Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SLJ on St. Michael's feast

Less than two months after the dreams, Descartes, not yet twenty-three, began writing his “Cogitationes privatae” which started with the following statement for the first days of January, 1619: “Just as actors, who are advised against appearing on the stage with a blush on their face, put on a mask, I too enter, with a mask on, the theater of the world in which I have so far lived as a spectator.” Cryptic as these words may appear at first, they can be understood if one assumes that Descartes wanted to hide his view of himself as a superior man, an angel in short. He knew - he did not jettison all common sense - that he would blush were he to present himself to his fellowmen as being far superior to them. While all this has to be conjecture, the reading of Descartes' works can leave no doubt that his claims about truth and knowledge required far greater powers than those of mere man. Those powers, as he described them, were, in fact, angelic. Unfortunately for Descartes, and for posterity as well, there are two kinds of angels. one kind, which had for leader the bearer of all light, Lucifer, rushed headlong into a disastrous fall.

Speaking of Lucifer, one thinks of Michael, a name which means “who is like God.” It is also a hallowed shorthand, telling perhaps less of God than of Lucifer's daring and downfall. Lucifer wanted to play God. How an angel can do that is a question for which answers, very speculative to be sure, may be found in the writings of an Aquinas or a Maritain. All such answers rest on considering angelic nature, pure intellects, whose cognition has three main features. The mode of that cognition is intuitive, its origin is innate, and its operation is independent of things. The Cartesian theory of errorless human knowledge is expressed in exactly the same terms. It should not be surprising that a man, believing himself to be capable of knowing in such a way, should try to play God. Descartes tried to do this in the only sense in which a poor mortal can do it, namely, to dictate to God how to go about the business of creation.

Descartes' apologies that he in no way prescribed to the Creator how to fashion a world out of the chaos, have convinced only some Cartesians. He was the first modern scientist who fell to the in which man is lured into deriving a priori the shape, structure, and laws of the universe. The core of an a priori derivation is not that it relieves one of laborious search and experimentation (although this may reveal a good deal about the merits of the enterprise). The core is rather the consequence that once such a derivation is achieved, the possibility that God could have created any other world is pre-empted. A God who is bound by inner necessity to create the very world which exists in a poor shadow of himself. The true creator of such a universe is the man sold on a priori reasoning, a very fallible way of playing God. As one could expect, the universe fashioned in such a way is a very fallible construct, and so is its science. The science and universe of Descartes provide a perfect example.
[SLJ Angels, Apes, and Men 15-16]

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