The Stoicism of Descartes

The Stoicism of Descartes

Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

descartesCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2010.  All rights reserved.

Writing in the 17th century, Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, describes how his famous epistemological meditations led him to develop a moral code, based upon three central maxims.  The first two of these refer to respect for custom and consistency in life.  However, Descartes account of his third maxim provides a striking expression of his assimilation of certain Stoic ideas, in the third chapter of his Discourse on Method:

My third maxim was always to try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible. And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contented. For, our will tending by nature to desire only what our understanding represents to it as somehow possible, it is certain that, if we consider all the goods that are outside us as equally beyond our power, we will have no more regrets about lacking those that seem owed to us as our birthright when we are deprived of them through no fault of our own, than we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and that, making a virtue of necessity, as they say, we shall no more desire to be healthy if we are sick, or to be free if we are in prison, than we do to have a body made of a material as incorruptible as diamonds, or wings to fly like birds. 

This is one form of the Stoic contemplation upon necessity and determinism.  It is clear, as the ancient philosophers observed, that nobody really feels pity for an infant because it cannot walk or speak, although we may feel differently about an adult who is dumb or lame.  People do not become frustrated because they cannot grow wings and fly but they do often envy the wealth and possessions of others.  Accepting that something is outside of our control often seems to mean that we give up our desire for it but people often seem to torture themselves with goals that, although possible for other people or for them at another stage in life, are not currently within their power to achieve (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.21).  For example, many people wish they could change the past, or wish that they were rich and famous, demands which are either illogical, physically impossible, or unrealistic given the limitations of their current circumstances.  However, Descartes continues:

But I admit that long exercise is needed as well as frequently repeated meditation, in order to become accustomed to looking at everything from this point of view; and I believe that it is principally in this that the secret of those philosophers [such as Socrates and the Stoics] consists, who in earlier times were able to free themselves from fortune’s domination and who, despite sorrows and poverty, could rival their gods in happiness. For occupying themselves ceaselessly with considering the limits prescribed to them by nature, they so perfectly persuaded themselves that nothing was in their power but their affection for other things, and they controlled their thoughts so absolutely that in this they had some reason for reckoning themselves richer, more powerful, freer, and happier than any other men who, not having this philosophy, never thus controlled everything they wished to control, however favoured by nature and fortune they might be. 

One thought on “The Stoicism of Descartes

  1. Splendid — Descartes working through Stoic influence to recover virtues as old and perennially fresh as Socrates’ erases the barriers of time and disempowers our excuses. Thanks are due to every link in that chain, including D. Robertson.

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