restricted access 2. René the Fatalist: Abolishing (Aristotelian) Freedom
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41 2 René the Fatalist Abolishing (Aristotelian) Freedom Everybody knows that your orders are like wind in a chimney until they’ve been confirmed by Jacques. —Denis Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist Yet all depends upon his providence, to which . . . I submit myself with as much courage as Father Joseph would have done. —René Descartes, “Letter to Mersenne (9 January 1639)” We did not understand Descartes. —Stéphane Mallarmé, “Notes sur le langage (1869)” We need to kill Aristotle! —Alain Badiou, “Event and Truth” Desire (Differently)! In 1649, almost 125 years after Luther opposed Erasmus by contending that there is no relation between man and God and defended the idea that true faith must begin by accepting the divine and unknowable doctrine of predestination, Descartes published his last book. Descartes, “with [whom] the new epoch in Philosophy begins, whereby it was permitted to culture to grasp in the form of universality the principle of its higher spirit in thought,” and with whom philosophy experiences “a radical 42 · René the Fatalist new beginning,” published a book at the end of his life that seems to have anticipated the end of his thought.1 Today this book, The Passions of the Soul, is usually considered to be of merely historical significance, a philosophical nonentity of little importance to any understanding of Descartes’s thought. The book was ridiculed because it posited a material link between the two substances that Descartes distinguished in his preceding work: the body and the soul.2 This link served as the material interface of their mediation, the seat of the soul in the body— the infamous pineal gland.3 It may be due to the book’s alleged obsoleteness, or to the efficacy of the harsh critiques it received, that some of its most astonishing arguments went unnoticed: arguments suggesting that Descartes—who was attacked by Dutch Calvinists for being an atheist—was ultimately a fatalist, a strict defender of divine providence. Descartes and fatalism? It helps to first clarify the topic of his last book. Sartre once stated the obvious: the book deals with the fact that the “Cartesian will is free, but there are ‘passions of the soul.’”4 The Passions of the Soul is a book on freedom— understood as freedom of the will—under the conditions of its embodiment. Thus it examines the effects this very embodiment has on freedom and asks what impedes and hinders freedom. As it turns out, and this may come as a surprise, for Descartes passions are freedom’s primary obstacle. If the soul is “principally considered as something that wills,” the will can suffer from passions that inhibit the realization of its own freedom.5 As Descartes states, “Of all kinds of thoughts which the soul may have, there are none that agitate and disturb it so strongly as the passions.”6 In short, because of the passions, the will can make use of itself poorly. This means that the soul has two distinct kinds of attributes: actions and passions. The actions of the soul (its volitions) are caused by the soul, and they can be directed either toward the soul or toward the body—say, when René the Fatalist · 43 one wants to stand up and the body starts to move. The passions of the soul are basically perceptions that originate in the body or in objects outside of us so they first affect us through our senses. But they have an effect on the body as well as the soul. Yet things get more complicated. Not only do passions appear in the soul as volitions (they move the soul to will something, say, an external object), but volitions that originated in the soul also generate passions (for example, joy about an amazing idea). Volitions can lead to passions (what Descartes calls “internal emotions”), but passions can likewise lead to volitions. Externally generated passions represent something that did not originate in the soul but is nonetheless represented within the soul as if it originated in the soul. These passions do not simply overwhelm and determine the soul. Even if weakened and disoriented in its self-determining power, the soul still remains the determining subject of all its actions due to the simple fact that the soul essentially is a substance separable from all external objects, including the body. Although the soul is never abolished as substance by its passions, misdirected actions can occur as a result of the passions’ influence on the self-determination of the soul...


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