AGE OF REASON: Southern Europe (17th.)

In Southern Europe the philosophy of the 17th. century was a tug of war between belief and reason. 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 succeed, 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.

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  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.

More information...

Luis de Góngora (1561 - 1612)
Francisco de Quevedo (1580 -1645)
René Descartes (1596 - 1650)
Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680)
Diego Velázquez (1599 - 1660)
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600 - 1681)
Pierre Corneille (1606 - 1684)
Evangelist Torricelli (1608 - 1647)
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin - Molière (1622 - 1673)
Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)
Jean Racine (1639 - 1699)
Denis Papin (1647 - 1712)
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 - 1725)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)

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