I enjoyed Thomas Fleming’s article in praise of Aristotle (“Back to Reality,” Perspective, September).  The best way to introduce our children to philosophy is to teach them Aristotle’s proof for the existence of God and his proof for human immortality, with some embellishment and clarification from the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, then to bring out the timeless freshness of the essential ideas in modern prose.  Let that foundation be firmly laid in a young mind, and it will naturally mature and deepen, nor will the pseudo-urbanity of contemporary philosophy shake it.  On that foundation, life can be successfully and meaningfully lived in this world.

But then, out of the blue, Dr. Fleming says at the end of his essay, “The road that leads from Descartes to Locke to Mill to Marx is the road to the madhouse.”  How is it that all such philosophical evils are traced to René Descartes?

For some years, it has been fashionable in some Catholic circles to blame Descartes for such excess emphasis on doubt and reason that faith in the invisible becomes impossible and the mystery of life can never be felt in wonderment.  Such faith and wonderment are the essence of the Catholic view of life—that I grant.  But Descartes, it is said, is the father of “modern” thought, which supposedly leads to a materialistic and atheistic view of life.  That simply is not so.  The “methodical doubt” of Descartes was not the cheap doubt used by the likes of Bertrand Russell to hoodwink us into believing that it is not necessary to demand a cause for everything, least of all a cause for the universe, which is “just there, and that’s all.”  The methodical doubt of Descartes was  a wholesome philosophical exercise to teach the mind that, as sure of our senses as we have a right to be, the rational examination of consciousness is incomparably superior in the certainty and lucidity yielded.  He broke our bad habit of excessive reliance on “common sense,” which tells us that reality is exclusively what we touch and feel.  Descartes did not lead us away from mystical truth.  On the contrary, he invited us to confront it directly and, when doing so, not to fear the use of reason in dealing with it.  The nature of reason as the crowning dignity of mankind, after all, is what induced Aristotle to say that the human soul is eternal and Descartes to say that the soul is distinct from the body and can exist without it.

        —John Remington Graham
St-Agapit, Quebec

Dr. Fleming Replies:

My friend Jack Graham shall have to wait for my book, The Morality of Everyday Life (Spring 2004), for a more detailed critique of the Cartesian methods that undermined Christian philosophy.  In my Perspective, I said nothing of atheism or of Bertrand Russell.  Specifically, I was referring to the rejection of Aristotle’s distinction between the methods of exact science and those that apply to human life.  Descartes is the first to have proposed the abstract techniques of “moral algebra” adopted later by Leibniz, Locke, and other Enlightenment intellectuals.  Such pernicious nonsense gave rise to the so-called social sciences (as my old Greek professor used to say) that have wrought nothing but mischief in our world.  His harping on doubt, while giving the appearance of humility, actually has the effect of putting Descartes at the center of the universe, which he will by his own efforts renew.  His completely mechanistic account of human feelings in The Passions is as ludicrous as anything proposed by Watson and Skinner.

Like other irrational rationalists, Des-cartes was attracted to the bogus mysticism of his day, and, in his youth, he went off looking for the mythical Rosicrucians.  In searching for a Christian or conservative Descartes, his defenders today, Catholic or not, are on as futile a quest.