Ce qu’il y a de latin, c’est ce besoin de se servir des mots pour exprimer des idées qui soient claires. Car pour moi les idées claires sont…des idées mortes et terminées. (Latinity comes down to this need to use words to express clear ideas. Yet for me clear ideas are dead ideas. They are dead-end ideas.)
Descartes earned quite a bit of intellectual capital by inventing analytical geometry and he spent every penny of it trying to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. For his efforts Descartes earned the sneers of Enlightenment materialists, precisely the sort of people his writings were meant to convert, and the accusation of Pelagianism on the part of various Dutch universities. Despite his intense intellectual efforts to base his faith on both reason and revelation Descartes gave his name to a movement that one proper English lady referred to as “those horrible Cartesians.”
From the very outset Descartes makes quite clear that his goal is to produce proofs of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul that all the rigor of geometrical reasoning and strict logical consequence would support. His conclusions are to be secure beyond all reasonable doubt. To this end he resurrected not Euclid but rather a variation on a type of interactive reasoning found in Plato as well as a revised version of Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument framed in terms of the emerging theory of mental faculties.
In his Prefatory Letter Descartes acknowledges that probably only those already blessed with the gift of faith will be convinced by his arguments which, of course, means that he was merely preaching to the choir. This circular procedure did not bode well for removing the infidels from their dastardly ways. Despite his variance from approved Romish teachings, Descartes was treated with a great deal of respect by potentates from the Louvre to Uppsala and, after Galileo’s forced retirement, he became the flash point of the lively intellectual movement that fostered the birth of what we recognize today as the physical sciences, a movement whose members thought long and hard about the intellectual and cultural consequences of their offspring.
Today Descartes is a French cultural monument and the primary text in Philosophy 101’s around the world. Aside from the stray faggot priest, however, those willing to actually espouse Descartes’ philosophical arguments are somewhat thin on the ground. No surprise, since the very limpidity of his style has made his errors palpable. Descartes appears to be the victim of his own demand for unassailable scientific certainty in matters philosophic. But this failure is his achievement. He raised the bar that measures valid proof so high that ever after in the Western world at least philosophical reasoning as well as scientific research and cultural and political pronunciamentos would of needs be subject to the most rigorous critical examination. His very limpidity showed by example that jabberwockish debate was no longer acceptable and that ideas had to plead before the court of educated common sense.