Single Foundersby Rene Descartes
I went to Germany, attracted by its wars.
I was returning to the army from the coronation of the emperor. Winter stopped me in an uninteresting place where I could be with my thoughts.
- made up of many separate parts
- made by different hands
Those done by a single master is more perfect.
Thus, the buildings planned and built by a single architect are generally more elegant and commodious than those that have been renovated from the original. The latter use old walls for purposes that they were not originally built for.
Ancient cities which began as villages are usually have bad planning compared with the regularity constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain.
In the same way, those nations which gradually advanced from a semi-barbarous state have had their laws successively determined. Their insitutions are less perfect than those which, from the start had laws made by some wise legislator.
Thus, the constitution of the true religion must be incomparably superior.
I believe that the pre-eminence of Sparta came from a single person. It was not from its laws.
In the same way, the theoretical sciences are made up of the opinions of many people massed together who are farther from truth than the simple inferences of a man of good sense using his natural and unprejudiced judgment while respecting experience.
It is almost impossible that our judgments can be so correct or solid as they would have been, had our reason been mature from the moment of our birth, and had we always been guided by it alone.
We do not usually pull down all the houses of a town with the single design of rebuilding them differently, and thereby rendering the streets more handsome;
but it often happens that a private individual takes down his own with the view of erecting it anew, and that people are even sometimes constrained to this when their houses are in danger of falling from age, or when the foundations are insecure. With this before me by way of example, I was persuaded that it would indeed be preposterous for a private individual to think of reforming a state by fundamentally changing it throughout, and overturning it in order to set it up amended;
and the same I thought was true of any similar project for reforming the body of the sciences, or the order of teaching them established in the schools.
but as for the opinions which up to that time I had embraced, I thought that I could not do better than resolve at once to sweep them wholly away, that I might afterwards be in a position to admit either others more correct, or even perhaps the same when they had undergone the scrutiny of reason.
I firmly believed that in this way I should much better succeed in the conduct of my life, than if I built only upon old foundations, and leaned upon principles which, in my youth, I had taken upon trust.
For although I recognized various difficulties in this undertaking, these were not, however, without remedy, nor once to be compared with such as attend the slightest reformation in public affairs.
Large bodies, if once overthrown, are set up again with great difficulty. They are hardly kept erect when once seriously shaken.
Then if there are any imperfections in the constitutions of states (and that many such exist the diversity of constitutions is alone sufficient to assure us), custom has without doubt materially smoothed their inconveniences, and has even managed to steer altogether clear of, or insensibly corrected a number which sagacity could not have provided against with equal effect; and, in fine, the defects are almost always more tolerable than the change necessary for their removal;
in the same manner that highways which wind among mountains, by being much frequented, become gradually so smooth and commodious, that it is much better to follow them than to seek a straighter path by climbing over the tops of rocks and descending to the bottoms of precipices.
Hence, I cannot approve of those restless and busy meddlers who call for reforms when they themselves are not worthy to manage the public affairs.
; and if I thought that this tract contained aught which might justify the suspicion that I was a victim of such folly, I would by no means permit its publication. I have never contemplated anything higher than the reformation of my own opinions, and basing them on a foundation wholly my own. And although my own satisfaction with my work has led me to present here a draft of it, I do not by any means therefore recommend to every one else to make a similar attempt.
Those whom God has endowed with a larger measure of genius will entertain, perhaps, designs still more exalted; but for the many I am much afraid lest even the present undertaking be more than they can safely venture to imitate.
Not everyone should abandon all their past beliefs.
The majority of men are of two classes:
- The overconfident
These lack the patience needed for orderly and circumspect thinking. If they doubt their beliefs, they become lost.
- The modest
These know that others are better in discriminating between truth and error. They learn from such people are content with those opinions.
I am part of the latter class. I have been educated by but one master. , or had I never known the diversities of opinion that from time immemorial have prevailed among men of the greatest learning.
But I had become aware, even so early as during my college life, that no opinion, however absurd and incredible, can be imagined, which has not been maintained by some one of the philosophers; and afterwards in the course of my travels I remarked that all those whose opinions are decidedly repugnant to ours are not in that account barbarians and savages, but on the contrary that many of these nations make an equally good, if not better, use of their reason than we do.
I took into account also the very different character which a person brought up from infancy in France or Germany exhibits, from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he lived always among the Chinese or with savages, and the circumstance that in dress itself the fashion which pleased us ten years ago, and which may again, perhaps, be received into favor before ten years have gone, appears to us at this moment extravagant and ridiculous.
I was thus led to infer that the ground of our opinions is far more custom and example than any certain knowledge. And, finally, although such be the ground of our opinions, I remarked that a plurality of suffrages is no guarantee of truth where it is at all of difficult discovery, as in such cases it is much more likely that it will be found by one than by many. I could, however, select from the crowd no one whose opinions seemed worthy of preference, and thus I found myself constrained, as it were, to use my own reason in the conduct of my life.
I was like one walking alone in the dark. I walked so slowly that if I did not advance far, I would at least guard against falling.
I did not even choose to dismiss summarily any of the opinions that had crept into my belief without having been introduced by reason, but first of all took sufficient time carefully to satisfy myself of the general nature of the task I was setting myself, and ascertain the true method by which to arrive at the knowledge of whatever lay within the compass of my powers.