- Descartes as a Moral Thinker: Christianity, Technology, Nihilism
This work takes as its starting point the need to ground Descartes's moral philosophy in something more fundamental than human reason. Finding inspiration in Heidegger's lament, "In what soil do the roots of (Descartes's) tree of philosophy find their support?" (and not allowing that the tree might be hydroponic), Steiner proceeds to ground the "concrete content and absolute authority" of Descartes's moral principles in his Christian faith (13). This is a book with a mission: to keep the secularizing readers of Descartes's philosophy from the Church door. It stands as an important reminder that in understanding Descartes we cannot ignore his theology and achieves this goal in a lucid and erudite fashion. But the central tenet of the book—that Descartes subordinated much of his thinking about morals to the authority of religion—is, in my view, fundamentally mistaken.
Steiner's Descartes is the pivotal transitional figure between the orthodox Christianity of the late scholastic period and the secular modernism of Kant. Caught between the two, Descartes's thinking is pulled in opposing directions, towards the "earthly ethos" and its twin ideals of technological mastery over nature and the autonomy of reason, and the "angelic ideal"—a transcendent ideal according to which truth and goodness are conceived sub specie aeternitatis as a gift from God. Steiner reads the earthly ethos as symbolic of modernity and modernity as the gradual de-sanctification of our sovereignty over nature, but in Descartes, at least, we are not yet there. What tempers Descartes's modernist inclinations is his recognition of the limits of human reason.
Steiner argues that, towards the end of his life, Descartes resigned himself to a definitive morality based on the "three or four" maxims of the "provisional morality" of the Discourse—a morality grounded ultimately not in human reason but in the Christian religion, in which "by God's grace" Descartes had the good luck to be raised. Of note is the first maxim, which is the principle of conformity to the laws, customs, religion, and moderate opinions of one's immediate fellows. Descartes recognizes the moral relativism implicit in this maxim—the "Persians and Chinese" are likely to follow their own customs and religion—but it is not relativism that Steiner sees Descartes as endorsing. Rather "the terms of Descartes's formulation of the maxim subtly but unmistakably indicate the inferiority of these sources of meaning" (40)—the terms in question being the role played by "God's grace" in choosing Descartes's religion for him and remarks from the Second Replies about the "sin" committed by "Turks and other infidels" in refusing to embrace the Christian religion (AT VII, 148). It is natural to read the first maxim, contra Steiner, as a rule of thumb for guiding action under conditions of uncertainty—a rule which is self-consciously relativistic. The first [End Page 173] maxim is a standard Pyrrhonian trope and would have been recognized as such. Descartes appeals simply to the "utility" of following his local laws, customs, religion, and is careful not to offer an argument for their supremacy over others.
There is, moreover, a certain irony in Steiner's choice of the remarks from the Second Replies as support for his thesis. The context is one in which Descartes is keen to suppress an objection, raised by Mersenne, that if avoiding error is matter of the will's restricting its assent to clear and distinct ideas, then it will be impossible to avoid sin (or "error"—the Latin verb is 'peccare') in matters of faith (AT VII, 126–27). Does it follow, Mersenne asks, that the Turk or unbeliever would be unable to avoid error, regardless of whether he embraces or rejects the Christian religion, since matters of faith are obscure? Descartes replies that, although the subject matter of faith is obscure, the reasons (principally, that God cannot lie) for embracing it are not, and so we can know that what is revealed by the...