The Importance Of Freedom in Rene Descartes' Book Meditations On First Philosophy

Categories: Rene Descartes

The Reason for Freedom

In order to be an individual you first need to desire individuality. Once the realization that total individuality is impossible is factored in, all that remains is the desire to desire. With this insatiable quest comes no reason or responsibility. Yet social construct dictates that in order to obtain what is desired the individual must use reason. However too much reason leaves a rigid husk that will one day, due to humanities destructive nature, allow desire to exceed reason.

When desire exceeds understanding negative consequence is imminent. Furthermore, when reason and desire are in balance truth is obtained and desire is fulfilled.

Descartes made clear his intention to reawaken the use of reason as a means of making truth attainable. He first explains how life can be made easier through obtaining knowledge. Also that power comes with knowledge and with this power comes a mastery of the secrets of the universe. “Knowing the power and actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies in our environment as clearly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we could like artisans put these bodies to use in all the appropriate ways, and thus make ourselves the masters and owners of nature,” (Descartes, Discourse 6,24.

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) Men left solely to desire will never attain truth as they will be prevented by their own bias.

It seems that our will and desire stops us from obtaining knowledge. Descartes discusses in his Meditations how our free will is a tool to obtain more knowledge; it hinders us when we allow our motives to get in the way of objectivity.

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“My errors depend on a combination of two causes, to wit, on the faculty of knowledge that rests in me and on the power of choice or of free will that is to say, of the understanding and at the same time of the will,” (Descartes, Meditations 4,23.) The extent of understanding is finite and desire tends to extend beyond our understanding causing intuitively leaps with no proof. “Errors come from the sole fact that since the will is much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds but extend it also to things which I do not understand; and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 23.) He makes it clear that the misuse of freedom and freewill cause sin and error. In order to be successful and without error then freewill must be used in conjunction with reason and never get ahead of understanding. “If I abstain from giving my judgment on anything when I do not perceive it with sufficient clearness and distinction, it is plain that I act rightly and am not deceived. But if I determine to deny or affirm, I no longer make use as I should of my free will, and if I affirm what is not true, it is evident that I deceive myself…I do not escape the blame of using misusing my freedom; for the light of nature teaches us that knowledge of the understanding should always precede the determination of will,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 24.) Judgment error is a part of infrastructure but this same part is what we must overcome in order to achieve our goals.

God is perfect and has given man extensive talents and abilities, He has therefore, not made man to “suffer” in his error but for man to use his freewill to obtain more knowledge. As the pursuit of knowledge is the sum of its harvest. “And it is true that when I think only of God I discover no cause of error…when recurring to myself, experience shows me that I am nevertheless subject to an infinitude of errors,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 22.)Because it is in our nature to error we overcome it and become masters and possessors of nature by fighting against this error. “For trying to overcome all the difficulties and errors that prevent our arriving at knowledge of the truth is a matter of fighting battles; when we accept some false opinion on an important question of some significance, that is a defeat, and we need much more skill to recover from it than we do to make good progress when we already have principles that are well founded,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 26-27.) Although, our failure to unlock truth lies still lies in our error that is drawn from our finite understandings. “I fall into error from the fact that the power given me by God for the purpose of distinguishing truth from error is not infinite,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 22.) The desire for knowledge has to be drawn of our freewill. No one can teach us how to want to possess knowledge. “I am convinced that if in my youth I had been taught all the truths I have since tried to demonstrate…I would have never acquired…a practiced ability to find new truths whenever I set myself to look for them,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 28) If we can overcome our lack of understanding through fulfillment in knowledge obtained out of our desire for knowledge we can achieve all greatness.

In Notes from the Underground freedom is humanity’s last line of defense against over rationalizing. Life could be quantified. Science could one day predict the career path, deviations, and entire life of an individual. Yet to be merely a chart or graph is not truly living. “Who wants to want according to a table? Moreover; he will immediately turn from a man into a sprig in an organ or something of the sort; because what is a man without desires, without will, and without wantings, if not a sprig in an organ barrel,” (Dostoevsky 26.) Desire and the capacity to seek thrill and lack consistency is the very definition of individuality and as men are individuals then our free will is our true capital. “His chief-est defect is a lack of good behavior and consequently a lack of good sense; for it has long been known that a lack of good sense comes from nothing else but the lack of good behavior,” (Dostoevsky 29.) In our destructive natures we find the proof that man cannot be boxed by reason alone. Like the child that begins, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, to play gently with his pet cat yet he eventually turns to amusement through torture of the cat, thus is the destructive curiosity of mankind. “Because it really is impossible while perceiving reason, to want senselessness and thus knowingly go against reason and wish self-harm,” (Dostoevsky 26 .) Free will is uplifted by its mystery and insatiable characteristics that could be ultimately charted out, yet men should not accept life by this chart. Man should value freedom solely because he is free to value it. “You shout at me that no one is taking my will from me here; that all they’re doing here is busily arranging it somehow so that my will, of its own will coincides with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic. Eh, gentlemen, what sort of will of one’s own can there be if it comes to tables and arithmetic, and the only thing going is two times two is four? Two times two will be four even without my will. As if there were any will of one’s own,” (Dostoevsky 31.) Freedom opens doors that reason can only contemplate about. It is not bound by error as there is no good or bad behavior, only what is profitable, only what is most desired.

Dostoevsky’s argument accounts for retort by listing possible counterarguments. It stands that, because of reason and science he has discovered that freedom is best. Without knowledge and reason, trial and error, or experimentation, Dostoevsky would not have come to this knowledge of freedom. It seems then that his knowledge of freedom and his understanding of the values of freedom have been brought to him through reason thereby making reason the largest contributor to his ideas about freedom. Descartes argument is thoroughly strengthened by his constant reaccreditation method. He consecutively attempts to establish objectivity within his works stating that these ideas are gifts from God and that readers may not find his works applicable to daily life as they are incomplete. “As for the benefit that others might get from learning about my thoughts, this couldn’t amount to much because they’re still not very developed; much more has to be done before they are ready for practical application,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 27.) He even ends the Discourse with a strong personal statement about how he plans to carry himself, not as a man after fame or fortune, a man driven by greed, or a misuse of freewill, but as a good man doing honest work. “And I shall always hold myself more obliged to those whose favor enables me to enjoy uninterrupted leisure than to any who might offer me the most honorable employments of the world,”(Descartes, Discourse 6, 31.) However, Dostoevsky states that men like this, good men, well behaved, are merely stalling the moment that their destructive behaviors take over. “They’re constantly appear in life people of such good behavior and good sense, such sages and lovers of mankind, as precisely make it their goal to spend their entire lives in the best-behaved most sensible way possible, to become, so to speak, a light for their neighbors, essentially in order to prove them that one can indeed live in the world as a person of good behavior and good sense,” (Dostoyevsky 30.) This same man will later, without reason, perform some destructive behavior. Freewill without reason however is not something that either of them argues against. Dostoevsky has been oppressed in this “underground”; most of his suffering is self-inflicted but there is no reason, no truth to be found, no grand mystery in the underground. “You see, reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life-that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches… While human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives,” (Dostoyevsky 28.) Both arguments are reinforced by their author’s melding opposing ideas in to emphasize their approach as most prominent. Both arguments deteriorate as they acknowledge the opposition. Descartes preaches the importance of freewill as if it is a poison that siphons the success out of truth. Dostoevsky calls upon reason repeatedly to create his argument and to orchestrate the similarities between freewill and reason. In essence they both prove themselves by stating that reason and desire are both necessary. Man must have a balance of these qualities to achieve his goals and fulfill his desires.

Dostoevsky’s language and proximity would at first glance make it seem that he more accurately captures humanity. He works to create vey poignant examples that demonstrate distinctly his use of words and his meanings. His work speaks to the average man that is tired of being the tail of society, driven into the underground for shelter from the lifeless ritualistic behaviors of everyday life. He shuns reason because men are free. “While human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives,” (Dostoevsky 28.)Not even our own intellect can remove our desires. A chart could measure the desire of man, but it is the fact that man desires that is more important that the measurement. Descartes’ argument is more scientific. He describes practical tools like scientific peer-review, public scientific research publishing, and truth seeking as a means of explaining the universe. “At the beginning it is better to avail oneself only to ones that just happen around us... better than, that is, to resorting to more contrived experiments…when we don’t yet know the causes of the more ordinary ones, and the factors they depend on are nearly always so special and so minute that it is very hard to spot them,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 25.) This distances the average man from Descartes’s ideas. Dostoevsky completes his connection to everyday struggles by forcing inquiries. He even concludes chapter 8 stating, “As if there were any will of one’s own!” This puts into question the very integrity of freewill and our ability to desire, as if it could be predetermined. This pulls into the realms of the abstract and places the two arguments on equal footing. Without reason freedom is but choices and never choosing but simply rejoicing in the fact that one can choose. Truth is only as useful as it can be applied. When the application of truth is beyond understanding the result is a detriment. Both authors’ provide skewed views of humanity but together their views show the importance of both freewill and reason.

Updated: Feb 13, 2024
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The Importance Of Freedom in Rene Descartes' Book Meditations On First Philosophy. (2024, Feb 13). Retrieved from

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