Socrates & Descartes

Socrates believed that there was a god who placed him on this earth to examine life by challenging and questioning anything and everything.  Socrates was thrown in jail because he expressed his beliefs and many people did not agree with him.  He was considered aggressive and dangerous to the people in power.  Crito attempted to convince Socrates to escape from prison, but Socrates argued against it saying, “…the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (Crito 48b).  Socrates meant that it is important to do more with life than just live.

Socrates believed that one should only value the opinions of experts in a given subject area, not the majority of people (Crito 47a).  The good opinions are those of the people who have expertise in that specific field.  The opinions of the majority of people (who are no experts) should not be paid any attention because they are not valid.

Another belief of Socrates was that one should obey the laws of the government in place, and that one should never do wrong.  Socrates shared this belief with Crito when he asked, “…if we leave here without the city’s permission, are we mistreating the people whom we should least mistreat?” (Crito 49e)  The answer to this question is yes because had he run away, he would not only have broken the law, but he would have also communicated non-verbally that it was okay to disregard the ruling of the court because he felt it was unfair.  Socrates believed that when a person is wronged, that person should not do wrong in return.  Even though the judge and jury that tried Socrates may have been corrupt, he believed that the laws were just.  Escaping from the prison would go against his agreement to live as a citizen under the rule of the government, so Socrates remained there until his death.

Socrates held on to his convictions until his death, never straying from what he believed in.  On page forty-one of the Apology, Socrates expressed that he viewed death as either a dreamless sleep with a total lack of perceptions or a relocation of the soul to a better place (Apology 40c).  This viewpoint on the subject of death surely made it easy for Socrates to accept death.  According to Socrates’ statement, people should not be afraid of death because they will either live again in a better place, or they will just sleep, having no idea that they have died.

René Descartes was born in France in 1596, and educated by the Jesuits. His main areas of interest were in physics, astronomy, and optics.  Descartes made the famous statement, “Cogito Ergo Sum.”  In Meditations on First Philosophy, this statement was translated from Latin as saying, “I think therefore, I am.”  This statement declares that thinking proves existence.

Descartes used hyperbolic doubt to arrive at the conclusion that thinking proves that one exists.  On page thirteen of Meditations in First Philosophy, Descartes says, “…I realized that once in my life I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences” (Meditations in First Philosophy 17).  Descartes explained that he could not trust anything without establishing that it was definitely true, so he began his deconstruction of the convictions that people held by doubting everything.

Descartes biggest reason to doubt the convictions that people held was that an evil genius existed, having a powerful mind that counteracted God’s goodness.  Descartes said that the evil genius was always trying to deceive him.  Descartes soon came to the conclusion that the evil genius could not deceive him if he did not exist in the first place (Meditations in First Philosophy 25).  From this point, Descartes had determined that he was a mind, or a thinking thing, because he was the one being deceived.  Then, Descartes thought of another idea.  How could he doubt something if he did not exist?  From this question, he drew his second proof of existence.  He doubts therefore, he must exist.  The fact that Descartes doubts and the fact that he exists as the mind that is being deceived proved that he existed.

Descartes then began his third meditation, on the topic of God’s existence.  The common conviction was that God existed, so Descartes began by inquiring if there was a God and if it was possible for him to be a deceiver (Meditations in First Philosophy 36).  On page thirty of Meditations in First Philosophy, Descartes said, “…there remains only the idea of God.  I must consider whether there is anything in this idea that could not have originated from me” (Meditations in First Philosophy 45).  This statement allowed Descartes to use the common conviction that God is perfect to prove that God existed.  Descartes asked how he himself could exist with the idea of God’s perfection in him if he himself was not perfect.  He then came to the conclusion that the idea that God was perfect must have been created by someone who was perfect.  God must exist because he is the only one who could have created the idea of his own perfection (Meditations in First Philosophy 51).

René Descartes’ reconstruction project was meant to reconstruct the convictions that people hold more solidly by offering proof that they were true. Descartes thought of convictions that people held, like perceptions about external reality, perceptions about internal reality, mathematical properties, and God’s goodness.  Then, he came up with reasons to doubt each conviction, like sensory deceptions, dreams, alternate universes, and the evil genius.

When Descartes reconstructed the convictions that people held, he proved that each conviction was true.  In Meditation Two, Descartes used the example of wax to prove that the perceptions about external reality were true.  He made observations as he watched wax burn and change form as it melted.  Descartes noticed that the wax changed so rapidly and had so many dimensions that it could not possibly be a figment of the imagination (Meditations in First Philosophy 31).  Finally, Descartes stated that bodies (wax included) are not imagined, but perceived by intellect (Meditations in First Philosophy 34).  These two statements were proof that external reality existed.

In Meditation Four, Descartes says, “For every clear and distinct perception is surely something, and hence it cannot come from nothing…Therefore, the perception is most assuredly true” (Meditations in First Philosophy 62).  This statement means that every perception that a person has is something because that perception cannot come from nothing; everything must come from something.  This realization proved that perceptions about internal reality were true.

In Meditation Five, Descartes proved that mathematical properties were true using the example of shapes, numbers, and movements in his mind.  He said that when he first discovered the truth about shapes, numbers, and movements, he felt as if he had known of them before and was just recalling them (Meditations in First Philosophy 64).  Descartes said that mathematical properties must be true because when he thought of a triangle in his mind, he knew the properties of the triangle and what it looked like for certain.

In Meditation Six, Descartes used human health to prove that God exists.  He said that the human body had natural sensations that occurred within the body that were dependent upon specific actions affecting the body (Meditations in First Philosophy 87).  Descartes used the sensation of thirst as an example.  He said that when a human needs water, the body naturally produces a sensation of thirst.  Descartes then concluded that God must be good because he created humans with natural sensations that allowed them to maintain their health (Meditations in First Philosophy 88).