Descartes’s metaphor of the mendacious demon in the Meditation: is the converse of the single Truth: It is the embodiment of the single Lie The philosopher Roger Scruton thinks the demon is arguably a better, more economical explanation of our ordinary experience than the commonsense View that we live in an objective world which corresponds to our opinions. “Instead of supposing the existence of a complex world, with a multiplicity of objects, whose laws we barely understand,” says Scruton, “the demon hypothesis proposes just one object (the demon) operating according to a principle (the desire and pursuit of deception) that we are intimately acquainted with. The hypothesis is both simpler, and more intelligible, than the doctrine of common sense. Maybe it is the best explanation!”
At a time when Descartes was writing his Meditations, ancient skepticism in the form of Pyrrhonism was enjoying a revival, thanks to the rediscovery of the works of Sextus Empiricus, the “methodical” philosopher who flourished in the second and third centuries A.D. Sextus was a champion of his master Pyrrho, a Greek skeptic much taken with the atomic theory of Democritus. Pyrrho taught an extreme form of relativism in which the senses cheat. Eyes and ears are quite capable of lying to us and people are inclined to tell you the first thing that pops into their heads. Faced with that day-in, day-out mendacity, you might as well keep quiet and preserve aphasia, a non-committal silence, an imperturbable serenity. Pyrrho himself was an exemplary Pyrrhonist. According to Diogenes Laertius, he was apt to wander around in traffic. not looking Where he was going, so that his friends had to rescue him from “carts, precipices, dogs and whatnot.”
Sextus touched a seventeenth-century nerve with his insistence on the idea that each person’s constitution is so radically different from anyone else’s we cannot even pretend there is a single, truthful account of ordinary experience. The mental is so intimately linked to the physical, it is impossible to separate body from soul. And since bodies vary wildly from person to person, souls, or minds, must vary to the same extent. “We differ,” Sextus wrote, “in our constitutional peculiarities. For some people, beef is easier to digest than rock-fish, and some suffer diarrhoea from inferior Lesbian wine. There used to be an old woman of Attica, they say, who could drink thirty grams of hemlock with impunity, and Lysis used to take four grams of opium without harm.”
Michel de Montaigne, one of the most widely read Pyrrhonists of the period, took almost the opposite View from that of Descartes on the role of mind and reason. He believed consciousness can be deceived and can also deceive itself. Montaigne, who died four years before Descartes was born, and whose influence on his times has been likened to that of Freud on ours, held that the senses lie to the mind and the mind lies back in return. The two compete in defrauding each other. What is more, Reason is one of the imps of falsehood leading us astray. As an inner presence, it also enables us to deceive ourselves. '
A provocative theme in Montaigne’s writings is that ignorance, Untruth, just not caring whether or not the whole world is a lie, can be a source of happiness and contentment to the human species. We can be deceived, be a prey to falsehoods, and still enjoy our existence. A big mistake is to try to separate our “higher” faculties from our personhood, from the quotidian condition of being human. We are all members of the common herd. The acids of Reason, which for Descartes were an elixir of psychological health, would, if allowed free rein, eat away and destroy our natural instincts, Montaigne j Warned. The mind is always trying to improve on nature, aspiring to be something it was never intended to be; it is artificial and pretentious. It has ideas above its station. The imagination, in particular, is flighty and poor at making a distinction between truth and lies. Like one of today’s critics of the postmodernists, Montaigne pokes fun at the mania of his contemporaries for interpretation, for commentaries on commentaries, never agreeing on a final version. There is more bustle, more ink spilt on more paper, to interpret interpretations, than to interpret things. Critics occupy more space than original writers: “every place swarms With commentaries; of authors there is great scarcity.” The natural disease of the mind is that it “does nothing but ferret and inquire, and is eternally wheeling, juggling and perplexing itself like silkworms, and then suffocates in its Work.”
Whereas Descartes went to great lengths to lift human beings out of nature, out of the common opinions and habits of other people, the conventions of society, Montaigne let himself be “ignorantly and negligently led by the general law of the world.” It would be folly, he said, to worry and fret about whether such a law is correct and true, since it is not private and personal, but public and general. In a strongly worded passage at the end of the Essays, he advises against “disassociating” the mind from the body. People who do so “would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. ’Tis folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts. Instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humors affright me, like high and inaccessible cliffs and precipices.” We escape out of ourselves because we do not know how to live within ourselves.
“’Tis to much purpose to go upon stilts,” Montaigne noted, “for, when upon stilts, we must yet Walk with our legs; and when seated upon the most elevated throne in the world, we are but seated upon our rump.”
There is evidence that Descartes read Montaigne before beginning to write the Discourse. Montaigne’s Essays were popular, went through several reprintings and were taken up by such figures as Father Pierre Charron, a skeptical theologian very close to Montaigne. Charron’s book De la Sagesse was a treatise on the correct method for avoiding error and discovering truth, quite similar to the drift of Descartes’s own approach. He denied that human beings have any sufficient mental apparatus enabling them to tell truth from falsehood. We are apt to believe any old thing under the pressure of social conformity and coercion.
It is clear that Descartes recoiled from Montaigne’s View that mind must not be regarded as distinct and separate from the body or from nature. Montaigne had taken an almost Darwinian approach to the continuity of humans and nonhuman species. To suppose there is a profound break between the two is sheer conceit: “Presumption is our natural and original disease,” he said, cuttingus all down to size. “The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, and most remote from the heavenly arch, with animals of the worst condition, and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing heaven under his feet.” And what is there in human intelligence that is not present in some degree in other animals? Why does the spider make her web tighter in one place and looser in another, if she does not deliberate and think about it? Look at the intelligence of the fox, who tests the thickness of ice on a river by putting his ear on it, harkening to the sound of the water’s current, how deep it is or how shallow.
Moreover, beasts are at least as cunning and duplicitous as we ourselves. We plot strategems to trap and snare them, but they are a match for us; they are capable of “subtleties and inventions” to thwart such tricks. Consider the case of the mule belonging to Thales, the early Greek natural philosopher. This animal, carrying heavy bags of salt, conceived the dodge of “by accident” stumbling into a river, wetting the sacks and thereby lightening its load some what. Thales, it is said, tumbled to the ruse and made the mule carry Wool instead of salt, whereupon it ceased its ploy forthwith.
Montaigne goes on for pages and pages about the wonderful cleverness of beasts, to deflate our complacently lofty opinion of human reason, which he considered to be nothing special. As for truth, even the vaunted science of Aristotle was being undermined. Had not a New World been discovered on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, an entirely different culture with strange customs and beliefs, different absolutes? The kingdom of the intellect was tottering, the sin. gleness of the Roman Catholic Church under threat from the breakaway movement of the Reformation. “By extending the implicit skeptical tendencies of the Reformation crisis, the humanistic crisis, and the scientific crisis into a total crise pyrrhonienne,” says the historian of skepticism Richard Popkin, Montaigne’s work “became the coup de grace to an entire intellectual world.”
Descartes met the crisis head-on. Earlier he had put on a famous “Sophistical demonstration” at the home of the papal nuncio in Paris. He took some arguments of “incontestable” truths, and by the use of plausible reasoning showed they were false. Then he took what Was obviously a glaring falsehood and dressed it up as a seeming truth.
It was more than a mere philosophical interest in stabilizing the centrifugal dispersion of once unimpeachable truths, however, that motivated Descartes. He had been “devastated” by the condemnation of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church for heresy, so much so that he decided to suppress his own treatise, Le Monde, which confirmed the Copernican thesis of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and was within days of going to press. In 1624, Galileo had been given permission to write on the Copernican system as long as he did not take sides. But his next book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, so upset the church that he was called to Rome to be “interviewed” by the Inquisition. The book was banned and burned in 1633, and Galileo was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment, though he was allowed to live under house arrest. Later he was ordered to recite the seven penitential psalms every week for three years. He signed a formal abjuration of his belief in the Copernican doctrine.
Descartes showed signs of panic at the news. It was clear that the church was not interested in truth, but in its own supremacy, its own authority, and Descartes’s priorities were the exact reverse of those. He “quasi” decided to burn all his papers. “I cannot imagine,” he more to a friend, “that an Italian, and especially one well thought of by the Pope from what I have heard, could have been labelled a criminal for nothing other than wanting to establish the movement of the earth.” He saw this turn of events as a threat to the whole basis of his system. If Copernicanism is false, he said, “so too are the entire foundations of my philosophy.” It was around this time that Descartes took up the challenge of skepticism in earnest. His method of metaphysical, “hyperbolical” doubt, the doubt designed to end all doubts, and the confrontation with the demon of falsehood, seem to have been a response to the Galileo affair. “Skepticism was simply a means to an end, and that end had nothing to do with certainty about the existence of the material world, but rather with establishing the metaphysical credentials of a mechanist natural philosophy, one of whose central tenets-the Earth’s motion around the Sun-had been condemned by the Inquisition,” in the view of his biographer Stephen Gaukroger.
One of Descartes’s chief aims was to justify his belief in a mechanistic world. He was opposed to naturalism, the doctrine that what we might suppose to be supernatural acts of God can be explained without reference to God. Nature on its own possessed occult powers, according to the naturalist View. It was active and infinitely more mysterious than we might think, but at the same time more mundane. There were heretical suggestions that such God~linked activities as prayer and the sacraments were really states of mind, psychological attitudes. One answer to this dangerous theory of an active nature which behaved like supemature was to insist that the world is a mechanism. Matter is inactive, the supernatural is the supernatural, and never the twain shall meet. Nature has no occult powers. Descartes was intent on showing that God transcends nature, and that the mind, being entirely different from the body, cannot be part of nature.
Truth is obtained at the cost of a sacrifice. That is the conclusion of Descartes. The search for Truth is a lonely enterprise, a solitary mission. It requires the exclusion of possibilities, because the more possibilities there are, the less truth there is. Falsehood, error, uncertainty, arise because the will is free. Reason is the curb that reins in the licentiousness of the will, when it roams beyond the confines of reason. Reason is unfreedom. It rules out more than it rules in. That is what prompted Ernest: Gellner to aim a withering blast at Descartes for being “profoundly bourgeois,” essentially middle class “unromantic, uncommunal, unhistorical,” the self-made metaphysician, starting with nothing, coming up from nothing, proceeding step by step, tidily, not acting on impulse, above all self-sufficient. “It is indeed in this spirit that the bourgeois entrepreneur deploys his resources and keeps his accounts and records in financial and legal order-slow, careful, judicious, deliberate, omit~ ting naught, accounting for all.” Gellner lets the master of rationalism have it full in the face. Possessed of “a yearning for freedom from any kind of indebtedness, he will not mortgage his convictions to some common bank of custom, whose management is outside his control, and which consequently is not really to be trusted.” The difference between Montaigne and Descartes comes down to this. For Montaigne, there was “something more important” than truth. For Descartes, there was nothing more important. Said Montaigne: “ ’Tis the misery of our condition, that often that which presents itselfto our imagination for the most true does not also appear the most useful to life.” Descartes, by contrast, gives the impression that misery is the absence of truth, and life comes in second place to truth. “Descartes lived an unhappy and indeed, for some considerable periods, a rather disturbed life,” writes one of his biographers. “This is something he made every effort to deny or disguise, and the means he chose were intellectual. His sources of pleasure were few, but intellectual achievements figure prominently amongst these, and these achievements were elevated into virtually the only form of worthwhile pursuit, in a way that goes well beyond a commitment to a ‘life of the mind,’ for example.” In the Discourse, Descartes announces his core ambition: “I always had an excessive desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false.” For sure, Descartes was a notable separator and sifter. He detached God from the world, mind from nature, reason from culture. And he- the bachelor who prized his privacy so highly-privileged singleness as the pot of gold at the end of the philosophical rainbow. His method was to strip down to bare bedrock by doubting everything he had ever been told, suspecting all doctrines and systems, all scholarly worldviews. Start from scratch, alone, with just the elementary, primitive, original apparatus of thought itself and the clear and dis- tinct ideas provided by the “truth conscience” organ with which we are born.
The life of the mind can be a rather removed and isolated existence. It is not necessarily a team sport. In the Discourse on Method, published in 1637, Descartes states in no uncertain terms that something which has evolved, which has a history, which has been been altered over long periods of time by a variety of circumstances, is inferior to a work created all at one time by a single author working on his own. Buildings designed by just one architect are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those several generations of experts have tried to renovate and improve. A city that has grown up over centuries with ad hoc augmentations and extensions contains much higgledy-piggledy, needlessly complex design, with recent constructions perched on top of ancient masonry, streets crooked and irregular, giving the impression that the city emerged by accident rather than by the careful blueprints of an architect. Similarly, Descartes piously adds, “the constitution of true Religion Whose ordinances are of God alone, is incomparably better regulated than any other.”
A mind created at a stroke, by one and only one divinity, like a city laid out all at once by a single designer, would be immune to deception and falsehood. No crooked streets in the second, no twisted sophistries in the first. It is the long process of unhurried, organic development of knowledge over time and in history that lets in the fiends of error, the imps of delusion and fraud. As long as the mind does not contain its own mental geology, residues of old forms of knowledge buried like fossils in its depths; as long as it is underwritten by a God who finds it impossible to lie, the mind may be trusted not to swindle us. Descartes intended to cheat history by demolishing it with the wrecking ball of his Method, reducing everything to such simple, basic units they could not be false, creating a new science of thought as an architect would raze a whole town in order to build one that is his and his alone. In place of a Rome or Paris there would be a Washington, DC, a Brasilia.
That, of course, was exactly the sort of metaphor that led William Paley, in his Natural Theology of 1802, to the categorical assertion that the universe is like a watch, and a watch must have had a watch\ maker, a single designer who made it at a stroke as a finished instrument for a specific use. There are no useless parts, still present in the Watch just because they are remnants of the history of watchmaking, At the hinge of the intellectual revolution of the nineteenth century, that analogy was thrown back in Paley’s face. It was the heart and soul of Darwin’s theory that life has a history, mind has a history, and the evolution of species, like the partly haphazard structure of an ancient city, often updates obsolete parts of the body, leaving the residue of archaic, obsolete organs in place. In the concluding chapter of the Origin, Darwin introduces a profoundly personal manifesto: “When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as something wholly beyond his comprehension, when we regard every production of nature as one which has a long history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, in the same way as any great mechanical invention is the summing up of the labor, the experience, the reason and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting-I speak from experience-does the study of natural history become!”
In published “Objections” to the Meditations, Descartes, who disliked criticism, was brought down to earth and reprimanded for his refusal to recognize the role that “life,” the wisdom and learning of centuries, has to play in the formation of ideas he held to be the gift of a non-deceiving God to the single individual. How could he be sure that the idea of a perfect, supreme Being would have come to him if he “had not been nurtured among men of culture”? To dismiss as suspect, as a source of falsehood, all that civilization has to offer is cavalier, rash, and ungrateful. Did Descartes ever consider the possibility that these ideas came from books. from conversation with his friends, rather. than being messages hatched in his own mind in isolation, or arriving from a Supreme Being? Is truth a community venture, or an individual operation, with just one demon in attendance? That question Was to haunt Philosophy for centuries to come, culminating in the provocative notion, as diametrically opposed to the Cartesian view as could possibly be imagined, that “truth” is just a social construct,