daughter photos of Rene Descartes. She explains his life and times. She tells her daughter that Descartes was born in France in 1596, the same year William Shakespeare wrote "The Merchant of Venice" in England.
I saw that play last year, mom!" The daughter exclaims, connecting with her mother and with this man from the ancient past. "Do you mind if we talk a little philosophy every week for a little while? Just mother and daughter?" "Sure, mom." "Well, Descartes ask himself, who do you think you are, what do you think you are, and why do you think?" The mother turned to look at her daughter's eyes intently but sweetly. "When you look in the mirror, do you wonder who you are, and who you will be, honey?" No answer, but an acknowledging nod. The mother reads aloud from Descartes' Meditation II (#7); the daughter examines the dramatic face of the great French philosopher.
I can only judge of things that are known to me: I am conscious that I exist, and I who know that I exist inquire into what I am'." Mom explains that Descartes attended a Jesuit college, was very much a believer in God but that he was fascinated with science and the universe, too. She describes his life as a search for answers and truth, and points out that he was enough of an individual to separate "reason" from "faith" - and not just become an obedient servant to the dogma of a religion.
He never stopped questioning the limited knowledge that humans had back then honey, and I want you to always have a questioning mind, too. Sure we have to accept some things in life, and life isn't really fair, but I want you to be a scholarly person who challenges old ideas and uses the power of your thoughts.
Listen to the words Descartes writes to emphasize the importance of your mind and your ideas. He saw the mind as equivalent, equal, to the self. Nobody else in his time saw it quite that way. This is part of his number six from Meditation III. 'Now, with respect to ideas, if these are considered only in themselves, and are not referred to any object beyond them, they cannot, properly speaking, be false; for, whether I imagine a goat or chimera, it is not less true that I imagine the one than the other.' See what he is getting at? The fact that the imagining comes from his original mind, makes it true. 'I am not an assemblage of these limbs called the human body...' he said. I'm a person because I can think. You have a very beautiful body already honey, but it is what you create and sustain in your brain that matters, not whether boys find your body attractive. They will, but that's just the physical world."
What's a chimera, mom?" "Oh that's a fire-breathing animal from Greek Mythology, with a lion's head, a goat's body and the tail of a serpent. See how different that is from an ordinary ugly old goat? But he says, since the idea was his, the image was his, it's his personal truth no matter the shape or size."
Mom goes on, recounting that Descartes received a law degree at age 20, but rather than practice law to make money, he traveled through Europe seeking out wise men from whom he could learn about religion and mathematics. She points out that Descartes was so brainy, his intellect and curiosity forced him to reject all his previously held beliefs. And so he built his philosophy on uncomplicated concepts, like: the existence of himself as a thinking subject, and the existence of God as proven by Descartes' ability to think and analyze life.
He found deep wisdom by turning his thoughts inward. ' I think, therefore I am,' he said. And more than that he sought a unified science of nature, at a time when Galileo - has your science teacher talked about Galileo honey?" "Yes mom and we learned that Galileo discovered why the moon was so bright - it was just reflecting the sun. And oh, Galileo also invented his own telescope. But our teacher hasn't told us about Descartes."
After telling her child that Descartes lived in isolation for 20 years in Holland, frequently changing residences to protect his privacy, she sees her daughter is restless, so…