There is a famous thinker whose works have been condemned, whose books, in the past, were prohibited by the Catholic Church, and who has been accused of atheism. He was a philosopher, scientist, mathematician, and theologian. However, it appears that a fair reading of his words – all of them – proves that he was, indeed, a man of faith, and that the condemnations of him and his works are more properly directed at the misunderstanding, misuse and abuse of his works by others. He did make mistakes in physics, philosophy and theology, but he was not an atheist and he was never declared a heretic.
“Principles of Philosophy”
Before his name is mentioned here, consider what he said at the end of one of his writings entitled “Principles of Philosophy”:
“Mindful, however, of my own weakness, I make no assertion. I submit everything to the authority of the Catholic Church, and to the judgment of wiser heads; and I would have no one believe anything without being persuaded by evident and invincible reasoning.” 1
In a letter to a Princess, which he had no reason to believe would ever be published, this thinker stated his beliefs about God, His goodness, and love of Him:
“Now God alone knows everything perfectly; we must be content to know what is most useful to us. The first and chief of such truths is that there is a God on whom all things depend, whose perfections are infinite, whose power is immeasurable, whose decrees are unfailing; for this teaches us to take in good part whatever happens to us, as being expressly sent by God. And since the true object of love is perfection, when once we lift our minds to consider God as he is, we find in ourselves such a natural inclination to love him that we derive joy even from our afflictions, by thinking that his will is being carried out in what comes to us . . . And anyone is naturally led to this consideration when he knows and loves God as a man should; for then he abandons himself to God’s will, lays aside his own interests, and has no passion but to do what he thinks is God’s pleasure; and from this he derives mental satisfaction and contentment worth incomparably more than the slightest transient enjoyments depending on the senses.” 2
The Father of Western Philosophy
This thinker is known as the “Father of Analytic Geometry,” the “Father of Western Philosophy,” and the “Father of Modern Philosophy.” He is Rene Descartes [henceforth “Rene”].
One who reads his works and his letters will find them replete with not only theoretical and theological considerations of God, but also with personal reverence and even devotion for a loving creator. Following his death, Rene’s works in both physics and philosophy were condemned by the University of Utrecht, and the faithful, for a time, were prohibited from reading his books. He was accused of being an atheist. These condemnations and accusations were misplaced and wrong.
Rene asked a question other than “What is true?” – the answer to which during his time relied heavily on the inerrant words of revelation as recounted in the Bible and on the authority of the Church in interpreting the Bible. Doing philosophy, specifically in the area of the theory of knowledge, “epistemology,” Rene did not ask “What is true,” instead he asked “Of what am I certain?” – and, without reading all his work, one could conclude that this was a rejection of the truths of the Church and itself a condemnatory questioning of Church authority in faith and morals. But if one reads further – after Rene’s reply to thoroughgoing skepticism and to hyperbolic doubt – past the presentation of the famous “Cogito, ergo sum”, I think therefore I am – perhaps the most well-known words of all philosophy – a diligent student will find that Rene was well aware of the inadequacies of the Cogito and the circular reasoning that was its basis. Rene knew that it was circular reasoning to say that the Cogito was certain because he had a clear and distinct idea of it, and the guarantor of its truth, and of all truth, was anything about which he had a clear and distinct idea.
God Alone Guarantees Truth.
How did Rene exit this reasoning circle? Many fail to read on and to learn – or they simply ignore – that Rene’s guarantee of all truth was a good non-deceiving God without whom certainty and knowledge are impossible. Whether or not his efforts lead to yet another example of circular reasoning or to other logical errors is not the point – the point is that, for Rene, the accused atheist, God alone guarantees truth. He also provided several much-discussed proofs for the existence of God. Any errors of these proofs are not discussed here – the point is that Rene believed in God, saw God as the guarantor of all knowledge and truth, and he attempted to prove that this God exists. He described this truth-guaranteeing God this way:
“First, we must consider the infinite power and goodness of God, and not be afraid that we are imagining his works to be too vast, too beautiful, too perfect . . . God made everything for our sake, that we may be the more impelled to thank him, and the more on fire with love of him . . .”3.
Many of Rene’s writings about God, faith, love, truth, and goodness read like sermons or prayers. For example:
“If we love God and for his sake unite ourselves in will to all that he has created, then the more grandeur, nobility, perfection we conceive things to have, the more highly we esteem ourselves, as parts of a whole that is a greater work; and the more grounds we have to praise God for the immensity of his creation.” 4
God and Faith
Although discussions of the correctness of his positions are possible – and have been at the forefront of philosophical and theological study for centuries and will continue so – it is unfair to label him “atheist,” or “heretic,” while ignoring his sincere pertinent and important statements about God and faith. Before condemning a particular statement of “Cartesianism,” or a Cartesian view of the soul, or an alleged Cartesian rejection of magisterial authority, especially versions proposed by later thinkers not in Rene’s own words, a careful writer or scholar should read, as much as possible, all of Rene’s writings; and not ignore what he said about God.
Numerous widely available books present translations of a variety of Rene’s works. A good selection of his writings is found in “Descartes Philosophical Writings,” translated by Anscombe and Geach, Macmillan Library of Liberal Arts, 1971.
1. Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Number CCVII; trans. Anscombe et al., p. 238.
2. Letter to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia; 15 September 1645
3. Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part III, Sections I, III; trans. Anscombe et al, pp. 222-223.
4. Letter to Chanut, 6 June 1647
Copyright Guy McClung 2016