Sunday, May 28, 2023

Descartes: commitment & community

I found a passage written by the philosopher Descartes which I thought interesting (it is from his letter to Elisabeth of Bohemia, 1645). Descartes is recognised as a progenitor of modern thought, but he clearly did not support the radical individualism which has come to characterise liberal modernity. 

He writes:

After acknowledging the goodness of God, the immortality of our souls and the immensity of the universe, there is yet another truth that is, in my opinion, most useful to know. That is, that though each of us is a person distinct from others, whose interests are accordingly in some way different from those of the rest of the world, we ought still to think that none of us could subsist alone and that each one of us is really one of the many parts of the universe, and more particularly a part of the earth, the state, the society and the family to which we belong by our domicile, our oath of allegiance and our birth. 

What I believe he gets right here is not only the idea that we are social creatures, but that we are a part of (i.e. we belong to as an aspect of our being) certain communities. Descartes clearly accepts that our membership of some of these communities is predetermined - that we are born into them. Unlike liberal moderns, he does not push the logic of individual autonomy to the point of rejecting unchosen forms of community.

René Descartes

The next part is more questionable:
And the interests of the whole, of which each of us is a part, must always be preferred to those of our own particular person —with measure, of course, and discretion, because it would be wrong to expose ourselves to a great evil in order to procure only a slight benefit to our kinsfolk or our country. (Indeed if someone were worth more, by himself, than all his fellow citizens, he would have no reason to destroy himself to save his city.) 
Understood a certain way, this makes sense. If I could make money in a way that betrayed my country, then I should certainly set aside my own financial self-interest in favour of preserving the national community I belong to. Even so, the introduction of a kind of moral calculus here rings false. It is also unhelpful, I think, to focus on the idea that there are occasions when it is morally right to destroy ourselves to preserve the community. More typically, in acting to uphold the good of the community we belong to, we are also preserving our own good, as our own good can only be fully realised in common with others.

Descartes continues:
But if someone saw everything in relation to himself, he would not hesitate to injure others greatly when he thought he could draw some slight advantage; and he would have no true friendship, no fidelity, no virtue at all. On the other hand, if someone considers himself a part of the community, he delights in doing good to everyone, and does not hesitate even to risk his life in the service of others when the occasion demands. If he could, he would even be willing to lose his soul to save others. So this consideration is the source and origin of all the most heroic actions done by men. 

Descartes is arguing against the idea that a society can be formed solely on the basis of individual self-interest. If I act solely from selfish motives, then there is no ground for important virtues like loyalty. If, though, I see myself as being part of a community, in the sense that it is an aspect of identity and belonging, this is likely to inspire my social commitments. Descartes' views have been supported by the research of Professor Robert Putnam, who found that when there is less ethnic solidarity, that people tend to "withdraw from collective life" and to "to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often". Descartes' basic argument here is also one I have often made myself, as for instance in defending the continuing existence of historic nations:

From this larger body we derive parts of our identity, our loves and attachments, our participation in a larger, transcendent tradition, our sense of pride and achievement, our social commitments, our attachments to place, whether to nature, landscape or urban environment, our connection to a particular cultural tradition, our commitments to maintaining moral and cultural standards, our sense of connectedness to both the history of our own people - to generations past - as well as our commitment to future generations.
I should pause, though, to question one part of Descartes' argument. He says that we should be willing to lose our souls to save others. Perhaps he wrote this for effect, but taken literally I think he is wrong.

Descartes writes in a similar vein:
A person seems to me more pitiful than admirable if he risks death from vanity, in the hope of praise, or through stupidity, because he does not apprehend the danger. But when a person risks death because he believes it to be his duty, or when he suffers some other evil to bring good to others, then he acts in virtue of the consideration that he owes more to the community of which he is a part than to himself as an individual, though this thought may be only confusedly in his mind without his reflecting upon it.

He connects this to a religious piety - to preferring to follow God's will rather than hedonic pleasures:

Once someone knows and loves God as he should, he has a natural impulse to think in this way; for then, abandoning himself altogether to God's will, he strips himself of his own interests, and has no other passion than to do what he thinks pleasing to God. Thus he acquires a mental satisfaction and contentment incomparably more valuable than all the passing joys which depend upon the senses.

In addition to these truths which concern all our actions in general, many others must be known which concern more particularly each individual action. The chief of these, in my view, are those I mentioned in my last letter: namely that all our passions represent to us the goods to whose pursuit they impel us as being much greater than they really are; and that the pleasures of the body are never as lasting as those of the soul, or as great in possession as they appear in anticipation. 
Descartes clearly considers our commitments to family and nation to be higher spiritual goods, through which we follow God's will for us, and are contrasted with a selfish pursuit of hedonic pleasure.

Although I do not subscribe to Descartes' larger philosophy, his views on this topic are preferable to those that were to develop later on, in which the individual was expected to pursue self-interest in the market (as Economic Man), and to develop solo as an individual outside of natural forms of community, with many intellectuals ultimately becoming not only disembedded from their own historic communities but actively hostile to them.

1 comment:

  1. descartes is considered the “father” of modernism because of one paragraph in one essay. descartes said that everything could be doubted, and everything could be rejected, except for the fact that he could doubt things and that could never be ejected: often quoted with “I think, therefore I am.”

    this one line was used as a weapon by voltaire in his blasphemies, and that’s why devil worshipers simultaneously venerate descartes yet would be disgusted upon actually reading him.

    it’s kind of like when the left quotes one line of one paragraph in karl popper’s “you have to be intolerant of intolerance” essay, when karl popper goes on to say that state sponsored persecution of Religions or political parties should be a capital crime. Ignoring also that popper HATED second generation liberalism, and even coined the term “pseudoscience” to describe the unholy “trinity” of “evolution, marxism, and psychology” meaning clearly false things you must religiously accept though they vociferously deny they are religions.

    would a liberal actually read popper, they would vomit, but popper was a mentor to saul alinsky before he failed out of college. saul alinsky then corrupted popper’s idea as a weapon in service to the very things popper fought against.

    Now you know. Probably should write a new post on that mechanism of evil too.