Aolib.comFragment of Photochrom print of the front of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany (ca. 1897)

A Discourse of a Method for the Well Guiding of Reason ... »


By Ren*escartes

Its true, we doe not see the houses of a whole Town pull’d down purposely to re build them of another fashion; and to make the streets the fairer; But we often see, that divers pull their own down to set them up again, and that even sometimes they are forc’d thereunto, when they are in danger to fall of themselves, and that their foundations are not sure. By which example I perswaded my self, that there was no sense for a particular person, to design the Reformation of a State, changing all from the very foundations, and subverting all to redress it again: Nor even also to reform the bodies of Sciences, or the Orders already established in the Schools for teaching them. But as for all the Opinions which I had till then receiv’d into my beleef, I could not doe better then to undertake to expunge them once for all, that afterwards I might place in their stead, either others which were better, or the same again, as soon as I should have adjusted them to the rule of reason. And I did confidently beleeve, that by that means I should succeed much better in the conduct of my life, then if I built but on old foundations, and only relyed on those principles, which I suffer’d my self to be perswaded to in my youth, without ever examining the Truth of them. For although I observ’d herein divers difficulties, yet were they not without cure, nor comparable to those which occurr in the reformation of the least things belonging to the publick: these great bodies are too unweldy to be rais’d; being cast down, or to be held up when they are shaken, neither can their falls be but the heavyest.

As for their imperfections, if they have any, as the only diversity which is amongst them, is sufficient to assure us that many have. Custome hath (without doubt) much sweetned them, and even it hath made others wave, or insensibly correct a many, whereto we could not so well by prudence have given a remedy. And in fine, They are alwayes more supportable, then their change can be, Even, as the great Roads, which winding by little and little betwixt mountains, become so plain and commodious, with being often frequented, that it’s much better to follow them, then to undertake to goe in a strait line by climbing over the rocks, and descending to the bottom of precipices. Wherefore I can by no means approve of those turbulent and unquiet humors, who being neither call’d by birth or fortune to the managing of publique affairs, yet are alwayes forming in Idea, some new Reformation. And did I think there were the least thing in this Discourse, which might render me suspected of that folly, I should be extremely sorry to suffer it to be published; I never had any designe which intended farther then to reform my own thoughts and to build on a foundation which was wholly mine. But though I present you here with a Modell of my work, because it hath sufficiently pleased me; I would not therefore counsell any one to imitate it. Those whom God hath better endued with his graces, may perhaps have more elevated designes; but I fear me, lest already this be too bold for some. The resolution only of quitting all those opinions which we have formerly receiv’d into our belief, is not an example to be followed by every One; and the world is almost compos’d but of two sorts of Men, to whom it’s no wayes convenient, to wit, of those, who beleeving themselves more able then they are, cannot with—hold themselves from precipitating their judgments, nor have patience enough to steer all their thoughts in an orderly course. Whence it happens, that if they should once take the liberty to doubt of those principles which they have already received, and to stray from the common road, they could never keep the path which leads strait forwards, and so, would straggle all their lives. And of such who having reason and modesty enough to judg that they are less able to distinguish truth from falshood then others, from whom they may receive instruction, ought much rather to be content to follow other Mens opinions, rather then to seek after better themselves.

And for my part, I had undoubtedly been of the number of those latter, had I never had but one Master, or had I not known the disputes which have alwayes hapned amongst the most learned. For having learnt from the very School, That one can imagin nothing so strange or incredible, which had not been said by some one of the Philosophers; And having since observ’d in my travails, That all those whose opinions are contrary to ours, are not therefore barbarous or savage, but that many use as much or more reason then we; and having consider’d how much one Man with his own understanding, bred up from his childhood among the French or the Dutch, becomes different from what he would be, had he alwayes liv’d amongst the Chineses, or the Cannibals: And how even in the fashion of our Clothes, the same thing which pleas’d ten years since, and which perhaps wil please ten years hence, seems now to us ridiculous and extravagant. So that it’s much more Custome and Example which perswades us, then any assured knowledg; and notwithstanding that plurality of voices is a proof of no validity, in those truths which are hard to be discovered; for that it’s much more likely for one man alone to have met with them, then a whole Nation; I could choose no Man whose opinion was to be preferr’d before anothers: And I found my self even constrain’d to undertake the conduct of my self.

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