In just a few words Descartes unseated centuries of human thought. But note well a key component of his proposal: The mind and its “good sense”—that is to say, human reason—are the only basis for judging whether a thing is true. Prior to Descartes, reason worked in conjunction with divine teaching, the instruction of tradition, the cursory observations and corresponding conclusions of previous generations, folklore and astrology.
Descartes insisted on reason alone.
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By Steve Hall
Taking time to say a few words about Rene Descartes and his influence on Western thought may seem strange as an introduction to today’s readings. However, we are probably closer to Descartes in our manner of thinking than we are to Jesus or Paul. Moreover, the shift which Descartes brought about has made it difficult to fully appreciate Paul’s teaching in Ephesians.
Born in 1596, Rene Descartes became one of the most significant figures of his time in the areas of mathematics, philosophy and medicine. His greatest impact was probably in the area of epistemology, a branch of philosophy which attempts to address the question: How do we know what we know? Prior to Descartes the mode of Western thought had changed little since the days of Aristotle and Plato in Classical Greece. What development had taken place was still within the framework of the Greek philosophers and was even described as Aristotelian.
“Aristotelianism, or Scholasticism, was a blend of Christian theology and thinking derived from Aristotle and other ancient Greeks. These streams of thought had stewed together for centuries and resulted in a worldview that, often spiced with astrology and folklore, treated every subject under the sun, from the story of creation to the roles of men and women. It explained why a stone dropped from a window fell to the earth rather than floating upward (because objects want to move toward the center of the earth, which is the center of the universe); it told what happened when you died; it gave an account of the end of all things.”*
“The ineffable was a genuine and necessary part of reality. Jesus walked on water; miracles happened; the Devil stalked the land. The supernatural—magic—existed within the natural; it was woven into the fabric of the world and the stars, including the sinews of the human body.”*
Descartes would change all that with his rather short literary work titled Discourse on the Method. The Method, of course, was concerned with answering the question mentioned earlier: How do we know what we know? It would prove to be an introduction to what we call today the ‘Scientific Method.’ It began with doubt.
“Doubt is the beginning of an undoubtable philosophy.” Said Descartes. Therefore the mind and its “good sense”—that is to say, human reason—are the only basis for judging whether a thing is true. With the “cogito,” [I think, therefore I am.] as philosophers abbreviate it, and with the theory of knowledge that arises from it, which Descartes outlined in the Discourse on the Method and later works, human reason supplanted received wisdom.
In just a few words Descartes unseated centuries of human thought. But note well a key component of his proposal: The mind and its “good sense”—that is to say, human reason—are the only basis for judging whether a thing is true. Prior to Descartes, reason worked in conjunction with divine teaching, the instruction of tradition, the cursory observations and corresponding conclusions of previous generations, folklore and astrology. Descartes insisted on reason alone.
Today we are untroubled by the Scientific Method. It is a central part of the world we live in. However, it created a long list of casualties, the cognitive underpinnings from the past: divine teaching, tradition, the cursory observations and corresponding conclusions, folklore and astrology. Reason stood alone as superior to all other ways of knowing. Some from our short list of casualties probably needed to be discarded. Others, however, were needlessly abandoned. One of these Paul refers to in today’s Scripture.
“May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,
what are the riches of glory
in his inheritance among the holy ones,
and what is the surpassing greatness of his power
for us who believe . . . .”
Paul was not speaking symbolically or figuratively. His teaching was based on the then common understanding that there are dimensions of reality which only the heart can truly access and know. At the pinnacle of these is love. I can know that I am loved through reason; but I KNOW that I am loved with my heart. Love does not succumb to the measuring rod which reason would apply. Still, it is real. And I know that it is real through my heart.
Unfortunately, just as reason can be blind to the truth, so too can the eyes of the heart, failing to see or failing to recognize “the hope that belongs to his call, the riches of glory in his inheritance” or “the surpassing greatness of his power.” So, Paul prays for the Ephesians, desirous that “the eyes of your hearts be enlightened.” It is a prayer that we would/should pray for ourselves as well as for God’s people, and all others. It is a prayer desperately needed in an age when reason reigns supreme.
Many today still bow before the altar of reason as did many Frenchmen literally did in the years following the French Revolution. Reason is a loathsome parameter when it sets the boundaries on all that can be known.
*Descartes Bones, by Russell Shorto, Doubleday, 2008