Cartesian Moral Code, Principles of Errors and Limits of Reason. Descartes and Pascal
The second rule of Descartes’ “provisional moral code” stressed the obligation of mastering oneself rather than fortune. Of Stoic inspiration (
Keywords: Moralityreasonfree willrationalityDescartesPascal
Descartes’ tree of knowledge and the undetermined place of morals
In the Letter-Preface addressed to Abbot Picot, which opens the
Descartes describes the substantial unit of philosophy using the famous image of the tree: the roots
represent metaphysics, the trunk stands for physics and the three branches are medicine, mechanics and
morals (Descartes, 1988: 186). Descartes describes morals as the ultimate level of wisdom (
which presupposes the other sciences: “By the science of Morals, I understand the highest and most
perfect which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom”
(Descartes, 1901: 8b). Hence, morals are the
in terms of importance, because they are the true purpose of the whole of philosophy. Nonetheless, the
seductive image of the tree of knowledge cannot occult several fundamental questions concerning
mostly the relation between the root and the three separate branches of philosophy. Hence, Martin
Heidegger justly wonders in what type of soil the tree deepens its roots, what is the vital element
supporting and feeding it and mostly what lies buried in the essence of metaphysics as root of the entire
knowledge: “What lies buried and is active in the essence of metaphysics?” (Heidegger, 2013: 6).
Heidegger’s questions cannot be considered tendentious, insofar as the relationship per se between
the roots, the trunk and the tree is not
supposed to be the same (without being defined as such), making its way up from the ground, through
the root and to the last branch. Furthermore, while the image features three “principal” branches that
seem to be
other sciences actually appears to be
of moral stance in relation to medicine and mechanics, we get to “a structural incompleteness of
philosophy” (Vaquero, 2009: 472), which turns the unit of philosophy – posited by Descartes – into a
problem more than into a given or a constituted object (Vaquero, 2009: 472). Consequently, the
topologically undetermined situation of the Cartesian moral code signals the
rationally from metaphysical principles? If so, does it mean that we can find an answer to the
Heideggerian question “What lies buried and is active in the essence of metaphysics?”
Initial place: the self as certitude and its probable morals
three maxims (Descartes, 2007: 11-2). The anteriority of the
“definitive” code of morals. At the same time, however, the maxims of this code of morals are required
meant to represent the roots of knowledge. The same reason that seeks a firm and unshakeable
foundation and that requires – in the first maxim of the method – avoiding “extremes” demands from
the philosopher to act, in morals-related issues,
indecisive in my actions during the time when reason obliged me to be so in my judgments” (Descartes,
It is odd how the same reason can formulate two different types of constraint: in the order of
knowledge, reason requires absolute certitude, while in the order of action it requires overcoming
to be sufficiently clear and distinct to eliminate all grounds for doubt: “…and to include in my
judgments only what presented itself to my mind so vividly and so clearly that I had no basis for calling
it in question” (Descartes, 2007: 8). Neamwhile, an
everyday life we often have to act without delay, it is a most certain truth that when we can’t pick out
the truest opinions we should follow the most probable ones” (Descartes, 2007: 12). Hence, we note
that there is no perfect superposition between the order of knowledge and the order of action.
Nonetheless, how can we accept this paradoxical thesis, considering the lines written in the
the same sap of reason feeds the root and the branches, why can the principles of morals be
while the root can only accept
undermines the unity of science and the relation between sciences within the tree of knowledge?
Two answers may be provided to this question. The first answer considers the chronology of
Cartesian writings. In 1637, the
metaphysics would only later – in 1641 (
code of morals does not require yet, unlike metaphysics, a firm and unshakable foundation on which to
build the entire moral code. It requires an ethical situation that combines
which by God’s grace I had been instructed from my childhood … on the basis of the most moderate
and least extreme opinions” (Descartes, 2007: 11).
The second answer considers the different role ascribed to the
as true that the
explicitly deprives the
people with whom I would have to live” (Descartes, 2007: 11).
role of moral guide to another instance. To avoid remaining undetermined for an indefinite period and
to enable moral actions, ipseity acknowledges its limits and accepts submission to alterity. The
theoretical possibility and practical effectiveness of morals are acquired only by paying the price of
“chasing away” the
moral action cannot be possible unless the
granting this privilege to others.
What the self can and cannot do
In his commentaries on the
inspiration of the third maxim (“Try always to master myself rather than fortune, and change my
desires rather than changing how things stand in the world” (Descartes, 2007: 12)). The
acquire clear knowledge can however operate a Stoic distinction, between the things within man’s
power and those exceeding his power:
How is it possible for an action considered morally good to occur, even in the absence of clear and
distinct knowledge of things? Furthermore, how is it possible to judge whether a thing is within man’s
power or not? The commentary made by Pierre-Sylvain Régis (Regis, 1691: 7:44) explains this
seeming contradiction within the Cartesian text by stating that man’s intellect and will accomplish
different functions: “…l’action de l’esprit par laquelle nous
mauvaise est une fonction qui appartient à la volonte, et l’action que nous
juge ainsi est une fonction qui appartient à l’entendement”. Nonetheless, it is known that intellect and
will must co-operate and that the will must “stretch” almost naturally to meet the powers of the
intellect, to the end of preventing the will from making wrong choices.
Hence, in the letter to Mersenne, dated May 1637 (initial dating: April 27, 1637), Descartes posits
that a correct judgement is required for an action to be morally good:
The key to a
they play different roles, the two faculties (
independently: the intellect must represent to the will things that
ongoing tension governing the will – that has to make choices considering the limits prescribed by the
intellect – cannot and should not disappear, because it is the most visible sign of a provisory – namely
imperfect – code of morals. A disappearance of the tension experienced by the will would entail that
human intellect would have reached a level of knowledge similar to divine knowledge (Gabaude, 1970:
223). Such hypothesis is excluded, precisely because human intellect will never reach the level of
divine intellect, given that humans will never get to know things
VII, 367). Nonetheless, while knowledge will never be fully appropriate, the will must act
the intellect would provide the highest and firmest knowledge. This is the meaning ascribed to the
second maxim of the provisory code of morals (Descartes, 2007: 11-2).
Descartes uses a suggestive example to this end: he compares the process of taking a moral decision
to the decision of travellers who, having lost their way in a forest, must not wander from side to side or
remain in one place. They proceed constantly without changing the direction, because this guarantees
they will come to some place (preferable to the middle of a forest). The provisory character of this code
must be maintained
maxims is to overcome the possible sceptical objection that we cannot act if we do not hold a
knowledge of things. However, the provisory character of the code is visible mostly by adopting a Stoic
view of the world (the third maxim) positing that
and that, to be contented, it is sufficient for man not to desire anything that he could not obtain.
However, is this view free of dangers? Is the first maxim – that advises the
its own moral criteria and to adopt those of others – compatible with the third maxim (supporting that
give up easily and willingly (the first maxim) to the only thing in its power (the third maxim), namely
its own thoughts?
Human wisdom and its limits
The provisory code of morals was going to become definitive, by defining wisdom (
Descartes views wisdom as a “perfect” knowledge that comprises all things knowable to man. On the
other hand, there is an apparent difference between 1637 (
to Princess Elizabeth the letter from August 4. The three maxims of the provisory code of morals
become the three rules of strictly human wisdom (Armogathe, 2002: 17), primed as early as 1639,
whose key is to “love life without fearing death” (
wrote to Mersenne. It is worth highlighting the Stoic distinction between what is in man’s power and
what it is not and its replacement with another, which posits
possess (Adam & Tannery, 1983: IV, 265-6).
This third maxim within the Letter to Elisabeth is no longer grounded on a Stoic-inspired moral code,
but only on the power of reason, which can prescribe to people the conduct to follow. Unlike the
obligation of leading himself by the moderate opinions of the wisest men), the first maxim of 1645 posits
that reason alone should decide what man must and must not do (Adam & Tannery, 1983: IV, 265).
The purpose of wisdom (
other hand, beyond the ethical dimension of the feeling of “contentment”, it also has a theological
dimension. Thus, Descartes redefines the classical concept of
happiness reached by man while contemplating God) by considering it a “parfait contentement d’esprit
et une satisfaction intérieure” (Adam & Tannery, 1983: IV, 266). Such a redefinition of the relationship
between man and God – which formerly implied reaching moral autonomy only by exerting reason and
by seeking refuge in an inner satisfaction that closed the possible interrogation regarding the downsides
of reason itself – could not remain outside Pascal’s analysis.
Pascalian critique of the Cartesian self. The limits of philosophy
When he criticizes Descartes, Blaise Pascal does so elegantly, using both a “compliment at the same
time honest and perfidious” (Bouchilloux, 1995: 245) and an “ambiguous praise” (Bouchilloux, 1995:
76). He chooses to proceed this way because he acknowledges the role and importance of the
principle of a new metaphysics and – starting from it – even of a new physics (Pascal, 1909: 60).
However, Pascal is highly persuaded that Descartes is “
because philosophical judgments are “
shifts the matter of philosophical wisdom (
to Christian salvation). However, this shift is actually a “destitution” (Marion, 1986: 325-42) of
philosophical claims, in the name of the theory of the three different ontological orders (
bodies, of the souls and of something that is loved. Pascal pinpoints that all philosophers – without
exception – are guilty of giving in to one of the three concupiscences of man (Lafuma, 1962: §919),
on Epictetus and Montaigne”, Pascal features the two philosophers as two extremes of any human
philosophy, namely “diabolical pride” and “skepticism”. However, the critique to Stoicism targets all
of philosophy, because no philosopher – not even those who assimilate man to an animal – manages to
resist to all three concupiscences. Therefore, the critique to Epictetus also targets Descartes directly,
because the Cartesian provisory code of morals has a Stoic inspiration, while Pascal rejects (using a
theological argument) the reasons’ claims of determining what is and what is not in our power:
However, the most devastating critique to Descartes does not concern the Stoic dimension of his
1637 provisory code of morals, but the very pretension of the
definitive moral code.
Pascal believes that the
always wishes to be the
This critique of the self that attempts to be the “centre” is a constant of Pascalian thinking (see also
the paragraph §100). What Descartes called the metaphysical force of the
original sin, and this negative trait of the
To this end, the
and replaced by another, represented by Jesus Christ: “The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is
to love self only and consider self only” (Eliot, 1959: §449).
The role of the movement made to set away the self from the central place that it wishes to occupy is
not merely therapeutic (aiming to cure the self from the original selfishness) but also metaphysical.
Thus, the self must ultimately
The self-hatred of the
tearing out the very roots of the metaphysical claim of deciding
letter to Elizabeth, dated August 4, 1645) over moral code and its criteria.
The autonomy claim of reason not only helps the
regretting them (even when they are proven), as Descartes states explicitly:
As for Heidegger’s question concerning what lies buried in the essence of metaphysics, Pascal had
already provided a trenchant answer to it:
This article was funded by a grant of the Romanian National Authority for Scientific Research, CNCS-UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2011-3-0998: Models of Producing and Disseminating Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: the Cartesian Framework.
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