The French philosopher René Descartes’ search for an oasis of faith through the desert of doubt began with Cogito, ergo sum. I think therefore I am. “My very doubt proves my existence". Otherwise who will be the doubter? Doubt, in itself cannot exist.
And so skepticism leads to one certainty. I am.
In other words, I am a thinking thing, or a Mind. I may doubt that I am a body or that there is a material world in which I live. But I cannot doubt away my doubt or the existence of thought. “Hence I know that I am a substance whose entire nature it is to think and for whose existence there is no need of any place, nor does it depend on any material thing; so that this “me”, that is to say, the soul by which I am that I am, is entirely distinct from my body and is even more easy to know than is the latter; and even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is. ”
And thus, by the simple process of questioning everything, including the existence of the body, Descartes succeeds (at least to his own satisfaction) in establishing one thing- the existence of the soul.
He next proceeds to establish the existence of God. “Whatever I conceive very clearly and distinctly, ” asserts Descartes, “is true”. Bearing this in mind and reflecting on the fact that I am assailed with doubt, I realize that my existence is not quite perfect. “For I see clearly that it is a greater perfection to know than to doubt”. But whence have I learnt to think of anything more perfect than myself? Obviously from some nature which really is more perfect than myself – a nature which has within itself all the perfection of which I can form an idea – in a word, God. Only that which is perfect can be attributed to God. There can be no imperfection in Him. Doubt, inconstancy, sadness, anger, hatred – these are not the attributes of God, since they are qualities whose absence would make us happier. That is, they are imperfect qualities, the badge of humanity and not of divinity. God is perfect, which means infinite, eternal, immutable, independent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, divine.
This fact of existence of a perfect God, asserts Descartes, “equals and even surpasses in certitude the demonstrated fact of geometry. ” God is the perfection that leads our imperfect footsteps instinctively towards the light. This, then, is Descartes’ picture of humanity – a mechanical body, a living soul within and the spirit of God above, guiding and sustaining us all.
Descartes suffered from weak lungs. Queen Christina of Sweden wanted him to be her teacher in philosophy. Despite his reluctance, she succeeded in coaxing him to come to Stockholm. Descartes had not only the severity of the Swedish climate to contend with but also the stubbornness of Christina’s will who, believing her mind to be most receptive to philosophy in the early hours of the morning, insisted upon his arrival at the palace everyday before sunup. He was able to stand this sort of wintry climate only for a few weeks and contracted pneumonia.
Feb 11, 1650, Descartes opened his eyes, “What time is it?” he asked in a voice scarcely audible.
“Four o’clock in the morning. ”
He makes an effort to rise. “Time to get up. The queen is waiting”. And then in a whisper, as he falls back, “Time for the soul to get up. ”
“I am a living soul”, he had said, “in quest of Truth”. And now he was rising to meet Truth face to face