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THE SEMANTICS OF HAPPINESS IN DESCARTES'S DISCOURSE by Louis A. Mackenzie,Jr. The discourse on method is a work in which most readers can take delight. Its attractiveness resides perhaps less in the philosophical argumentations—the Meditations and Principles do a more thoroughjob of that—than in what might be called its humanness. The reader need not be a philosopher to appreciate the image of Descartes warming himself or his thoughts on a winter's day, or to sympathize with his anxiety over publishing a risky piece of writing. These are moments when, to appropriate Pascal's thought, the reader finds himself "astonished and overjoyed to find a man there where he might have expected an author." And one of the most agreeable traits of the man who reveals himself in the Discourse is his clear capacity to experience joy and to express it. Indeed, happiness is not only one of the important "themes" of the Discourse specifically, it is also a persistent point of focus in Descartes 's writing generally.1 Here, however, I will be looking at the single element of Descartes's expression ofjoy in the Discourse. While my examination may lead me to several other texts, I do not intend to engage the sweeping subject of Cartesian happiness. I choose, rather, to stake out a small corner of the subject by focusing mainly on the semantic patina given the expression of happiness in the Discourse. In so doing, it should be possible to geta better sense notonly ofthe man, the method, and the philosophy, but also if I be permitted to pirouette on Pascal's thought, of an author fully conscious of the terms he uses and of their nuances. In the first part of the Discourse, Descartes looks back to his schooldays Louis A. Mackenzie, Jr.89 at La Flèche, "one of the most famous schools in Europe."2 He sees himself disillusioned and stymied. He recalls being "nourished" in the humanities, a diet which his Jesuit mentors had promised would bring clear and certain knowledge of everything it was useful to know. This promise, one he recalls as much for himself as for his readers, has to be understood as a promise for happiness, especially since Descartes talks about it in terms of his own "extreme desire" to learn all those things prescribed by the regimen. The adjective with which Descartes modifies the noun "desire"—and it is important to remember that, for all its accessibility, the language of the Discourse is not the unmediated expression ofspontaneous memory, but the carefully chosen expression ofsomeone preoccupied with clarity, precision, and publication—should not be taken as a simple synonym for "great" or "keen." It should be allowed to retain its strongest, most literal resonances. In short, it means vital, critical, and crucial.3 Descartes wants it understood that his desire teems with urgency, so that, when at the end of his course of studies he finds himself compelled to "change his mind completely," the sense of his disappointment can be fully appreciated by the reader. This need to change his opinion completely is to admit to the sad fact that extreme orurgentdesire has gone unfulfilled. More importantly, it has generated its opposite: extreme frustration. Once again, the term Descartes uses to express this frustration, "embarrass é," is important. To be embarrassé is not simply to be upset. It is to be blocked off, weighed down, encumbered, disoriented and confused . This unhappy condition forces Descartes to admit that faithfulness to his course ofstudy has brought no fruit other than an ignorance only vaguely consonant with Socratic wisdom. It should be noted parenthetically that while his disappointment with regard to the curriculum at La Flèche is authentic and weighty, his critique does not represent a broadside against his mentors and their pedagogy. Indeed, in a letter to an acquaintance who had asked advice on schooling for his son, Descartes goes so far as to recommend in the most glowing terms the program of his former instructors, particularly insofar as the teaching of philosophy is concerned.4 This recommendation does not, however, contradict what was clearly an unpleasant sensation for the young Descartes . In his disillusionment...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 88-94
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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