Wisdom of Life

René Descartes: The Meaning of Life — Virtue, Mind & Doubt

“I think, therefore I am.”

“It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.”

“Reason is nothing without imagination.”

“Conquer yourself rather than the world.”

The supreme good consists in virtue, which is a firm and constant resolution to use the will well; virtue presupposes knowledge of metaphysics and natural philosophy; happiness is the supreme contentment of mind which results from exercising virtue; the virtue of generosity is the key to all the virtues and a general remedy for regulating the passions; and virtue can be secured even though our first-order moral judgments never amount to knowledge.

My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented.

Perfect numbers like perfect men are very rare.

To live without philosophizing is in truth the same as keeping the eyes closed without attempting to open them. In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate. Just as faith teaches us that the sovereign felicity of the other life consists in the contemplation of the divine majesty alone, so even now we can learn from experience that a similar meditation, although incomparably less perfect, allows us to enjoy the greatest happiness we are capable of feeling in this life.

For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellence, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.

Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems. Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it. You just keep pushing. You just keep pushing. I made every mistake that could be made. But I just kept pushing.

I knew that the languages which one learns there are necessary to understand the works of the ancients; and that the delicacy of fiction enlivens the mind; that famous deeds of history ennoble it and, if read with understanding, aid in maturing one’s judgment; that the reading of all the great books is like conversing with the best people of earlier times; it is even studied conversation in which the authors show us only the best of their thoughts; that eloquence has incomparable powers and beauties; that poetry has enchanting delicacy and sweetness; that mathematics has very subtle processes which can serve as much to satisfy the inquiring mind as to aid all the arts and diminish man’s labor; that treatises on morals contain very useful teachings and exhortations to virtue; that theology teaches us how to go to heaven; that philosophy teaches us to talk with appearance of truth about things, and to make ourselves admired by the less learned; that law, medicine, and the other sciences bring honors and wealth to those who pursue them; and finally, that it is desirable to have examined all of them, even to the most superstitious and false in order to recognize their real worth and avoid being deceived thereby.

The first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt.

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. To attain the truth in life, we must discard all the ideas we were taught. There is nothing more ancient than the truth. Truths are more likely to have been discovered by one man than by nation.

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.

Doubt is the origin of wisdom. For I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my own ignorance.

The only thing that I know, is that I know nothing.

I suppose therefore that all things I see are illusions; I believe that nothing has ever existed of everything my lying memory tells me. I think I have no senses. I believe that body, shape, extension, motion, location are functions. What is there then that can be taken as true? Perhaps only this one thing, that nothing at all is certain.

And, in fine, of false sciences I thought I knew the worth sufficiently to escape being deceived by the professions of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or by the artifices and boasting of any of those who profess to know things of which they are ignorant.

Good sense is the most equitably distributed of all things because no matter how much or little a person has, everyone feels so abundantly provided with good sense that he feels no desire for more than he already possesses. Whenever enyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.

I have concluded the evident existence of God, and that my existence depends entirely on God in all the moments of my life, that I do not think that the human spirit may know anything with greater evidence and certitude.

“To know what people really think, pay attention to what they do, rather than what they say.”

“We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we can describe.”

“How can you be certain that your whole life is not a dream?”

***

~René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who invented analytic geometry, linking the previously separate fields of geometry and algebra.

Quotes from Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, The Principles Of Philosophy

©Excellence Reporter 2022

Categories: Wisdom of Life

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