The Stoicism of Descartes

On Conquering Oneself Rather than Fortune

On Conquering Oneself Rather than Fortune

In the 17th century, Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, described how his famous epistemological meditations led him to develop a moral code, based upon three central maxims.

The first two of these refer to respect for custom and consistency in life. However, Descartes’ account of his third maxim provides a remarkable expression of certain ideas that have a markedly Stoic flavour.

In the third chapter of his Discourse on Method, he writes:

My third maxim was always to try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible. And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contented.

He continues by explaining that we tend by nature to desire only what we perceive as within the realms of possibility. In some cases it’s obvious that something is, for all practical purposes, unachievable. We all accept that it’s pointless to desire things that we know are totally beyond our power — like wishing we’d been the first man on the moon. That would be absurd. However, in many cases the situation appears more ambiguous.

Nevertheless, if we were to regard everything external to us to be equally beyond our power, says Descartes, we would have no more regret about lacking those of which we’re deprived “than we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico”.

…making a virtue of necessity, as they say, we shall no more desire to be healthy if we are sick, or to be free if we are in prison, than we do to have a body made of a material as incorruptible as diamonds, or wings to fly like birds.

This is one form of the Stoic contemplation upon necessity and determinism. It is clear, as the ancient philosophers observed, that nobody really feels pity for an infant because it cannot yet walk or speak, although we may feel differently about an adult who is mute or lame. People do not become frustrated because they cannot grow wings and fly but they do often envy the wealth and possessions of others.

And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contented.

Accepting that something is outside of our control often seems to mean that we give up our desire for it but people often seem to torture themselves with goals that, although possible for other people or for them at another stage in life, are not currently within their power to achieve. For example, many people wish they could change the past, or wish that they were rich and famous, demands which are either illogical, physically impossible, or unrealistic given the limitations of their current circumstances.

Descartes continues by admitting that “long exercise is needed as well as frequently repeated meditation, in order to become accustomed to looking at everything from this point of view”. However, he says that he believes that it was mainly in this practice that the secret of certain philosophers consisted “who in earlier times were able to free themselves from fortune’s domination and who, despite sorrows and poverty, could rival their gods in happiness.” This could apply to many ancient philosophers, although his remarks bear an obvious resemblance to the way that the Stoics were traditionally described.

For occupying themselves ceaselessly with considering the limits prescribed to them by nature, they so perfectly persuaded themselves that nothing was in their power but their affection for other things, and they controlled their thoughts so absolutely that in this they had some reason for reckoning themselves richer, more powerful, freer, and happier than any other men who, not having this philosophy, never thus controlled everything they wished to control, however favoured by nature and fortune they might be.

In short, when it is beyond our power to obtain something we should admit it clearly and unambiguously to ourselves. We should not allow our desire to linger on because of some ambiguity. Like a fish that slips through our nets, we should accept that it is gone for good. Perhaps it once seemed possible that it could be ours but it is no longer so. In that case, rather than continuing to desire it we should file it away under the category of “absolutely impossible” so that we can forget about it and move on.

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