Harvard Classics, Volume 34: Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hobbes

In this volume of the Harvard Classics, I got a chance to read a smattering of 17th and 18th century philosophy, that is loosely organized as : “Big French names plus Thomas Hobbes”. With a set like this, you’re trying to fit as many important things as possible, and I guess this was a good way to squeeze Hobbes in rather than be forced to cut him.

Descartes’ Discourse on Method, is a biographical account of how Descartes got to where he was as a philosopher and how he developed his theories. The tough thing with Descartes is that he is a very important figure because of who he inspired, not because of his work itself. The big exception is that Descartes is the person who figured out you could represent algebraic functions as curves and vice-versa. Anyone who has made it through 8th grade can thank Descartes for the invention of the Cartesian coordinate system.

The work itself goes through Descartes’ education, which was both substantial and in line with the scholars of his day. He bounces around Europe being dissatisfied with what he had learned and felt full of doubt. The genesis of his philosophy was therefore to strip away everything where he held doubt and start from scratch, to with the foundational truth of: “I think, therefore I am.”

Voltaire’s Letters on the English present a description of various interesting parts of England, focusing on religion, government, and the arts. Voltaire takes on these topics with his characteristic wit and intelligence. He has a very good perspective on England as he lived there while exiled from France.

Moving on into deeper philosophy is Rosseau’s: On the Inequality of Man. This work, in my opinion, really doesn’t hold up all that well, not because of some fault of Rousseau as much as how our understanding of the world has changed since Rousseau’s day.

One of Rousseau’s fundamental assumptions is that humans, in a state of nature, are inherently peaceful with one another and everyone shares resources with each other. Today, especially in a post-Darwin world, we recognize that the state of nature is a state of competition and scarcity. We also recognize that behavior involving monopolizing access to resources, particularly in food and access to mates, is, in the words of Jordan Peterson: “older than trees”.

So Rousseau, who insists that heirarchies amongst men are unnatural and artificial, is undermined by modern biological understanding of very simple creatures as well as humans’ nearest animal relatives.

The second Rousseau work, a selection from his novel, Profession of Faith By A Savoyard Vicar, is, more-or-less the case for deism. In this work, a fictional clergyman explains his faith to the protagonist. Rousseau is basically right here that there’s only so far you can get with pure reason for justifying religion, and that the missing ingredient is revelation. Of course the problem is Rousseau rejects using anything but pure reason and settles for deism. Again, Rousseau’s reliance (and that of the when Enlightenment) of reason as the beginning and end of knowledge is an Achilleo heel.

The final work is the first half of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, “Of Man”. The whole purpose of this work was to build up an understanding of what it means to be a human and what that means. Contrary to Rousseau, Hobbes presumes that, stripped of society, humans are nasty brutes to each other. While somewhat better than Rousseau, because it acknowledges the competition for limited resources, it still falls a bit short because of the meaningful biological relationship between kin that exists even in a natural state.

Hobbes goes on to say that humans naturally exist in a state of war with each other, and that maximum liberty: doing what you want, whenever you want, means perpetual war. Humans enter into agreements with each other in order to create peace, one agreement at a time. In doing so, they surrender a bit of freedom for security and the ability to prosper to the larger whole. As time goes on, the entities in a perpetual state of war agglomerate into kingdoms, and the weilder of the surrendered liberty is sovreign.

Hobbes holds up surprisingly well given his early date (during the English Civil War), but ultimately his understanding and philosophy is superceded by the development of philosophy.

One of the big problems the Enlightenment philosophers, as a whole, have, is that the questions they chose to concern themselves have been subject to so much revision in our understanding. Ancient philosophers concerned themselves with what it means to live a good life, and these hold up exceptionally well because they stay relevant. However, a theory on how man came to form society has suffered a death by a million cuts from evolution, anthropology, and all sorts of other fields of study.

With that, we have another volume completed. Next up are late-Medieval writings, followed by two more volumes of philosophy, including: Machiavelli, Thomas More, Martin Luther, John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. From there lies the home stretch covering a wide gamut of subjects: Medicine, Prefaces, Poetry (3 vols), primary sources of American History, Religion (2 vols), Elizabethan drama (2 vols), the works of Blaise Pascal, and finally Germanic Sagas.

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