Rene Descartes: Discourse on Method


MEANWHILE I must have a rule of life as a shelter while my new house was in building, and this consisted of three or four maxims.

The first was to conform myself to the laws and customs of my country and to hold to the religion in which, by God's grace, I had been brought up; guiding myself, for the rest, by the least extreme opinions of the most intelligent. Among extremes I counted all promises by which a man curtails anything of his liberty; for I should have deemed it a grave fault against good sense if, because I approved something in a given moment, I had bound myself to accept it as good for ever after.

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general to bring myself to believe that there is nothing wholly in our power except our thoughts. And I believe that herein lay the secret of those philosophers who, in the days of old, could withdraw from the domination of fortune and, despite pain and poverty, challenge the felicity of their gods.

Finally, after looking out upon the divers occupations of men, I pondered that I could do no better than persevere in that which I had chosen--so deep was my content in discovering every day by its means truths which seemed to me important, yet were unknown to the world.

Having thus made myself sure of these maxims, and having set them apart together with the verities of faith, I judged that for the rest of my opinions I might set freely to work to divest myself of them. For nine years, therefore, I went up and down the world a spectator rather than an actor. These nine years slipped away before I had begun to seek for the foundations of any philosophy more certain, nor perhaps should I have dared to undertake the quest had it not been put about that I had already succeeded.

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