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J. WATTS, ‘ICONOCLAST,' AND A. COLLINS.
CONTAINING A SKETCH OF THE LIFE AND PHILOSOPHY OF
DES CARTES, VOLNEY, LORD BOLINGBROKE, SHELLEY, VOLTAIRE,
ANTHONY COLLINS, SPINOZA, PAINE, SHAFTESBURY,
BLOUNT, BARKER, TAYLOR, AND BURNET.
EDITED BY "ICONOCLAST,' ANTHONY COLLINS, & JOHN WATTS.
Wednesday, October 1, 1856.
EDITORS' PREFACE. In these pages, appearing under the title of Half-Hours with the Freethinkers, it is our intention to collect in a readable form an abstract of the lives and doctrines of those who have stood foremost in the ranks of Free. thought in all countries and in all ages; and we trust that our efforts to place in the hands of the poorest of our party a knowledge of works and workers—some of which and whom would otherwise be out of their reachwill be received by all in a favourable light. We shall, in the course of our publication, have to deal with many writers whose opinions widely differ from our own, and it shall be our care to deal with them justly, and in all cases to allow them to utter in their own words their essential thinkings.
We lay no claim to originality in the mode of treatment-we will endeavour to cull the choicest flowers from the garden, and if others can make a brighter or better bouquet, we shall be glad to have their assistance. We have only one object in view, and that is, the presenting of free and manly thoughts to our readers, hoping to induce like thinking in them, and trusting that noble work may follow noble thoughts. The Freethinkers we intend treating of have also been Free Workers, endeavouring to raise men's minds from superstition and bigotry, and place before them a knowledge of the real. If, therefore, each of our readers will erect, from these men, a standard, and strive to raise himself or herself to it, we shall be well repaid for any trouble our little work may give us, believing that as men make themselves wiser and happier, wisdom and happiness will spread through their several circles, exercising an elevating influence over all.
The extent of our work will depend much upon the encouragement we receive, but to prevent disappointment, we will state that it is our intention, in any event, to issue sufficient numbers to form a complete volume.
We commence in this paper with Des Cartes, but if the papers are continued as we wish, we shall also give sketches of thinkers anterior to his time. The present volume will treat, amongst others, of Spinoza, Bacon, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Hobbes, Volney, Voltaire, Paine, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Comte, Diderot, Byron, Shelley, Taylor, Carlile, Owen, R. Cooper, Southwell, Barker, Holyoake, etc.
We have been the more induced to issue the • Half-Hours with the Freethinkers' in consequence, not only of the difficulty which many have in obtaining the works of the Old Freethinkers, but also as an effective answer to some remarks which have lately appeared in certain religious publications, implying a dearth of thought and thinkers beyond the pale of the Church. We wish all men to know that great minds and good men have sought truth apart from faith for many ages, and that it is because few were prepared to receive them, and many united to crush them, their works are so difficult of access to the general mass at the present day. It will be our duty to remove this difficulty, trusting to our readers for support.
RENE DES CARTES DUPERRON, better known as Des Cartes, the father of modern philosophy, was born at La Haye, in Touraine, of Breton parents, near the close of the sixteenth century, at a time when Bacon was like the morning sun, rising to shed new rays of bright light over the then dark world of philosophy. The mother of Des Cartes died while he was but a few days old, and himself a sickly child, he began to take part in the battle of life with but little appearance of ever possessing the capability for action on the minds of his fellows, which he afterwards so fully exercised. Debarred, however, by his physical weakness from many boyish pursuits, he devoted himself to study in his earliest years, and during his youth gained the title of the young philosopher, from his eagerness to learn, and from his earnest endeavours by inquiry and experiment to solve every problem presented to his notice. He was educated in the Jesuits' College of La Flèche; and the monument erected to him at Stockholm informs us .That having mastered all the learning of the schools, which proved short of his expectations, he betook himself to the army in Germany and Hungary, and there spent his vacant winter hours in comparing the mysteries and phenomena of nature with the laws of mathematics, daring to hope that the one might serve as a key to the other. Quitting, therefore, all other pursuits, he retired to a little village near Egmont, in Holland, where spending twenty-five years in continual reading and meditation, he effected his design.'
In his celebrated • Discourse on Method,' he says, ' As soon as my age permitted me to leave my preceptors, I entirely gave up the study of letters; and, resolving to seek no other science than that which I could find in myself, or else in the great book of the world, I employed the remainder of my youth in travel-in seeing courts and camps—in frequenting people of diverse humours and conditions—in collecting various experiences; and, above all, in endeavouring to draw some profitable reflection from what I saw. For it seemed to me that I should meet with more truth in the reasonings which each man makes in his own affairs, and which, if wrong, would be speedily punished by failure, than in those reasonings which the philosopher makes in his study upon speculations which produce no effect, and which are of no consequence to him, except perhaps that he will be the more vain of them, the more remote they are from common sense, because he would then have been forced to employ more ingenuity and subtlety to render them plausible.'
At the age of thirty-three Des Cartes retired from the world for a period of eight years, and his seclusion was so effectual during that time, that his place of residence was unknown to his friends. He there prepared the
Meditations, and · Discourse on Method, which have since caused so much pen-and-ink warfare amongst those who have aspired to be ranked as philosophical thinkers. He became European in fame; and, invited by Christina of Sweden, he visited her kingdom, but the rudeness of the climate proved too much for his delicate frame, and he died at Stockholm in the year 1650, from inflammation of the lungs, being fifty-four years of age at the time of his death.
Des Cartes was perhaps the most original thinker that France had up to that date produced; and, contemporary with Bacon, he exercised a powerful influence on the progress of thought in Europe; but although a great thinker, he was not a brave man, and the fear of giving offence to the church and government, has certainly prevented him from making public some of his writings, and perhaps has toned down some of those thoughts which, when first uttered, took a higher flight, and struck full home to the truth itself.
The father and founder of the deductive method, Des Cartes still proudly reigns to the present day, although some of his conclusions have been overturned, and others of his thinkings have been carried to conclusions which he never dared to dream of. He gave a strong aid to the tendency of advancing civilisation, to separate philosophy from theology, thereby striking a blow, slow in its effect, but firm and effectual in its destructive operation, on all priestcraft. In his dedication of the Meditations,' he says, “I have always thought that the two questions of the existence of God, and the nature of the soul, were the chief of those which ought to be demonstrated rather by philosophy than by theology: for although it is sufficient for us, the faithful, to believe in God, and that the soul does not perish with the body, it does not seem possible ever to persuade the infidels to any religion, unless we first prove to them these two things by natural reason.'
Having relinquished faith, he found that he must choose an entirely new path in which to march with reason; the old ways were so cumbered with priests and Bibles, that progression would have been impossible. This gave us his method. He wanted a starting point from which to reason, some indisputable fact upon which to found future thinkings.
He has given us the detailed history of his doubts. He has told us how he found that he could, plausibly enough, doubt of everything except his own existence. He pushed his scepticism to the verge of self-annihilation. There he stopped: there in self, there in his consciousness, he found at last an irresistible fact, an irreversible certainty. Firm ground was discovered. He could doubt the existence of the external world, and treat it as a phantasm. He could doubt the existence of God, and treat the belief as a superstition. But of the existence of his own thinking, doubting mind, no sort of doubt was possible. He, the doubter, existed if nothing else existed. The existence that was revealed to him in his own consciousness, was the primary fact, the first indubitable certainty. Hence his famous Cogito, ergo Sum : I think, therefore I am.'-(Lewes's Bio. Hist. Phil.)
Proceeding from the certainty of his existence, Des Cartes endeavours to find other equally certain facts, and for that purpose presents the following doctrine and rules for our guidance:— The basis of all certitude is consciousness, consciousness is the sole foundation of absolute certainty, whatever it distinctly proclaims must be true. The process is, therefore, rendered clear and simple: examine your consciousness each distinct reply will be a fact.
He tells us further that all clear ideas are true-that whatever is clearly and distinctly conceived is true--and in these lie the vitality of his system, the cause of the truth or error of his thinkings.
The following are the rules he gave us for the detection and separation of true ideas from false (i.e., imperfect or complex):
1. Never to accept anything as true but what is evidently so; to admit nothing but what so clearly and distinctly presents itself as true, that there can be no reason to doubt it.
2. To divide every question into as many separate parts as possible, that each part being more easily conceived, the whole may be more intelligible.