Part 1

My Life

by Rene Descartes Icon

Good sense is the most equally distributed among men. Everyone thinks himself having it.

Those who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of good sense than they already have.

Their conviction shows that:

  • the power of judging is by nature equal in all men
  • the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others. Instead, it comes from us:
    • conducting our thoughts in different ways, and
    • not fixing our attention to the same objects.

Having a vigorous mind is not enough. One must apply it.

The greatest minds are open likewise to the greatest aberrations. Those who travel very slowly may progress far if they keep always to the straight road, than those who run and forsake it.

My mind is not superior to others. I am even inferior to others in:

  • quickness of thought
  • clearness and distinctness of imagination
  • fullness and readiness of memory.

These are the only qualities that I think lead to the perfection of the mind.

Reason or sense is already complete in each individual.

The errors in reason come from the accidents, and not from the natures of individuals of the same species.

I was lucky to fall into certain tracks very early in life which have:

  • led me to maxims gradually augmented my knowledge
  • raised my knowledge to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents will permit me to reach.

It has helped me to get used to thinking lowly enough of myself. I view the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, as a philosopher. I find scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless.

I nevertheless have the highest satisfaction from my progress in my search after truth.

I shall describe the paths I have followed so that:

  • each one may also be able to judge of them for himself
  • I myself may have a new help towards teaching my method

I do not aim to teach the method which each one should follow for the right conduct of his reason. My aim is solely to describe the way how I conduct my own reason.

They who set themselves to give precepts must of course regard themselves as possessed of greater skill than those to whom they prescribe.

If they err in the slightest particular, they subject themselves to censure. But as this tract is put forth merely as a history, or, if you will, as a tale, in which, amid some examples worthy of imitation, there will be found, perhaps, as many more which it were advisable not to follow, I hope it will prove useful to some without being hurtful to any, and that my openness will find some favor with all.

From my childhood, I have been familiar with letters. But as soon as I had finished the entire study, I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors. These convinced me that I was still ignorant.

And yet I was studying in one of the most celebrated schools in Europe with learned men. I read all the books that I could.

I was not inferior to my fellows, although there were among them some who were much higher. I judged all other men by myself. I concluded that there was no science in existence that was of such a nature as I had previously believed.

  • the languages taught in schools are necessary to understand the writings of the ancients.
  • the grace of fable stirs the mind
  • the memorable deeds of history elevate it and aid in forming the judgment if read with discretion
  • the reading of excellent books is to interview with the noblest authors
  • eloquence has incomparable force and beauty
  • poetry has its ravishing graces and delights
  • the mathematics has many refined discoveries that gratify the inquisitive, as well as further all the arts as lessen the labour of man
  • numerous highly useful precepts and exhortations to virtue are contained in treatises on morals
  • theology points out the path to heaven
  • philosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple; that jurisprudence, medicine, and the other sciences, secure for their cultivators honours and riches
  • it is useful to bestow some attention upon all, even upon those abounding the most in superstition and error, that we may be in a position to determine their real value, and guard against being deceived.

But I believed that I had already given sufficient time to languages, and likewise to the reading of the writings of the ancients, to their histories and fables.

Talking with those of other ages and traveling are almost the same thing.

It is useful to know the manners of different nations so that:

  • we can form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and
  • avoid thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational.
    • People whose experience has been limited to their own country think like this.

On the other hand, when we travel for too long, we become strangers to our native country. The over curious in the customs of the past are generally ignorant of those of the present.

Besides, fictitious narratives lead us to imagine the possibility of many events that are impossible; and even the most faithful histories, if they do not wholly misrepresent matters, or exaggerate their importance to render the account of them more worthy of perusal, omit, at least, almost always the meanest and least striking of the attendant circumstances;

hence it happens that the remainder does not represent the truth, and that such as regulate their conduct by examples drawn from this source, are apt to fall into the extravagances of the knight-errants of romance, and to entertain projects that exceed their powers.

I esteemed eloquence highly, and was in raptures with poesy; but I thought that both were gifts of nature rather than fruits of study. Those in whom the faculty of reason is predominant, and who most skillfully dispose their thoughts with a view to render them clear and intelligible, are always the best able to persuade others of the truth of what they lay down, though they should speak only in the language of Lower Brittany, and be wholly ignorant of the rules of rhetoric;

Those whose minds are stored with the most agreeable fancies, and who can give expression to them with the greatest embellishment and harmony, are still the best poets, though unacquainted with the art of poetry.

I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of the certitude and evidence of their reasonings; but I had not as yet a precise knowledge of their true use; and thinking that they but contributed to the advancement of the mechanical arts, I was astonished that foundations, so strong and solid, should have had no loftier superstructure reared on them.

On the other hand, I compared the disquisitions of the ancient moralists to very towering and magnificent palaces with no better foundation than sand and mud= they laud the virtues very highly, and exhibit them as estimable far above anything on earth; but they give us no adequate criterion of virtue, and frequently that which they designate with so fine a name is but apathy, or pride, or despair, or parricide.

I revered our theology, and aspired as much as any one to reach heaven.

But being given assuredly to understand that the way is not less open to the most ignorant than to the most learned, and that the revealed truths which lead to heaven are above our comprehension, I did not presume to subject them to the impotency of my reason.

I thought that in order competently to undertake their examination, there was need of some special help from heaven, and of being more than man.

Philosophy has been cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men.

Every topic within its sphere is still in dispute.

And so I expected not to have more success in philosophy than others.

Learned men have many conflicting opinions touching a single topic.

Yet, there is just one truth. Thus, their opinions are only only probable.

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