Descartes on the dangers of false opinion

On the onset of his quest for pure and truthful knowledge, René Descartes decides to ‘overthrow’ all his former opinions since the latter may be built on sandy foundations. However, for fear of finding himself in a mental no man’s land, the philosopher sets for himself the rules of a ‘provisional morality’, the first being ‘to obey the laws and customs of my country’, a precept immediately followed by the injunction: ‘holding constantly to the religion in which, by God’s grace, I have been instructed from my childhood.’ Staying true to his life motto ‘Masked, I proceed’, the unorthodox pathfinder covers his track, by presenting himself as a loyal French subject and a strong Catholic believer before embarking on a systematic eradication of all unclear ideas and spurious opinions likely to jeopardise the progress of any genuine philosophy.

As a scientist famous throughout Europe for his groundbreaking work on algebraic physics and his formulation of the principle of inertia, Descartes is primarily interested in the practical applications of universal mechanical laws. His brief experience of service in the Dutch States army of Maurice of Nassau, probably contributed to his disinterest for political ideologies and their inherent violent undertones. As the ironic opening line of ‘A Discourse on Method’ points out, every man is convinced of his unwavering good sense and the absolute rectitude of his own opinions. Descartes condemns the nefarious hypocrisy of those who, justified by their own unchecked views, easily turn to prejudice before plunging into crime. Such people ‘suppose they are exquisitely perfect, and imagine they are God’s so intimate friends that they can do nothing that can displease him; and whatsoever their passions dictate them is a good zeal: although it sometimes dictates to them the greatest crimes that can be committed by men, as betraying of cities, murdering of princes, exterminating whole nations merely for this, that they are not of their opinion.’ (article 190 in ‘The Passions of the Soul’).

The intellectual refugee from Absolutist France rejected the authoritarian claims of those who prefer to obey blindly instead of reaching a truthful conclusion through the use of their critical reasoning. Only by adopting the openness and tolerance prevailing among scientific circles, can a civil society make any durable progress. Opposed to all forms of fanaticism, Descartes praised ‘generosity’ as the most desirable of all passions and ‘the key to all the other virtues’. Enriched by generosity, we are able to treat with respect our fellow human beings as equally endowed with free will and rational thinking.

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