Who to turn to in a time of social distancing? Six feet away from me, my guest is a lover of solitude, though he has not once tweeted about it. A fan of meditation long before it could be paired up with a rolling mat and streamed on Instagram—meet René Descartes. Mr. Descartes, you’re at home like everyone else. How have you been spending your time?
RD: I have already spent long enough on languages and on reading the works of the ancients, both their histories and their fables. Conversing with people of past centuries is the same as travelling.[i]
H: A great alternative when real travelling is impossible. The conference you were supposed to attend in China has obviously been cancelled. Would it have been nice going to the place where it all started?
RD: It is good to know something of various peoples’ ways of life, so that we may judge our own more soundly and not think—as those who have seen nothing of the world often do—that every departure from our way of life is ridiculous and irrational.[ii]
H: Like those who believe that the pandemic was only a result of ‘irrational’ food habits. I take it that you’re not calling it “the Chinese virus”. Are you into conspiracies, René? There have been plenty speculations about the origins of the pandemic. The CIA. The Illuminati. What you do think?
RD: In my opinion, all things in nature occur in a mathematical way.[iii]
H: Since nature is bizarre, let us talk about solutions, shall we? Rumor has it that the World Health Organization has solicited your expertise. I heard your meeting did not go well. What happened?
RD: What outraged me the most was that none of them wanted to see past my face; to the point where I felt that they wanted me because I was an elephant or a panther; because of my rarity, and not for my usefulness.[iv]
H: The WHO staff just wanted selfies with you, is that it? Why did you not speak up?
RD: Is it not better to be like a monkey whom savages mistake for a sage who abstains from speaking in fear of being forced to work for them?[v]
H: Would it be that bad for you to work for the World Health Organization? What are they doing wrong?
RD: Each time they find something certain and evident, they never show it without wrapping it in ambiguity, because of the fear of reducing, through simple formulations, the merit of their discovery.[vi]
H: What about the various collaborations between WHO and Youtube, Viber, or WhatsApp, with whom they have tried to make their guidelines simple and accessible?
RD: Once they propose an idea and someone else presents the opposite, we will never know who to believe between the two.[vii]
H: Right, the risk of disinformation. Then let me rephrase my question: WHO, or who, are the experts? Why are we having such a hard time believing anyone?
RD: We will never become mathematicians, for example, even if our memory possesses all the demonstrations done by others. We will not become philosophers for merely having read the analyses of Plato and Aristotle. In such cases, we seem to have learned, not sciences, but stories.[viii]
H: Information and knowledge are not the same thing – yes, you’re right. So, is it this gap between stories and sciences, people and experts, that makes truths so difficult to reach regarding the virus? Epidemiologists and economists keep arguing over the same topics.
RD: But [that] case is different… where everyone believes that all is problematical, and few give themselves to the search after truth; and the greater number, in their desire to acquire a reputation for boldness of thought, arrogantly combat the most important of truths.[ix]
H: Interesting. Yeah, I can see how the tendency to dispute everything in our ‘op-ed society’ hurts our search for a cohesive guide to deal with the crisis. Look at how your own president, Mr. Macron, has been dealing with the pandemic. He has framed things in terms of a ‘war against an invisible enemy’. Hence the need to shut everything down, to take drastic measures as soon as possible. Is that sensible?
RD: It would be truly unreasonable for an individual to plan to reform a state by changing it from the foundations up, overturning it in order to rebuild it.[x]
H: That’s what some scholars are saying; the idea that our capitalistic societies and their poor infrastructures have set us for failure from the start. If we should not overthrow everything, because it is too late, what’s the alternative?
RD: It is much better to follow the main roads that wind through mountains, which have gradually become smooth and convenient through frequent use, than to try to follow a straighter route that has one clambering over rocks and descending into canyons.[xi]
H: I wonder how that metaphor looks like in practice, Mr. Descartes? The thing is, we are pressed to make a decision. We are updated, with endless notifications, on each and every new death that the virus has caused.
RD: Similarly, in everyday life, we often have to act without delay. When we can’t pick out the truest opinions, we should follow the most probable ones.[xii]
H: In your opinion, which of those opinions are the most probably true?
RD: Suppose one had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot to spread. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? In just the same way[xiii]…
H: … Hold on, I’m not sure I’m following your metaphor, René. Are you seriously comparing infected people with rotten apples?
RD: [repeats, frowning] … In just the same way… those who have never philosophized correctly have various opinions in their minds which they have begun to store up since childhood, and which they therefore have reason to believe may be false. They then attempt to separate the false beliefs from the others, so as to prevent their contaminating the rest and making the whole lot uncertain. Now the best way they can accomplish this is to reject all their beliefs together in one go, as if they were all uncertain and false. They can then go over each belief in turn and re-adopt only those which they recognize to be true and indubitable.[xiv]
H: OK, my apologies, I see what you mean. You’re reminding us of your famous method for thinking in uncertain times. According to you, Mr. Macron, and others, should take things step by step, and doubt everything along the way, rather than leaping forward into the unknown with a problematic confidence. Perhaps, you’re right. Mr. Descartes; perhaps all we need, in these confusing times, is a certain method, not a certain truth. Any last advice to our audience who are stuck at home and who might feel helpless? What should they do? Could you remind us of your famous third maxim?
RD: My third maxim was to try always to master myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than changing how things stand in the world. This involved getting the habit of believing that nothing lies entirely within our power except our thoughts, so that after we have done our best in dealing with matters external to us, whatever we fail to achieve is absolutely impossible so far as we are concerned. This seemed to me to be enough, all by itself, to prevent me from having unsatisfied desires and thus to make me content. ‘Making a virtue of necessity’—as the phrase goes.[xv]
H: Making a virtue of necessity… in a time when we’re finally buying only the things we need, I believe you’re quite right, Mr. Descartes. What we should all still get, though, are copies of your books. No need to leave the house. They’re all online. Oh, you didn’t know that, René? Yikes.
[i] Descartes, R. Discourse on the Method. Jonathan Bennett Online. 2017. p. 3.
[iii] Descartes, R. Letter to Mersenne of the 11th of March 1640. Electronic Enlightenment.
[iv] Descartes, R. Letter to Chanut of the 1st of November 1646. Electronic Enlightenment.
[vi] Descartes, R. Regulae, rule III. Gallimard p. 43.
[ix] Descartes. R. Discourse on First Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. 1911. p. 2.
[x] Descartes, R. Discourse on the Method. Jonathan Bennett Online. 2017. p. 6.
[xii] Descartes, R. Discourse on the Method. Jonathan Bennett Online. 2017. p. 12.
[xiii] Descartes, R. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Cambridge University Press. 1984. p. 324.
[xv] Descartes, R. Discourse on the Method. Jonathan Bennett Online. 2017. p. 12.