Descartes and the Esoteric Philosophy

Arne Wettermark

Ever since the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) propounded his ideas, both spiritual and scientific, they have confounded men's minds. Esoteric Philosophy rejects many of his basic concepts as unnatural and therefore untrue, such as his radical distinction between spirit and matter, mind and body; or his mechanical interpretation of physical nature. There is also his postulate that extension in three dimensions and motion are the only essential features of material things, and his conviction that that which can be distinctly and clearly apprehended alone is true. Moreover, his rationalism implies that man's reason is the highest authority, not needing support from any divine revelation.

Yet from a metaphysical point of view, Descartes is not without interest, because he exhibits tendencies, aspirations, and qualities that might well have made of him a true interpreter of the Secret Doctrine of the ages. From childhood, from the very beginning of his life as a thinking human being, he longed intensely and, as it seems, unselfishly for knowledge. Pure in mind, and in danger strong and cool-headed, he never aimed at marks of honor. He loved mankind and aspired as a philosopher to teach the average man how to live, how to channel his thoughts, for more than anything, he was aware of the power involved in thought. In his correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Queen Christina of Sweden, he stresses the importance of mastering one's thoughts — a matter of mental hygiene.

During his entire life he sought truth with an independent mind, always relying upon his own judgment and despising 'authorities' and mere book learning. He fought against the erudition that was based solely on the accumulation of facts, and professed that books, no matter how wise their authors, could never supplant man's judgment and discrimination. In this respect he was active in the struggle against dogmas and crystallization. Early in life be decided to liberate himself from all the opinions that had been implanted in his mind (Discours de la Methode, 2nd part) and to adjust them by the natural light of 'reason.' In his writings, he uses this word not only for deductive reasoning — ratio, "raison raisonnante," but also for something more akin to intuitive perception, the buddhic principle in man.

On the other hand, in his search after truth and light he was skeptical by nature and was not easily taken in by the marvelous. Therefore he ought not to be criticized because of his attitude towards the astrologers, alchemists and magicians of his day, whom he considered to be charlatans or self-deceivers — in most cases surely not without cause.

In his youth Descartes was undoubtedly influenced by the esoteric doctrines of the 17th century. During that period there flowed through the whole of Europe a powerful spiritual undercurrent, kept alive by various individuals and/or secret societies. Originally these were true channels for the Hermetic wisdom-tradition, some of them belonging to the previous century, such as the Florentine Neoplatonists (Ficino, for example), Reuchlin, Agrippa, Paracelsus and his numerous followers; some of his own century, such as Bohme and Michael Maier. The Rosicrucians especially, with whom he tried to get in touch, seem to have intrigued him. When Descartes was about 23 years of age he stood on the threshold of Hermetism, the philosophical ideas of Hermes Trismegistus that for centuries exerted their spiritualizing influence on those who understood and lived by them. Why did he not cross that threshold? Why, as time went on, did he gradually retreat from the ancient doctrines, and instead build up a system which strongly contributed to the "crepuscule (twilight) des Sciences Traditionelles"?

A brief outline of the various more or less spiritual trends and ideas of the first decades of the 17th century, which coincided with Descartes' childhood and youth, may be of interest. For more than a century the medieval, symbolic conception of the universe as a hierarchy, a living organism, built on the principle of analogy, had been gradually fading. According to this view, all natural phenomena are "mirrors of the invisible," words veiling a hidden meaning and hence apt to be interpreted anthropologically. Things of matter are in themselves without value, except as they reflect the spirit. But the ancient teachings had become distorted into a dogmatic and crystallized Scholasticism, whose method consisted mainly in relying upon authorities.

A reaction arose. Independent investigators in different fields of human activity appeared. Nature and her manifestations tended now to be regarded more and more from a secularized point of view. A new way of thinking, an orientation of the mind towards the outer, the physical aspect of the universe as perceptible by the five senses, towards mastering nature's forces for selfish ends, was changing the picture of the world. Man's higher understanding was becoming obscured; by gradually averting his attention from the essential qualities of things, he was in danger of losing his immediate and natural intuition of
the meaning of the old symbolism. The emphasis was rather on analyzing, enumerating, measuring; on quantity, size, movement and mathematical relations. We meet here with a conception which is remarkably similar to that of today, an exclusively rational understanding of the world, implying a knowledge of nature confined to mechanical laws and void of religious or 'spiritual' elements.

This shift in mentality — which three centuries later was to find dynamic expression in modern science with its sophisticated disciplines in so many fields — was brought about by several circumstances and events, demographic, social, economical, political, and scientific. Among these should be mentioned the dissemination through the printing press of alchemical tracts and other esoteric writings that were beyond the grasp of the populace and therefore often distorted and misunderstood, thus creating superstition. According to von Eckartshausen, science degenerates into evil if religion and faith disappear. With the invention of the printing press, he says, the power of the spirit was killed by the letter; (in former times) man's passions died with him, now they are immortalized. (Cf. Antoine Faivre, Eckartshausen et la theosophie chretienne, Paris, 1969, p. 524.)
Also, the discoveries of the great explorers had enlarged our view of our globe, while astronomers such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, by their espousal of a heliocentric system entirely altered our image of the universe. The appearance of the telescope and the microscope opened wide new fields, in the macrocosmos as well as in the microcosmos, hitherto unperceived by the physical eye.

Descartes was born in France on March 31, 1596. As a child he was sent to a famous Jesuit school at La F1eche near Tours in the province Touraine. During his school years he became acquainted with the learning of his time, chiefly built on the philosophy of the Scholastics. He was also introduced to the 'curious,' i.e. 'occult sciences,' among which he counts alchemy, astrology and magic, probably through books handed over by his teacher in mathematics, Father Frangois, who later (in 1660) published a tract in which he refuted those sciences as being superstitious, giving examples of the errors and frauds of the astrologers. Descartes is said to have perused the works of Cornelius Agrippa and also Jean-Baptiste Porta's Natural Magic — among other books of this kind. After leaving La Fleche in 1614, Descartes probably studied medicine and law at the university of Poitiers, where he graduated in law in November, 1616. Upon finishing his studies he left the university, disillusioned, despairing of finding anything of value in what he had been taught and in the books he had read. Thus he decided to go out into the world and study "le grand livre du monde," the great book of life — and of his own self.

In 1618 he joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau at Breda in Holland. In November that same year he met with the mathematician Isaac Beeckman, a doctor of medicine, with whom he later corresponded about Lully's Ars Brevis. In April, 1619, Descartes departed from Holland and after some traveling settled down in the vicinity of Ulm in Germany, where he spent the autumn and the following winter. Here he contacted Faulhaber, a famous mathematician, who was said to be a Rosicrucian. About that time Descartes seems to have been chiefly brooding over the problem of knowledge. His epitaph refers to this period in these words: "During winter leisure time he compared the mysteries of Nature with the laws of mathematics and ventured to hope that the same key would be able to open both." Even as early as his correspondence with Beeckman, Descartes was obsessed by the idea of there being a key to spiritual knowledge, a key to the secrets of nature.

In November, 1619, Descartes had a mystical experience, a dream which was to exercise a profound influence on his future life. Filled with enthusiasm, he felt that he was discovering a marvelous science. Enthusiasm is to be understood here in the etymological sense, i.e. a state in which one feels to be in communication with heaven, a sort of divine inspiration. In this dream he seems to have had a transcendental vision of the deep connection between poetry, philosophy and wisdom.

In his "Opuscules" there is one sentence in particular which epitomizes this experience:

It may seem astonishing that deep thoughts are to be found more often in the writings of poets than in those of philosophers. This is because the poets write under the inspiration of enthusiasm and the power of imagination. We have in ourselves seeds of knowledge (semina scientiae), just as (there are germs of fire) in the flint (silex), which the philosophers draw forth through reasoning, but which poets, thanks to their imagination allow to scintillate and become more brilliant.

There are further passages expressing a Hermetic view of nature, a poetical vision of the world, a strong intuition that whatever is below is like that which is above, and whatever is above is like that which is below. Not least, thanks to his dream which had revealed to him higher realities, Descartes was fired with the idea of exploring the spiritual realms poetically and symbolically, of investigating if there was not after all a correspondence, a secret continuity between the universe and the human mind — a link between physical things in the outward world, and that active all-pervading force, which is love, compassion, harmony in the celestial world.

By seeking deep within himself, Descartes aspired to raise his mind to sublime heights. He taught that knowledge is spiritual, because the force through which we properly know things is purely of the spirit. (Regles pour la Direction de I'Esprit (Rules for the Direction of the Mind), 1628, Rule XII.) He sought to reach the source of this wisdom, not by deductive technics or dialectics, but by an insight into nature, implying a grasp of the influence of the spiritual forces on things of matter.

It is interesting to note that Descartes believed that the poets with their 'enthusiasm' are nearer wisdom than the philosophers with their 'reason.' Poetry is for Descartes a gift of the spirit rather than a fruit of study. Philosophical research ought to be patterned on poetical activity.

What a true poet experiences — is this not a momentary revelation of the sacred? Descartes' "seeds of knowledge" remind us of those "inherent ideas" which, according to several ancient sources, were implanted by the first earthly king, a spiritual Being who taught men not only the ways of ethical living, but also the arts and sciences. In Rule IV he pointedly refers to these "primary germs of truth implanted by nature in human minds — though in our case the daily reading and hearing of innumerable diverse errors stifle them." In his commentary to this rule he carries the idea further: "The human mind possesses namely something divine where the first seeds of useful thoughts have been cast. . . . [those] first rudiments of human reason ought to be developed and truth will germinate from whatever subject."

It is obvious that Descartes does not mean reason in the ordinary sense, otherwise he would not have used the word 'divine' in this connection. Rather he conceives "human reason" here as a sort of aroma, a spontaneous inspiration which leads to truth, a faculty having affinity with or rather its deepest root in the spiritual essence.

If it is true that Descartes was in process of elaborating a sort of mystico-poetical philosophy, which could have led him into the realm of the Esoteric Philosophy, it is a fact that he did not proceed further on this road. Why did he not? Why, as time went on, did he gradually retreat from the ancient Hermetic doctrines, thus building up a system which highly contributed to the decline of their acceptance? Several factors may be adduced in this connection. Descartes lived in a period of transition when man's understanding of essentials was becoming veiled through a new orientation of the mind towards the outward physical world. In his search after knowledge Descartes was not satisfied until he had a clear perception of the object being investigated. For him evidence and certainty were criteria for truth. Since his genius lay intrinsically in mathematics, and this discipline appeared to him as the only science whose methods lead to real and certain knowledge, already during his winter sojourn near Ulm he seems to have believed that mathematics alone would reveal the secrets of nature. Later on he gradually became convinced that these methods could be extended to other disciplines of science, which in turn led to his mechanical interpretation of physical nature — a concept in utter opposition to the archaic wisdom-science.

In his commentary to Rule I he declares that all sciences are but human wisdom which always remains the same, and he connotes this with "sagesse universelle" and "bon sens" — universal wisdom and common sense. To him human wisdom, universal wisdom, natural reason, is the focus of light, without support from any supernatural revelation Although in his commentary to Rule IV, as indicated earlier, he does say that the human mind possesses something divine where the first seeds of useful thoughts have been cast, still he confines these first rudiments to fundamental and evident things that everybody can perceive by himself. Thus his actual philosophy implies de facto that reason, the rationalizing factor in man, becomes the measure of all things — divine influx, all revelation, all inspiration being thus more or less denied.

As an inevitable and logical consequence, Descartes came to conceive matter as something completely cut off from spirit, not as a passive mirror of spirit, but as a thing, claiming for itself alone the quality of spatial extension. Matter's distinguishing characteristic is mass and extension. It can be studied on its own, independently of spirit which is more or less reduced to mere thought. (Cf. Alchemy, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, by Titus Burckhardt, 1967, p. 57.)

In 1628, in his Rules 11 and VIII Descartes deals with the limits of mental understanding:

One ought not busy oneself with objects other than those of which our mind seems capable of getting a sure and indubitable knowledge. — Rule 11

Then three times in his commentary to Rule VIII he points out that everybody who aspires after wisdom ought to find out, at least once in his life, the limits of human reason, to find out what human knowledge is and how far it reaches. He who knows those limits is wise. But he realizes that there may be cases when it is by no means possible to find the knowledge one is seeking, not due to any defect in the mind but because the very character or quality of the difficulty, or the human constitution itself, constitutes an obstacle: and it would not be sane, he concludes, to indulge one's curiosity further. Yet he has always been aware of people's tendency to seek after wonders, after that which is mysterious. Thus, in the commentary to Rule IX he writes:

But it is a common failing of mortals to deem the more difficult the fairer; and they often think that they have learned nothing when they see a very clear and simple cause for a fact, while at the same time they are lost in admiration of certain sublime and profound philosophical explanations, even though these for the most part are based upon foundations which no one had adequately surveyed — a mental disorder which prizes the darkness higher than the light.

Beyond the limits of human reason, however, lie the revealed truths of faith, but Descartes refused to discuss those questions where God, theology, religion, dogmas are involved (see Le Discours de la methode, first part). Consequently, in the method through which he aspires to obtain real knowledge by the light of reason, he separates God from nature and secularizes all that he investigates with his reasoning and other faculties, which according to the universal wisdom of antiquity leads not toward, but away from truth.

How far Descartes has retreated from his early vision, and the concept of the "innate ideas" of Plato and other ancient philosophers, which implies that knowledge of the Real can be attained only where there is identification between subject and object — union between the seeker and that which is sought! According to the Hermetic view each degree of existence proceeds from a higher one. Hence the manifestations of the outward physical world are but symbols, visible reflections of invisible worlds, of a higher reality.

Descartes forgot that beyond the obvious there are universal ideas, however obscure to us, in which essential truths are involved, truths that are so needful that everything would be thrown over if they were denied.

The story of Descartes told from the angle of the Esoteric Philosophy is full of paradoxes. In his youth he had an encounter with the wisdom-tradition of the ancient world, but step by step, in developing his methodology, he transformed elements of the archaic doctrines to adjust them to his own philosophical system, thus cooperating in a process of 'dosacralization,' which ultimately led to the decline of the 'sacred science.' He believed in free will and yet his mechanical theory implied a fatalism incompatible with that belief. On the one hand, he had a passion for clarity of thought and ideas which enticed him, almost beyond his will, to make logical reasoning the prime mover in opposition to intuitive perception of reality. On the other hand, he was in a way a mystic, having a true intuition of the "Divine Majesty," which is evident not only in his "Opuscules" but also in the last lines of his "Third Meditation" (1641).

Descartes as builder of a philosophical system is dead. Descartes as practical occultist will never die, and help will always be found in those of his letters where he offers sound counsel for daily living.

(From Sunrise magazine, March, 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition