AGE OF REASON: Europe (17th.)

The 17th century continued to move away from faith-based reasoning and medieval models such as scholasticism. Instead, philosophical systems such as rationalism and empiricism were chosen. Philosophical liberalism also led to an interest in political philosophy. The fundamental change was epistemological with the general debate about how we know. Some responded by involving God and others were based on human reasoning.

René Descartes redirected the interests of medieval philosophers, busy with theology, towards reflections that escaped from the ecclesiastical confines.

In his work Metaphysical Meditations (1641), and Discours de la Métode (1637) written in Latin, he began to doubt everything as a method, including scientific conclusions, the existence of reality and his own body. (He argued that reality may be a dream - an idea shared by early century authors such as Calderón, Cervantes, and Shakespeare.) He thought the only thing he could trust was his own doubt. To doubt he thought that there must be something that doubts: himself. He concludes: 'I think therefore I exist.'

Descartes's goal in his Metaphysical Meditations was to argue for the existence of God. Once accepted, he concluded that the outside world must exist. He then studied the existence of the soul and concluded that the mind and body were separate entities but that they interacted in the pineal gland at the base of the brain. However, he was not convinced by this answer and spent the rest of his life searching for a better one.  Descartes revolutionized medieval thought by questioning it. However, he does not seem to have found a way to get out of the religious content of that world or its language, Latin.

Blaise Pascal opposed Descartes's rationalism and British empiricism as insufficient to determine the important truths. He was attracted to Jansenism a branch of Protestantism that emphasized original sin, the depravity of humanity and the need for divine grace and predestination. He had a mystical religious vision in 1654 and his major work on religion Lettres Provinciales was published in the following years. He attacks Catholic casuistry, especially that of the Jesuits, who, according to him, justified moral laxity using complex reasoning. Louis XIV ordered the burning of the book and Pope Alexander VII condemned it.

His most influential theological writing was Pensées (1670), considered a masterpiece of the French language. He used the contradictory philosophies of Montaigne's skepticism and stoicism to confuse believers into embracng God. this was confirmation that Pascal relied on revelation or faith for his religious beliefs, rather than reason and intellect. This linked him to medieval rather than modern traditions of thought. His argument for belief in God, known as 'Pascal's Wager', is: if we believe in God and He exists, God will reward us after death, but if he does not exist we will not have lost anything. Pascal proposed this thesis as proof of rationality:

“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Thomas Hobbes saw politics as a secular discipline, separate from Aristotelian theology and metaphysics. He had a pessimistic view of humanity as self-centered and competitive rather than benevolent.

His influences were rooted in the deterministic science of the time (Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke ...) and the certainties of mathematics. He visited Galileo and came back convinced that the physical world could be systematized using the new science of dynamics, including the human body and mind and all of civil society.

His masterpiece Leviathan (1651) presented his model of the founding of legitimate states and governments based on theories of social contract. It was written during the Civil War (1642-1651), a struggle for power between Parliament and the King. As a monarchist Hobbes was concerned with demonstrating the need for a strong central authority and avoiding civil conflict. In Leviathan he developed ideas already expressed in his De Cive (1642).

He postulated that life without government would be like a state of nature that would lead to conflict and poverty. To avoid this state of war and insecurity, humans enter into a 'social contract' and establish a civil society. Everyone gives up their natural rights for their protection and abuses of power by authority are the price of peace (although in exceptional cases rebellion may occur). He rejected Lockes' separation of powers arguing that the Sovereign must control the civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

His ethics was based on adapting to the situation: if there is no political authority, you have to manage yourself; if there is a political authority, our duty is to obey it. (This is exactly what Hobbes did when the monarchy lost the civil war - save himself by fleeing to Paris.)

John Locke presented the fundamental principles of his epistemology in An Essay on Human Understanding (1690). He argued for empiricism: all our ideas, simple and complex, are based on our experience and sensory stimuli. Our knowledge is, then, severely limited in scope and certainty. We cannot know the inner nature of things, only their behavior and the way it affects us. It is a modified skepticism.

However, it does not mean that everything is unreal. Locke already distinguished between 'primary' and 'secondary' qualities of reality. The primary qualities of an object, such as the solidity and occupation of space exist independently of the perceiver. The secondary ones, like the color, differ according to what he perceives. For example, if we jump in front of a red bus whose primary qualities are solid and take up space, it will cause injury and possibly death. The way the bus appears to us is a controlled hallucination; the bus itself is not.

Locke published his Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690) anonymously to avoid controversy. The first presented arguments against the divine right of kings (root cause of the civil war of the 1640s). The second treaty supported Hobbes' 'social contract' by underlining majority rule. Locke ruled out absolute power and supported the separation of powers.

Nicolas Malebranche initially followed Descartes's rationalism and opposed the British empirical school. However, as a priest, he wanted to synthesize Cartesian thought with Augustinian thought to demonstrate the active role of God in the world. Following Descartes, he believed that human knowledge came through immaterial ideas or mental representations. But, like Augustine of Hippo, he also argued that all ideas only existed in God. These ideas are independent of our finite minds and when we access them we understand objective truth.

Malebranche's great innovation in De la recherche de la vérité  (1674-75) was his explanation of how universal divine ideas could also serve as immediate sensory objects in the individual human mind. It suggests that while the conception of ideas is pure and direct, their sensory perception will depend on each individual. (Is that why we can have different opinions on the same object?)

Malebranche's ideas had an influence on Berkeley's pure idealism because they made the last step toward denying the existence of material substance. Leibniz was also inspired by his correspondence with Malebranche to design the pre-established theory of harmony as an alternative to that of Malebranche himself. Hume agreed with Malebranche that there can be no causal relationship between different entities, but he tried to explain it by analyzing the human mind instead of looking to God.

Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch Jew. In Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, (1677) he disagreed with Descartes stating that mind and body were two names for the same reality. In fact, all reality was a single substance and God and Nature were two names for this same reality of the universe.

He postulated a deterministic pantheism that left no room for free will or spontaneity. We are only free to know that we are determined. (There is a parallel with the predestination of Lutheranism.)

His Ethica demonstrates points in common with stoicism because both philosophies teach how to reach happiness. He disagreed with the stoic idea that reason could dominate emotion. He argued that only one emotion can be dominated by another emotion and that knowledge of passive (not understood) emotions could transform them to active (understandable by reason). (Freud would work with this same hypothesis 200 years later.)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz contributed to the metaphysical debate in his Monadologie (1714), a dualistic idealism programmed by God. The material world would consist of appearances of the real world. (It is similar to the modern idea of ​​the energy composite universe.)

In an attempt to explain Descartes' problem of mind-body interaction, Leibnitz denies causation because everything is prefixed by a God or Almighty Being. (This has a parallel in Spinoza's determinism and Lutheran predestination.)

God is also used in his Principles of Nature and Grace founded on Reason to argue that there was an explanation for everything and an answer to all questions. When asked about God, he replied that His existence was necessary and logical. (Hume and others would argue this claim.)

More information...

Luis de Góngora (1561 – 1612)

Francisco de Quevedo (1580 -1645)

Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

René Descartes (1596 – 1650)

Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680)

Diego Velázquez (1599 – 1660)

Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600 – 1681)

Otto von Guericke (1602 - 1686)

Pierre Corneille (1606 – 1684)

John Milton (1608 – 1674)

Evangelist Torricelli (1608 – 1647)

Anne Bradstreet (1612 – 1672)

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin - Molière (1622 – 1673)

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662)

Christiaan Huygens (1629 – 1695)

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677)

John Locke (1632 – 1704)

Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723)

Johann Joachim Becher (1635 -1682)

Jean Racine (1639 – 1699)

Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)

Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716)

Denis Papin (1647 – 1712)

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 – 1725)

Stephen Gray (1666 – 1736)

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)

Johann Sebastián Bach (1685 – 1750)


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