About This Book
On 10th November 1619, René Descartes had a nightmare. He was walking down a road in a violent storm and shadowy figures were following him. He couldn't keep a straight line. A weakness was affecting his right side and driving him constantly to the left. Strong gusts of wind kept spinning him around and preventing him from getting a sure footing.
Ahead of him he could make out some gates and beyond that a church where he could flee the storm. But even when he went in the courtyard, the wind kept throwing him off balance. He saw a man he recognised and tried to say something to him. It was impossible. He couldn't stand upright. Then, slowly, other figures began to appear, all of them steady on their feet, unaffected by the weather. And they stared down at him as he scrambled in the dirt.
He woke up. It was the dead of night. A fire crackled in the corner of the room. Descartes was inexplicably terrified. For hours he lay in bed and there in the darkness, half-mad with anxiety, he started to develop a terrible thought: what if there was an evil demon watching him, putting these nightmares in his head?
He prayed. And then, finally, he fell asleep again.
As soon as he lost consciousness there was a loud explosion. He snapped back awake and stared at the fire. Had it crackled loudly? Or did that just happen in his mind? He felt more terror, more of the anxiety of the night-time, and then eventually drifted off again.
He was standing by a table with two books on it. He opened one of them and saw the line: ' Quod vitae sectabor iter?' – what path in life shall I follow? A man appeared and they discussed the books for a while. Then the books and the man faded.
But Descartes did not wake up. He stood there, by the table, and realised something. He was dreaming. And then he started to interpret the dream, to think it through, while he was still in it. When the analysis ended, he woke up.
These dreams would come to define Descartes' life. He became concerned with the gap between dream and reality, the thin line between being awake – existing in a real physical space with ordered thoughts – and the crazed world of dreaming, where everything is bizarre and volatile.
The aspect of dreams which seems to have disturbed Descartes was how life-like they felt. If dreams seemed so real at the time, he thought, then who was to say that the things we thought or perceived when we were awake were any more reliable? For all he knew, the evil demon he imagined that night was real. It could be putting thoughts into his mind when he was awake as easily as it could while he was asleep.
Descartes didn't believe there was an evil demon. What concerned him was that he could not prove – utterly, without any trace of doubt – that there wasn't. And if he couldn't prove that, then he couldn't really prove anything. Perhaps green was red. Perhaps two plus two equalled five. Perhaps the bed he slept in wasn't real. If you followed this line of reasoning far enough, the world fell down: maths, geometry, physics, politics, religion, civilisation. Everything was built on shaky foundations.
Descartes, an aimless 23-year-old Frenchman, decided to dedicate his life to finding certainty. He roamed the world, speaking with scientists and theologians, trying to find bits of knowledge, priceless slivers of certainty, which he could be absolutely sure were true. He was engaged in an act of existential quarantine: finding and isolating facts that someone could believe without any shadow of doubt.
'During the following nine years I did nothing other than wander around the world trying to be a spectator rather than an actor in the dramas that unfold there, ' he wrote. 'I rooted out of my mind all the errors that could have slipped into it.' Then, eventually, he settled down and started to write philosophy. It was not until he was 45, in a work called Meditations on First Philosophy, that he properly grappled with the dream and its implications. It is arguably the most important book ever written, but not for the reason Descartes thought. He intended for it to be an affirmation of religious faith. He wanted to protect belief in God from the relentless doubt he had experienced, from nagging questions of scepticism. But instead of finding certainty in God, he found it somewhere else entirely. He found it in the individual.
This idea would go on to destroy the old world and create a new one, based on rights, reason and liberty. It was the birth of liberalism. And it happened by accident.
Descartes was a hard man to like. He combined haughty arrogance about the brilliance of his writing with extreme sensitivity to criticism and a disregard for the work of almost everyone else.
He dismissed even great thinkers and seemed completely uninterested in any book, by any author, on any subject. 'Although when one publishes a book one is always very anxious to know what readers say about it, ' he once wrote, 'I can assure you that it concerns me very little. Indeed, I think I know the ability of most of those who pass for learned so well that I would think little of my views if they approved them.'
He was no more interested in people's company than their writing. When he returned from his early travels, he lived like a recluse, moving constantly from house to house, town to town, in a bid to be left alone.
In the end, he started to conceal his location from even trusted friends and put misleading return addresses on his correspondence. His acquaintances, such as they were, began referring to him as Monsieur d'Escartes: Mr Evasion. His few friendships almost always ended in bitterness and recrimination.
Insofar as he kept contact with anyone, it was Marin Mersenne, a French mathematician who acted as an intellectual hub for the scientific minds of Europe. As Descartes became more and more reclusive, Mersenne served, to all intents and purposes, as his emissary on earth. He forwarded his correspondence, told him of the current debates among learned men in France, and helped him publish his books.
They were living through a period of great change, where rationality was starting to challenge the old authority structures.
Since around the end of the 12th Century, the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had begun to meld with Catholicism and fossilise into dogma. Subjects like epistemology, the study of knowledge, and metaphysics, the study of reality, had narrowed into unchallengeable truisms. Those who questioned them too forcefully were accused of heresy. Religious authorities used torture and execution to keep people in line.
Then something broke. It started with the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish polymath. His book in 1543, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, rejected the idea that Earth was the centre of the universe. In fact, the Earth was just a part of a solar system. The other planets in the sky were not circling around it. They, like the Earth, were circling the sun.
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