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 ( The Manual of Epictetus), the Cartesian rule carefully delimitates what is and what is not in man’s power. In addition, the rule calls for the distinction expressed in the fourth Metaphysical Meditation between the intellect and the will and for the necessity to temper the will’s natural tendency to overcome its inherent borders. In the Preface of his Principles of Philosophy , Descartes views philosophy as a form of therapy that can treat illnesses of the mind, just as medicine treats illnesses of the body. Philosophy is thus charged with leading us to the “true health of the mind,” by cultivating a “true and sound judgment”. This Cartesian moral code that seems to provide a minimal balance between concrete action and man’s will is violently criticized by Blaise Pascal in the Conversation with Mr. de Sacy , where the principles of Stoic morality are called “principles of a diabolic pride [that] lead him to other errors”. The provisional moral code is discredited by Pascal because, in his opinion, human will cannot be limited – as Descartes thought – because it is infinite: “Self-will will never be satisfied, though it should have command of all it would”.

Keywords: Moralityreasonfree willrationalityDescartesPascal

Descartes’ tree of knowledge and the undetermined place of morals

In the Letter-Preface addressed to Abbot Picot, which opens the Principles of Philosophy , René

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 ( sagesse ),

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 last in the chronological order of knowledge, but the first

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 proven (but only stated ), and the common element of all parts is

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 equally important, the last branch (morals) that presupposes an entire knowledge of the

other sciences actually appears to be above them. Under these circumstances, considering the dilemma

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 precariousness of its

metaphysical foundation . Can a “perfect” moral code as expression of the highest wisdom, be deduced

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

In Discourse on the Method (1637), Descartes elaborates a provisory code of morals, composed of

three maxims (Descartes, 2007: 11-2). The anteriority of the Discourse in relation to Meditationes de

prima philosophia (1641) can maybe explain why Descartes decided to write a “provisory”, not a

“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, without waiting for absolute certitude : “So as not to be

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

indecision. A judgement may be postponed indefinitely, if the knowledge it is based on does not prove

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 action cannot be delayed: “And similarly, since in

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 Letter-

Preface of the Principles ? If metaphysics is the root of all human sciences – including morals – and if

the same sap of reason feeds the root and the branches, why can the principles of morals be provisory ,

while the root can only accept firm and unshakeable principles? This is not a contradiction that

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 Discourse invoked only a “provisory” code of morals because

metaphysics would only later – in 1641 ( Meditations ) – find a firm foundation: the self . The provisory

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 conservatism with removal

from extremes („to obey the laws and customs of my country, holding constantly to the religion in

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 self in the two Cartesian writings. It is

as true that the self would become in Meditations the central point of knowledge, as it is that in the

Discourse such claim was still rejected. Furthermore, the first maxim of the provisory code of morals

explicitly deprives the self from providing grounds for morals, by replacing one’s own opinions with

those of other persons: “…the opinions commonly accepted in practice by the most sensible of the

people with whom I would have to live” (Descartes, 2007: 11).

Within the Discourse , the self – not yet the first principle of any knowledge – accepts to ascribe the

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 self from the decision-making core of morals, where principles are established. A

moral action cannot be possible unless the self willingly stops deciding in matters of morals criteria, by

granting this privilege to others.

What the self can and cannot do

In his commentaries on the Discourse , Etienne Gilson (Gilson, 1987: 248-9) underscored the Stoic

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 self yet to

acquire clear knowledge can however operate a Stoic distinction, between the things within man’s

power and those exceeding his power:

“This involved getting the habit of believing that nothing lies entirely within our power except

our thoughts, so that after we have done our best in dealing with matters external to us,

whatever we fail to achieve is absolutely impossible so far as we are concerned” (Descartes,

2007: 12).

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 jugeons qu’une chose est bonne ou

mauvaise est une fonction qui appartient à la volonte, et l’action que nous connaissons que nous avons

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:

“You reject my statement that In order to act well it is sufficient to judge well; yet it seems to

me that the common scholastic doctrine is that The will doesn’t tend towards evil except when

evil is presented to it by the intellect as some kind of good—which generates the slogan

Whoever sins does so în ignorance—so that if the intellect never represented anything to the

will as good without its actually being so, the will could never choose wrongly. But the

intellect often represents different things to the will at the same time, and that is the source of I

see and praise the better, but I follow the worse. This applies only to weak minds, as I said in

the Discourse on the Method” (Descartes, 2013: 41).

The key to a good action of will is actually a correct knowledge of things by the intellect. Whereas

they play different roles, the two faculties ( juger – will; connaître – intellect) cannot be exerted

independently: the intellect must represent to the will things that are– not only seem– really good. The

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 adequately (Adam & Tannery, 1983:

VII, 367). Nonetheless, while knowledge will never be fully appropriate, the will must act as though

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 as long as there is no better code of morals and the common meaning of the three

maxims is to overcome the possible sceptical objection that we cannot act if we do not hold a perfect

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 only our own thoughts are absolutely in our power

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 self to stop prescribing

its own moral criteria and to adopt those of others – compatible with the third maxim (supporting that

the self should assume its own thoughts in their capacity of unique things in its power)? Can the self

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 ( sagesse ) not

only as prudence . This definition (Adam & Tannery, 1983: IX, 10) shows clearly that, after 1645,

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 ( Discourse ) and 1645, when Descartes wrote

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” ( aimer la vie sans craindre la mort ), as Descartes

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 to ignore the goods that man does not

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

Discourse , where the first maxim decentres the self in order to provide a moral code (by instituting 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 ( sagesse ) is to acquire autonomy (Adam & Tannery, 1983: IV, 265). On the

other hand, beyond the ethical dimension of the feeling of “contentment”, it also has a theological

dimension. Thus, Descartes redefines the classical concept of beatitudo (that described the state 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 self as

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 “ inutile et incertain ” (Lafuma, 1962: §887),

because philosophical judgments are “ inutile(s) pour le salut ” (Lafuma, 1962: §110). Hence, Pascal

shifts the matter of philosophical wisdom ( sagesse ) utility toward the soteriological dimension (aiming

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 ( ordres ): of the

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),

namely libidosentiendi , libido dominandi , libido sciendi. In “Conversation of Pascal with M. de Saci

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:

“These principles of a diabolic pride lead him to other errors, as that the soul is a portion of

the divine substance” (Pascal, 1909: 5).

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 self of being the fundament of the 1645

definitive moral code.

Pascal believes that the self of man affected by the Fall has an unfair ( injuste ) nature, because it

always wishes to be the centre of all:

“In a word, the Self has two qualities: it is unjust in itself since it makes itself the centre of

everything; it is inconvenient to others since it would enslave them; for each Self is the enemy,

and would like to be the tyrant of all others” (Eliot, 1959: §455).

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 self becomes for Pascal its

original sin, and this negative trait of the self cannot be diminished or impaired, but it must be

eradicated definitively.

To this end, the self must be decentred , chased away from itself , removed as philosophical instance

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 hate itself:

“We must love God only and hate self only” (Eliot, 1959: §476),

“Now we are full of lust. Therefore we are full of evil; therefore we ought to hate ourselves and

all that excited us to attach ourselves to any other object than God only” (Eliot, 1959: §479).

The self-hatred of the self has the role not only of preparing it for religious conversion, but mostly of

tearing out the very roots of the metaphysical claim of deciding on its own , using only reason (see the

letter to Elizabeth, dated August 4, 1645) over moral code and its criteria.

The autonomy claim of reason not only helps the self understand the potential errors, but it forbids

regretting them (even when they are proven), as Descartes states explicitly:

“We can rid ourselves of that opinion by bearing in mind that since we have always followed

the advice of our reason we have left undone nothing that was in our power, and that sickness

and misfortune are as natural to man as prosperity and health” (Benett, 2009: 19);

Ultimately, any philosophy that does not acknowledge God as centre of the self only produces

“superbes agitations de notre raison” (Lafuma, 1962: §131).

As for Heidegger’s question concerning what lies buried in the essence of metaphysics, Pascal had

already provided a trenchant answer to it: “abîme d'orgueil” (Lafuma, 1962: §919).


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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