Saturday, December 03, 2005

eighth paper

This is another paper for Philosophical Anthropology, mentioned here: Descartes' and Nietzsche's Understanding of the Human Person: A Critique and Contribution to Christianity.

Lemme tell ya, I was honestly shocked that I got an A on this one, I was prepared to get a low B at most. This is definitely the hardest paper I've worked on all semester, even moreso than my paper on the Goodridge Decision. My professor made many insightful comments on my paper, as he ususally does, but I won't put those here.

Really, all of my professors, on all of my papers have seen every hole in my logic. These have been very valuable. If you've read any of my papers on here and thought, "Well, hmmm, that doesn't sound right," odds are there was a comment made about it. If you're interested in these email me at matthardesty at hotmail dot com.

You'll also see, I'm a maniac when it comes to footnotes!

Here it is:


RenĂ© Descartes, in “Part Four” of his Discourse on Method[1], states, “[B]ecause our senses sometimes deceive us, I wanted to suppose that nothing was exactly as they led us to imagine.”[2] This statement became one of the driving forces behind his effort to rectify what he believed was a system of doubts indoctrinated in him during his schooling as a child. Descartes, essentially dismissing the classics, the early Church Fathers, and Medieval scholasticism in the process, would devise a new method for discovering knowledge and truth. He would “raze everything to the ground and begin again,”[3] he said, by “building upon a foundation which is completely my own.”[4] This method would deny the senses so that then, freed from the doubts they bring, only “the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly [would be] true.”[5] This would also further his argument for the “real distinction between mind and body.”[6] But, Friedrich Nietzsche, coming 250 years after Descartes, seems to dismiss Descartes by saying that his is just the typical “irritation and rancor against sensuality”[7] that has plagued every philosopher that has ever lived. But, this essay will show that Nietzsche’s opinion doesn’t exactly apply to Descartes. Descartes’ real purpose will be presented and then highlighted by Nietzsche’s opposing argument concerning the body in his “ascetic ideal.” Finally a conclusion will be made determining if any elements from either argument could be useful to Christian theology, a theology that is threatened by both philosophers.[8]

To be sure, the arguments Descartes posits for the doubting of the senses and thus the distinction between mind and body are baseless. In “Meditation Six” of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes explains that the senses are suspect because of, for example, the “betrayal” of depth perception,[9] because some amputees have reported pain in their “phantom limb,” and because senses seem equally present in dreams as in wakefulness. But these are not deceptions, per se, as if the senses are inherently flawed, deceitful, or will to be malicious. They simply function according to the way God designed them and the world that they detect. Descartes himself states his trust in the order God has made and is even confidant that He is not a deceiver: “[F]rom the beginning, God made it such as it had to be”[10] and “it is impossible for God ever to deceive me.”[11] So how could his senses be absolutely deceitful?

In his search for “clear and distinct” truth, Descartes banishes from his knowledge everything he’s ever learned through his senses or by way of demonstration. This would mean the total erasure of any and all knowledge (and being) but Descartes escapes this absurdity by stating that one thing does remain: his res cogitans, his “thinking thing.” “[T]hought exists, it alone cannot be separated from me. I am; I exist – this is certain… I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing.” From here he can conclude, “I am not that concatenation of members we call the human body.”[12]

He elaborates on the distinction between his mind and body in “Meditation Six.” Because Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of himself as a thinking thing only and a clear and distinct idea of his body as res extensa, an extended thing only, he can conclude that he is really distinct from his body and can exist without it. Because clear and distinct ideas come from God then it must be obvious that God intended to differentiate and separate the two.[13] Plus Descartes asserts that he recognizes distinct faculties in himself; imagining and sensing require and must belong to thinking only; and movement, shape, etc. require and must belong to a body only. Thus there is a “real distinction between mind and body,” with the mind being the sole and total source of essence and being.[14]

Again, this distinction is based on the assumption and assertion that radical doubting of the senses is acceptable. But we must not believe that Descartes was oblivious to this dubious foundation. Rather, he built it quite purposefully because it was necessary for his new vision and method for knowledge, one that he hoped would control the world and place man on top if it using mathematical physics. This is where he differs quite drastically from Nietzsche’s caricature of the philosopher.

In his work, On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche makes the case that religion and morality, especially in Christianity, are the enemy of life in man and keep him from fully expressing his will and experiencing the present at its fullest. He traces this back to the Jews who, rather than take on the morality of their conquerors, as was the traditional behavior, they resented their plight and devised their own morality.[15] In this resistance, their priestly caste succeeded in making their conquerors feel guilty for exerting the strength that they had by nature.[16] This caste then compounded the guilt by holding up their peoples’ weakness and lowly state as a virtue to be aspired to and followed. This “slave morality,” this “ascetic ideal,” has thus poisoned mankind from generation to generation.

The ascetics, as a people, retreat from life and deny themselves through “poverty, humility, chastity,”[17] and through other means in reaction to the suffering or constraint imposed on them by the various “masters” or obstacles in life.[18] Philosophers, a particularly sophisticated subset of the ascetics, retreat from life and moderate their senses not out of reaction to oppression but for higher truths, a higher realm, the gods and immortality.[19] This is the motivation behind the typical “philosophers’ irritation and rancor against sensuality.”[20] But, Descartes is no typical philosopher. He denigrates the senses not to escape this life but to control it, and he does it not to pursue the gods and the higher life but to become a god himself over this life.

For Descartes, even at “one of the most renowned schools of Europe,” knowledge and truth weren’t valuable in and of themselves, but only in so far as they yielded “everything that is useful in life.” He had a “tremendous desire to master them”[21] and “to distinguish the true from the false, in order to see [his] way clearly in [his] actions, and to go forward with confidence in this life.”[22] And what obstructed him from living “confidently”? In “Part Six” of his Discourse on Method, Descartes states his hopes for his method. He must be subtle here, to avoid eliciting a reaction to his work like that of Galileo’s, but his intentions are clear:

[I]t is possible to find a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the various skills of our craftsmen, we might be able in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature.

Mankind, with his method, would also be able to enjoy “trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there,” the “maintenance of health,” and freedom from an “infinity of maladies,” and even “the frailty of old age.” In this regard Descartes has little use for mankind (other than to further his experiments[23]), natural law, the Church, and God who would, if he were to have his way from his day forward, no longer be the masters of these domains. This shapes his entire life’s project, and offers little to Christian theology.

Now that we have used Nietzsche’s “ascetic ideal” to highlight Descartes, can we find anything in Nietzsche’s arguments that would be useful for Christian theology? On the surface it seems to be not so, as Nietzsche rails extensively on Christianity as not only a system of belief that tends towards or sometimes falls into the faults he finds with it, but one that essentially embodies those faults. For Nietzsche, Christianity is a religion of cowardice, passive-aggressiveness, and ressentiment (“resentment”)[24]. It builds comforting illusions to escape the hardships of this life and has developed an elaborate religiosity as a weapon against its oppressors. Christians have the same “will to power” as any other peoples only theirs is under the guise of truth, compassion, and justice.

Although the picture Nietzsche paints of Christianity is indeed a caricature, he is more useful than Descartes because his arguments are based on observations of behavior, rather than mere assertions and assumptions. So, we must be careful not to fall into his caricature, to become what Nietzsche thinks we are. Is our faith just a search for security? Is it merely a form of escapism? Is our asceticism merely hatred for the body, mere “death instinct,” mere “denial of life intensity”? Or does it aid us not only in attaining the “next life” but in enhancing our current life as well? We must also ask ourselves if our prayer and worship are founded on our belief that they are true or fear of the alternative if they are not true.[25] All of these challenges, if taken seriously, can be valuable in helping us maintain Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Merold Westphal, in his book Suspicion and Faith, mentions not only Nietzsche but also Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in his particular challenge to Christianity. He says that we must

take the religious critiques of this unholy trio seriously rather than simply trying to refute or discredit them, to read them as a kind of Lenten spiritual exercise in self-examination… If there is more to the life of faith than self-deception in the service of self-interest, the best demonstration of this is not proof but practice.[26]

So we see that by understanding Nietzsche’s scathing challenges we can not only serve to check ourselves but address the currents of his thought in society as well.


[1] Any quotes from Descartes’ Discourse on Method or Meditations on First Philosophy will be from the work that combines the two, translated by Donald A. Cress, 4th ed., ©1998, Hackett Publishing Co. Hereafter referred to as either “Discourse” or “Meditations” depending on which part of the work is referenced.
[2] Discourse, “Part Four,” p. 18
[3] Meditations, “Meditation One,” p. 59
[4] Discourse, “Part Two,” p. 9
[5] Ibid. “Part Four,” p. 19
[6] This is the title of Meditations, “Meditation Six”: “Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body”.
[7] On the Genealogy of Morals 3.7, p. 106. Any quotes from Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morals will be from the work that combines it with Ecce Homo, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books ed, Nov 1989, ©1967 Random House, Inc. Hereafter referred to as “Genealogy”.
[8] I arrived at the direction of this three-part thesis during conversation on the topic with Dr. Paul Seaton, St. Mary’s Seminary & University, and acknowledge his assistance here.
[9] Meditations, “Meditation Six,” p. 95: “Towers that had seemed round from afar occasionally appeared square at close quarters. Very large statues mounted on their pedestals did not seem large to someone looking at them from ground level.”
[10] Discourse, “Part Five,” p. 24
[11] Meditations, “Meditation Four,” p. 81
[12] Ibid. “Meditation Two,” p. 65
[13] Cf. ibid., “Meditation Six,” p. 96-97
[14] Cf. Discourse, “Part Four,” p. 19
[15] Cf. Genealogy 1.7, p. 33-34, “the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge.”
[16] Cf. Ibid. 1.13, p. 45, “To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.”
[17] Cf. Ibid. 3.8, p. 108
[18] Cf. Ibid. 3.13, p. 120, “the ascetic ideal springs from the protective instinct of a degenerating life which tries by all means to sustain itself and to fight for its existence.
[19] Cf. Ibid. 3.11, p. 117, “in that case, the case of the ascetic life, life counts as a bridge to that other mode of existence.”
[20] Ibid. 3.7, p. 106. Nietzsche also notes, “There also exists a peculiar philosophers’ prejudice and affection in favor of the whole ascetic ideal.”
[21] Discourse, “Part One,” p. 3
[22] Ibid. p. 6
[23] Cf. Discourse, “Part Six,” p. 35-36: “For, having the intention of spending my entire life in the search for so indispensable a science… I judged… to communicate faithfully to the public the entirety of what little I had found and to urge good minds to try to advance beyond this by contributing, each according to his inclination and ability, to the experiments that must be performed and also by communicating to the public everything they might learn in order that, with subsequent inquirers beginning where their predecessors had left off, and thus, joining together the lives and labors of many, we might all advance together much further than a single individual could do on his own.
[24] Cf. Genealogy 1.10, p. 36, “The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge… [I]n order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all – it’s action is fundamentally reaction.”
[25] The questions are from notes given by Fr. Bud Stevens on Nietzsche in Phil 501 Epistemological Issues in Theology, St. Mary’s Seminary & University
[26] This quote is from an excerpt of Suspicion and Faith in God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason edited by Thomas V Morris, ©1994 Oxford University Press, p. 223

1 comment:

Laura said...

no joke on the footnotes thing haha