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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsA Discourse On Method - PART I
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A Discourse On Method - PART I Post by :Brad_Pollina Category :Nonfictions Author :Rene Descartes Date :July 2011 Read :515

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A Discourse On Method - PART I

PART I

Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for
every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even
who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually
desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess. And in
this it is not likely that all are mistaken the conviction is rather to be
held as testifying that the power of judging aright and of distinguishing
truth from error, which is properly what is called good sense or reason,
is by nature equal in all men; and that the diversity of our opinions,
consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share
of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts
along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects.
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 excellences, 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.

For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect
than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I
were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and
distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory. And
besides these, I know of no other qualities that contribute to the
perfection of the mind; for as to the reason or sense, inasmuch as it is
that alone which constitutes us men, and distinguishes us from the brutes,
I am disposed to believe that it is to be found complete in each
individual; and on this point to adopt the common opinion of philosophers,
who say that the difference of greater and less holds only among the
accidents, and not among the forms or natures of individuals of the same
species.

I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been my
singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain
tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I
have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually
augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the
highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of
my life will permit me to reach. For I have already reaped from it such
fruits that, although I have been accustomed to think lowly enough of
myself, and although when I look with the eye of a philosopher at the
varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which
does not appear in vain and useless, I nevertheless derive the highest
satisfaction from the progress I conceive myself to have already made in
the search after truth, and cannot help entertaining such expectations of
the future as to believe that if, among the occupations of men as men, there
is any one really excellent and important, it is that which I have chosen.

After all, it is possible I may be mistaken; and it is but a little
copper and glass, perhaps, that I take for gold and diamonds. I know how
very liable we are to delusion in what relates to ourselves, and also how
much the judgments of our friends are to be suspected when given in our
favor. But I shall endeavor in this discourse to describe the paths I
have followed, and to delineate my life as in a picture, in order that
each one may also be able to judge of them for himself, and that in the
general opinion entertained of them, as gathered from current report, I
myself may have a new help towards instruction to be added to those I have
been in the habit of employing.

My present design, then, is not to teach the method which each ought to
follow for the right conduct of his reason, but solely to describe the way
in which I have endeavored to conduct my own. They who set themselves to
give precepts must of course regard themselves as possessed of greater skill
than those to whom they prescribe; and if they err in the slightest particular,
they subject themselves to censure. But as this tract is put forth merely
as a history, or, if you will, as a tale, in which, amid some examples worthy
of imitation, there will be found, perhaps, as many more which it were
advisable not to follow, I hope it will prove useful to some without being
hurtful to any, and that my openness will find some favor with all.

From my childhood, I have been familiar with letters; and as I was given
to believe that by their help a clear and certain knowledge of all that is
useful in life might be acquired, I was ardently desirous of instruction.
But as soon as I had finished the entire course of study, at the close of
which it is customary to be admitted into the order of the learned, I
completely changed my opinion. For I found myself involved in so many
doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all
my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own
ignorance. And yet I was studying in one of the most celebrated schools in
Europe, in which I thought there must be learned men, if such were
anywhere to be found. I had been taught all that others learned there;
and not contented with the sciences actually taught us, I had, in
addition, read all the books that had fallen into my hands, treating of
such branches as are esteemed the most curious and rare. I knew the
judgment which others had formed of me; and I did not find that I was
considered inferior to my fellows, although there were among them some who
were already marked out to fill the places of our instructors. And, in
fine, our age appeared to me as flourishing, and as fertile in powerful
minds as any preceding one. I was thus led to take the liberty of judging
of all other men by myself, and of concluding that there was no science in
existence that was of such a nature as I had previously been given to believe.

I still continued, however, to hold in esteem the studies of the schools.
I was aware that the languages taught in them are necessary to the
understanding of the writings of the ancients; that the grace of fable
stirs the mind; that the memorable deeds of history elevate it; and, if
read with discretion, aid in forming the judgment; that the perusal of all
excellent books is, as it were, to interview with the noblest men of past
ages, who have written them, and even a studied interview, in which are
discovered to us only their choicest thoughts; that eloquence has
incomparable force and beauty; that poesy has its ravishing graces and
delights; that in the mathematics there are many refined discoveries
eminently suited to gratify the inquisitive, as well as further all the
arts an lessen the labour of man; that numerous highly useful precepts and
exhortations to virtue are contained in treatises on morals; that theology
points out the path to heaven; that philosophy affords the means of
discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the
admiration of the more simple; that jurisprudence, medicine, and the other
sciences, secure for their cultivators honors and riches; and, in fine,
that it is useful to bestow some attention upon all, even upon those
abounding the most in superstition and error, that we may be in a position
to determine their real value, and guard against being deceived.

But I believed that I had already given sufficient time to languages, and
likewise to the reading of the writings of the ancients, to their
histories and fables. For to hold converse with those of other ages and
to travel, are almost the same thing. It is useful to know something of
the manners of different nations, that we may be enabled to form a more
correct judgment regarding our own, and be prevented from thinking that
everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational, a
conclusion usually come to by those whose experience has been limited to
their own country. On the other hand, when too much time is occupied in
traveling, we become strangers to our native country; and the over
curious in the customs of the past are generally ignorant of those of the
present. Besides, fictitious narratives lead us to imagine the possibility
of many events that are impossible; and even the most faithful histories,
if they do not wholly misrepresent matters, or exaggerate their importance
to render the account of them more worthy of perusal, omit, at least, almost
always the meanest and least striking of the attendant circumstances; hence
it happens that the remainder does not represent the truth, and that such as
regulate their conduct by examples drawn from this source, are apt to fall
into the extravagances of the knight-errants of romance, and to entertain
projects that exceed their powers.

I esteemed eloquence highly, and was in raptures with poesy; but I thought
that both were gifts of nature rather than fruits of study. Those in whom
the faculty of reason is predominant, and who most skillfully dispose their
thoughts with a view to render them clear and intelligible, are always the
best able to persuade others of the truth of what they lay down, though
they should speak only in the language of Lower Brittany, and be wholly
ignorant of the rules of rhetoric; and those whose minds are stored with
the most agreeable fancies, and who can give expression to them with the
greatest embellishment and harmony, are still the best poets, though
unacquainted with the art of poetry.

I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of the
certitude and evidence of their reasonings; but I had not as yet a
precise knowledge of their true use; and thinking that they but
contributed to the advancement of the mechanical arts, I was astonished
that foundations, so strong and solid, should have had no loftier
superstructure reared on them. On the other hand, I compared the
disquisitions of the ancient moralists to very towering and magnificent
palaces with no better foundation than sand and mud: they laud the virtues
very highly, and exhibit them as estimable far above anything on earth;
but they give us no adequate criterion of virtue, and frequently that
which they designate with so fine a name is but apathy, or pride,
or despair, or parricide.

I revered our theology, and aspired as much as any one to reach heaven:
but being given assuredly to understand that the way is not less open to
the most ignorant than to the most learned, and that the revealed truths
which lead to heaven are above our comprehension, I did not presume to
subject them to the impotency of my reason; and I thought that in order
competently to undertake their examination, there was need of some special
help from heaven, and of being more than man.

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been
cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and that yet there
is not a single matter within its sphere which is not still in dispute,
and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to
anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others; and
further, when I considered the number of conflicting opinions touching a
single matter that may be upheld by learned men, while there can be but
one true, I reckoned as well-nigh false all that was only probable.

As to the other sciences, inasmuch as these borrow their principles from
philosophy, I judged that no solid superstructures could be reared on
foundations so infirm; and neither the honor nor the gain held out by them
was sufficient to determine me to their cultivation: for I was not, thank
Heaven, in a condition which compelled me to make merchandise of science
for the bettering of my fortune; and though I might not profess to scorn
glory as a cynic, I yet made very slight account of that honor which I
hoped to acquire only through fictitious titles. 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.

For these reasons, as soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the
control of my instructors, I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and
resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself,
or of the great book of the world. I spent the remainder of my youth in
traveling, in visiting courts and armies, in holding intercourse with men
of different dispositions and ranks, in collecting varied experience, in
proving myself in the different situations into which fortune threw me,
and, above all, in making such reflection on the matter of my experience
as to secure my improvement. For it occurred to me that I should find
much more truth in the reasonings of each individual with reference to the
affairs in which he is personally interested, and the issue of which must
presently punish him if he has judged amiss, than in those conducted by a
man of letters in his study, regarding speculative matters that are of no
practical moment, and followed by no consequences to himself, farther,
perhaps, than that they foster his vanity the better the more remote they
are from common sense; requiring, as they must in this case, the exercise
of greater ingenuity and art to render them probable. In addition, I had
always a most earnest desire to know how to distinguish the true from the
false, in order that I might be able clearly to discriminate the right
path in life, and proceed in it with confidence.

It is true that, while busied only in considering the manners of other
men, I found here, too, scarce any ground for settled conviction, and
remarked hardly less contradiction among them than in the opinions of the
philosophers. So that the greatest advantage I derived from the study
consisted in this, that, observing many things which, however extravagant
and ridiculous to our apprehension, are yet by common consent received and
approved by other great nations, I learned to entertain too decided a
belief in regard to nothing of the truth of which I had been persuaded
merely by example and custom; and thus I gradually extricated myself from
many errors powerful enough to darken our natural intelligence, and
incapacitate us in great measure from listening to reason. But after I had
been occupied several years in thus studying the book of the world, and in
essaying to gather some experience, I at length resolved to make myself an
object of study, and to employ all the powers of my mind in choosing the
paths I ought to follow, an undertaking which was accompanied with greater
success than it would have been had I never quitted my country or my books.

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