Part 3

The 3 Maxims

by Rene Descartes Icon

I created a provisory code of morals with a few maxims while we rebuild the philosophical house that we live in.

Maxim 1: Obey the laws and customs of my country France

I adhere firmly to the faith I had been educated from my childhood.

For as I had from that time begun to hold my own opinions for nought because I wished to subject them all to examination, I was convinced that I could not do better than follow in the meantime the opinions of the most judicious;

The Persians and Chinese might have judicious as among ourselves, expediency seemed to dictate that I should regulate my practice conformably to the opinions of those with whom I should have to live;

In order to ascertain the real opinions of such, I ought rather to take cognizance of what they practised than of what they said, not only because, in the corruption of our manners, there are few disposed to speak exactly as they believe, but also because very many are not aware of what it is that they really believe; for, as the act of mind by which a thing is believed is different from that by which we know that we believe it, the one act is often found without the other.

I chose always the most moderate reputable opinion. These are always the most convenient for practice, and probably the best (for all excess is generally vicious), as that, in the event of my falling into error, I might be at less distance from the truth than if, having chosen one of the extremes, it should turn out to be the other which I ought to have adopted.

I placed in the class of extremes especially all promises by which somewhat of our freedom is abridged; not that I disapproved of the laws which, to provide against the instability of men of feeble resolution, when what is sought to be accomplished is some good, permit engagements by vows and contracts binding the parties to persevere in it, or even, for the security of commerce, sanction similar engagements where the purpose sought to be realized is indifferent: but because I did not find anything on earth which was wholly superior to change, and because, for myself in particular, I hoped gradually to perfect my judgments, and not to suffer them to deteriorate,

I would have deemed it a grave sin against good sense, if, for the reason that I approved of something at a particular time, I therefore bound myself to hold it for good at a subsequent time, when perhaps it had ceased to be so, or I had ceased to esteem it such.

Maxim 2: Be as firm and resolute in my actions as I can

Travellers who get lost on their way in a forest should not wander from side to side nor remain in one place. Instead, they should proceed constantly towards the same side in a straight line, without changing their direction which they choose by chance.

In this way, if they do not exactly reach the point they want, they will at least be not in the middle of the forest.

In the same way, when we are unable to determine what is true, we should act according to what is most probable.

We should not side with one opinion over another. We should nevertheless choose one or the other, and afterwards consider it as it relates to practice. This makes it manifestly true and certain since the reason by which our choice has been determined is itself possessed of these qualities.

This principle was sufficient thenceforward to rid me of all those repentings and pangs of remorse that usually disturb the consciences of such feeble and uncertain minds as, destitute of any clear and determinate principle of choice, allow themselves one day to adopt a course of action as the best, which they abandon the next, as the opposite.

Maxim 3: Always conquer myself rather than fortune

I should change my desires rather than the order of the world.

In general, there is nothing absolutely in our power, except our own thoughts.

When we have done our best in things external to us, and we fail, then we can think that success is not possible. This principle prevents me from desiring anything which I could not obtain. Thus, it renders me contented.

Our will naturally seeks objects which might be possible to attain. But if we consider all external things as equally beyond our power, we shall not regret their loss.

This makes a virtue of necessity. We shall no more desire health in disease or freedom in imprisonment just as we do not see our bodies as incorruptible as diamonds.

But this needs prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light.

This discipline made up the secret of the power of ancient philosophers who could rise above the influence of fortune and enjoy a happiness amid suffering and poverty.

For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts.

This conviction was enough to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects. Over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

I review the different occupations of men in this life in order to choose the best.

without wishing to offer any remarks on the employments of others, I may state that it was my conviction that I could not do better than continue in that in which I was engaged, viz., in devoting my whole life to the culture of my reason, and in making the greatest progress I was able in the knowledge of truth, on the principles of the method which I had prescribed to myself.

I have been so happy with this method. It led me to believe that more perfect or more innocent could not be enjoyed in this life.

Through this, I daily discovered important truths that other men have generally missed. This made me wholly indifferent to every other object.

My 3 maxims aims at self-instruction. God has endowed each of us with some light of reason.

Nor could I have proceeded on such opinions without scruple, had I supposed that I should thereby forfeit any advantage for attaining still more accurate, should such exist.

I had always wanted to follow a path where I could attain all the knowledge and good that I could. We aim to acquire all the valuable virtues that we can.

I can now rid myself of what remained of my opinions. This is why travel before the winter’s end to talk to people instead of staying isolated.

For 9 years, I roam from one place to another. I was a spectator rather than an actor in the plays on the world’s theatre.

In each matter, I reflected on what might fairly be doubted and prove a source of error, I gradually rooted out from my mind all the errors which had hitherto crept into it.

Not that in this I imitated the sceptics who doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself; for, on the contrary, my design was singly to find ground of assurance, and cast aside the loose earth and sand, that I might reach the rock or the clay.

I was successful in this.

For since I endeavoured to discover the falsehood or incertitude of the propositions I examined, not by feeble conjectures, but by clear and certain reasonings, I met with nothing so doubtful as not to yield some conclusion of adequate certainty, although this were merely the inference, that the matter in question contained nothing certain.

We destroy an old house and use its ruins to build a new one. In the same way, I destroyed my wrong opinions and chose the better ones from my experience.

I continued to exercise myself in my method, keeping within its rules.

I reserved some hours from time to time which I expressly devoted to the employment of the method in the solution of mathematical difficulties, or even in the solution likewise of some questions belonging to other sciences

but which, by my having detached them from such principles of these sciences as were of inadequate certainty, were rendered almost mathematical: the truth of this will be manifest from the numerous examples contained in this volume.

Thus, without in appearance living otherwise than those who, with no other occupation than that of spending their lives agreeably and innocently, study to sever pleasure from vice, and who, that they may enjoy their leisure without ennui, have recourse to such pursuits as are honourable, I was nevertheless prosecuting my design, and making greater progress in the knowledge of truth, than I might, perhaps, have made had I been engaged in the perusal of books merely, or in holding converse with men of letters.

These nine years passed away, however, before I had come to any determinate judgment respecting the difficulties which form matter of dispute among the learned, or had commenced to seek the principles of any philosophy more certain than the vulgar.

The examples of many men of the highest genius, who had, in former times, engaged in this inquiry, but, as appeared to me, without success, led me to imagine it to be a work of so much difficulty, that I would not perhaps have ventured on it so soon had I not heard it currently rumoured that I had already completed the inquiry.

I know not what were the grounds of this opinion; and, if my conversation contributed in any measure to its rise, this must have happened rather from my having confessed my ignorance with greater freedom than those are accustomed to do who have studied a little, and expounded perhaps, the reasons that led me to doubt of many of those things that by others are esteemed certain, than from my having boasted of any system of philosophy. But, as I am of a disposition that makes me unwilling to be esteemed different from what I really am, I thought it necessary to endeavour by all means to render myself worthy of the reputation accorded to me;

It has been 8 years since this desire constrained me to remove from all those places where interruption from any of my acquaintances was possible, and betake myself to this country.

The long war has led established such discipline, that the armies maintained seem to be of use only in enabling the inhabitants to enjoy more securely the blessings of peace and where, in the midst of a great crowd actively engaged in business, and more careful of their own affairs than curious about those of others, I have been enabled to live without being deprived of any of the conveniences to be had in the most populous cities, and yet as solitary and as retired as in the midst of the most remote deserts.


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