Ellis Washington
On Descartes, Spinoza and the rise of rationalism and atheism
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By Ellis Washington
December 5, 2014


Biography of Descartes

René Descartes (1596–1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and writer who primarily lived most of his life in Holland. Known as the father of modern philosophy, in many ways a considerable amount of ideas in Western philosophy after him are a reaction to his ideas and writings, which are considered so innovative that they are still seriously studied in modern times. Descartes was an original proponent of the rationalist school of philosophy, a system of understanding the world based on reason (logic) as the path to achieving knowledge. Writer Vernon J. Bourke defined rationalism "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive." Together with empiricism, which emphasizes the use of five senses above pure reason, rationalism was one of the primary intellectual trends of the Age of Enlightenment (1600-1800), a cultural movement that transformed the Western world from Theism (God is the center of all things) to Humanism (man is the center of all things). Together with men like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Voltaire, Descartes' ideas revolutionized society and compelled it to deconstruct its traditions and institutions, causing enormous social anarchy in succeeding periods. For example, the American Revolution (1765-83) and the French Revolution (1789-99) were founded upon Enlightenment ideas championed by Descartes, particularly the manner society thinks about science, math, philosophy, and the idea of the self especially from 1640s throughout the 1700s.

The writings of Descartes set the foundation for 17th-century European rationalism, further developed by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, and criticized by the empiricist school of thought whose major proponents were Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Descartes most famous philosophical statement is Cogito ergo sum – 'I think, therefore I am') is found in part IV of his Discourse on the Method (1637) and Principles of Philosophy (1644) and is the singular statement for defining the Age of Enlightenment.

Major Writings by Descartes

Descartes wrote Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628), as a brief treatise outlining a new system of thinking. Utilizing a group of rational principles, Descartes systematic methods allowed him to exclude many of his own uncertainties regarding ideas based first principles. While the book was initially meant to consist of three sections of twelve rules ('Propositions'), Descartes only finished the first twelve. General propositions are addressed with the first twelve rules. The unfinished second section addresses a method for analyzing "perfectly understood problems" – specifically, problems viewed through general mathematical equations. The third section was meant to address "imperfectly understood problems," problems too difficult to be summarized as an equation. Descartes intent with Rules for the Direction of the Mind was he wanted to demonstrate that all problems of life could be delineated through mathematics.

In an earlier essay I addressed how the year 1633 was a pivotal year for scientific development; this was the year that the Catholic Church unjustly subjected the work of the outstanding Italian scientist Galileo to the infamous abuse of the Inquisition banning his publications in Italy and condemning him to live under house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life. During this period, Descartes was working on The World (Treatise on the Light), a method he hoped would modernize the study of physics. After Galileo's house arrest, Descartes on his own accord suspended the publication of The World, fearing the revenge of the Catholic Church.

Cognizant of the intolerance of the Catholic Church to new scientific and philosophical ideas that in their myopic view they considered heretical, Descartes did publish his first work, Discourse on the Method, until 1636 (at age 40), an investigation detailing the proper use of the propositions or rules outlined in Rules for the Direction of the Mind. Discourse on the Method recounts the sequence of epiphany experiences Descartes had in 1619 during his time living in Germany. It was here where he admitted becoming so disenchanted with education, religion, philosophy, science and the institutions that rule over these and every other intellectual discipline in life that he started to doubt all knowledge he had obtained up to that point.

Descartes demonstrates how he successfully applied simple mathematic principles contained in his Rules to answer and explain deep problems of society. He declared the problem of our singular existence in the world with this legendary philosophical aphorism, Cogito ergo sum, or "I think, therefore I am." Descartes throughout Discourse gives rational evidences that the human mind and the body are separate; that the mind survives the body after death, and that there is a God. The Discourse was intended to function as a prologue to three essays Descartes had been working on for many years – Optics, Meteorology, and Geometry – which consist of science now outdated. However, the Discourse, was so pathbreaking in its scientific and philosophical outlook that these ideas are still relevant in modern times.

Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), was the work that guaranteed Descartes' fame through the Ages. In this opus Descartes writes about the criticisms and attempted repudiations different persons sent to him after reading the Discourse. The revolutionary ideas and bold theories postulated in Meditations would transformation the manner people understood their minds and bodies and the connections therein, however Meditations also comprises arguments that scholars would refer to as the "Cartesian Circle" which pays homage to the ostensible circularity of his logic (self-verifying, circular reasoning). After Meditations Descartes wrote Principles of Philosophy (1644), which essentially tried to reduce the universe to its mathematical foundations. Because of the widespread notoriety of his writings throughout Europe Descartes achieved, particularly after writing Principles, he was highly sought after in intellectual circles and the king of France bestowed him with a pension.

In 1649 Descartes became the philosophy tutor to Sweden's nineteen-year-old Queen Christina and thus relocated from Holland to Stockholm, Sweden. Nevertheless Descartes' bad health and his inclination for not rising until 12 noon, conflicted with the time Queen Christina scheduled her lessons with him (5:00 a.m.) This sleep deprivation combined with hostile living conditions pushed Descartes health to the brink and in 1650, he died of pneumonia at age fifty-four. Notwithstanding his efforts to remain in the good graces of the Catholic Church, Descartes' books like Galileo were banned after his death and prohibited to be read by Catholics.

Biography of Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), was a Dutch philosopher of Jewish lineage who is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant thinkers of Western philosophy. The range and meaning of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until a generation or two after his death. Spinoza's revolutionary philosophical ideas laid the foundation for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, advancing modern understandings of the self and the universe, he was renowned as one of the great rationalists of philosophy in the 17th-century. His magnum opus, Ethics, was published after his death where his rationalist philosophy stood in stark contrast to Descartes's mind-body dualism and realism. According to Scruton's analysis of Ethics, "Spinoza wrote the last indisputable Latin masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely." Even Proto-Marxist philosopher, Friedrich Hegel was so enamored with the writings of Spinoza he essentially declared to all of contemporary philosophers, "You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all."

Ethics by Spinoza

Ethics is a grand, comprehensive and complex work with interlocking moral, ontological and metaphysical components in its themes; the primary theme being Spinoza is exceedingly critical of all conventional philosophical understandings of God, of man and the universe. Ambition is a dominate leitmotiv throughout Ethics as Spinoza strived in his method to establish and determine the truth about God, religion about man, nature, and bonum vitae (the good life) from a rational, dispassionate worldview. Spinoza writings systematically progresses by definitions, corollaries, axioms, and mathematical theorems with an elegance that few philosophers can rival. Although Spinoza's Ethics investigates and questions anthropology, theology, metaphysics and ontology, he chose the term "ethics" because he theorizes that happiness (rationalism) derives from a liberation from superstition and unbridled desires. Indeed, ontology is understood as a means to explain the world and empower man to live in harmony with reason.

According to Spinoza, the primary virtue is the rational love or awareness of God (e.g., Nature, Universe). Spinoza believed that all of the indispensable nature of objects in the world including all phenomenon derivative thereof originates from God/Nature. Therefore, Spinoza thought that reality is in essence, perfection. For example, where conditions are viewed as ill-fated it is due to the fact of our insufficient understanding of reality. However aspects of the sequence of cause and effect are not outside the conception of human reason, human intellect is infinite in its complexity. Spinoza further declared that sense perception, though valuable and useful, is insufficient for ascertaining truth. His concept of "conatus" understands that an essential part of human nature is ambition – to strive toward maintaining an essential existence and a contention that virtue/human power is defined by triumph in this protection of existence and being through the control of reason as one's dominant ethical principle.

The concluding section of the Ethics, addresses his ideas about the meaning of "true blessedness," and his description of how emotions should be separated from external cause and so more effectively control them, thus foreshadowing psychological methods developed in the early 1900s by Freud, Jung, Adler, Stekel and other psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, particularly of the Austrian School. His conception of three categories of knowledge – opinion, reason, intuition – and his contention that intuitive knowledge offers the highest contentment of mind, established his theory that as people achieve greater consciousness of ourselves and Nature/Universe. In other words, the more content and happy people become the greater their reality, the greater their reality (perfection), the greater the realization becomes that only intuitive knowledge brings us to the realm of the eternal. Given Spinoza's resolve on an entirely ordered world where "necessity" controls all, concepts like Good and Evil are irrelevant and meaningless to people's rational existence in this universe. According to the philosophy Spinoza, if the world as it exists appears imperfect, then one must change or expand their imperfect perception through reason; to aspire to a more perfect or whole perception.

Descartes and Spinoza in Modern Times

What is the legacy of Descartes in modern times? Descartes was a revolutionary philosopher whose ideas were so radical and unconventional that his reasoning caused intellectual society to replace religious dogma with reason and science – the human mind, not any god, as the foundation of understanding and authority. His declaration – cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) is the intellectual foundation of the Age of Enlightenment (1600-1800); radical ideas that launched both the American Revolution (1763-87) which established a democratic Republic founded in God, natural law and capitalism and the French Revolution (1789-99) which marked the end of the early modern history (1500-1800), indicating the decline of dominate monarchies and churches and the rise of liberalism, democracy, nationalism, socialism, evolution atheism, fascism and progressivism of late 19th and early 20th-century; the Golden Age to totalitarianism that gave the world atheistic dictators like Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, etc...

From Spinoza's writings we can safely deduce that he was probably an atheist since he used the word "God" (Deus) to indicate a thought that was radically different from that of traditional Judeo – Christian monotheism. Spinoza's God lacks free will and he does not have meaning or purposes, and Spinoza contends that "neither intellect nor will pertain to the nature of God." Furthermore, Spinoza believed that the necessity of religious tradition to 'love God' was irrational since it was impossible for Spinoza's God (who lacks meaning or purpose) to be capable of loving us in return. "He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return," says Spinoza. Finally, Spinoza was a dissenter against Descartes' dualism and Judaism and was the first to define religion as an opiate (predating Marx's infamous aphorism – "religion is the opiate of the masses" by hundreds of years). Spinoza also was first to understand that humans were part of the natural world, subject to its laws and arguably he was the first modern Democrat.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 7 – Being; Vol. 3, Chap. 102 – World; Vol. 31 – Descartes and Spinoza.


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Invitation for manuscripts

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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