Who is this book for?
As philosophy goes, this book is remarkably approachable. It is a wonderful guide for anyone interested in making consistent and well-founded choices based on a personal methodology. Descartes intends this book for the lay audience like me with the hope that our society might make more thoughtful decisions. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats. This being my first book by Descartes, I was pleasantly surprised, and plan to read his other works.
What will you learn?
You will learn Descartes' own method for thought and decision making, including breaking problems into their constituent parts, and having absolute conviction once decided. Descartes also believed that good sense is distributed equally among people and that we are capable of creating a personal methodology more suitable for ourselves. In order to create that methodology, you will learn to question the status quo and to use first principles.
Where to find it?
First, check your local library. If you'd like to buy it on Amazon, consider using my referral link: A Discourse on the Method. It costs the same for you, and goes to fuel more reviews like this one.
How long will it take to read?
It took me about 5 hours to read the whole thing, including time for notes. My reading speed is generally just shy of 250 words per minute, slower for heavy material, faster for light.
The meat and potatoes
We begin with a long introduction, roughly the same length as the book itself. In the introduction, we learn of Descartes' history. Born in 1596, and a gentleman by birth, he was afforded a reliable and sufficient income for education and beyond. We see the picture of a frugal man who dresses modestly, and avoids excessive extravagance including drinking and socializing. Descartes' indifference to socializing underscores a deep lack of interest in the thoughts of others. "He confided to his friend Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (1594-1654), in a letter, that in Amsterdam he paid no more attention to the people he met than he would to the trees on his friend's estate and the animals that browsed there." As we come to recognize, he believes that insight can be attained independently of others. He is somewhat disdainful of books and the need for inclusiveness in philosophy. He likens this, in an extensive metaphor, to the construction of architecture with a bad foundation. That is, the philosophical attempt to build on existing ideas instead of starting anew. He was a deep believer that we are all capable of thinking using first principles to deduce the truth of reality while being sadly aware that certain arguments are given great strength by using the names of famous people.
his dislike for books was on the basis that reading too many might leave us alien in our own minds. As he recounts: "I then decided that I had devoted enough time both to the study of languages and to the reading of the books, histories, and fables of the classical world. For conversing with those of another age is more or less the same thing as traveling. It is good to know something of the customs of different people in order to be able to judge our own more securely, and to prevent ourselves from thinking that everything not in accordance with our own customs is ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing of the world are in the habit of doing. On the other hand, when we spend too much time traveling, we end up becoming strangers in our own country." I for one, don't believe myself to have reached anywhere near a sufficient worldly understanding to abandon books altogether, but perhaps with a brilliance like Descartes' it could be justified.
While he maintains a stoic and self-sufficient exterior, he is aware of his own limitations and writes that "for myself, I have never presumed my mind to be any way more accomplished than that of the common man. Indeed, I have often wished that my mind was as fast, my imagination as clear and precise, and my memory as well stocked and sharp as those of certain other people." In this, we are made to feel welcome to come take a look at what he has to say.
Descartes outlines his method in short numbered lists that as I mentioned earlier are incredibly approachable to the lay audience. It feels extremely modern to write in this way, almost like a current day listicle, he breaks down a complex scientific method into simple bullets. I include them in their entirety here:
The four rules of thinking
"The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not incontrovertibly know to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid both prejudice and premature conclusions; and to include nothing in my judgements other than that which presented itself to my mind so clearly and distinctly, that I would have no occasion to doubt it.
The second was to divide all the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as many as were required to solve them in the best way.
The third was to conduct my thoughts in a given order, beginning with the simplest and most easily understood objects, and gradually ascending, as it were step by step, to the knowledge of the most complex and positing an order even on those which do not have a natural order of precedence.
The last was to undertake such a complete enumerations and such general surveys that I would be sure to have left nothing out."
The ethical maxims
He also outlines a similar set of ethical maxims as four bullets. These are bit longer, so I will paraphrase them:
"The first is to obey the laws and customs of my country...
The second is to be firm and resolute in my actions as I could, and to follow no less constantly the most doubtful opinions, once I had opted for them, than I would have if they had been the most certain ones...
My third maxim was to endeavor always to master myself rather than fortune, and try to change my desires rather than to change the order of the world, and in general to settle for the belief that there is nothing entirely in our power except our thoughts...
Finally, as a conclusion to this moral code, I decided to review the various occupations that men have in this life, in order to try to select the best one."
Descartes is very pro self sufficiency. As we see especially clearly in the third maxim, there is a flare for the stoic as well. He also indicates that each person can create for themselves a set of maxims which are more personally suited to the individual. I think our world would be a much better place if each person was to do this—to thoughtfully consider how and why they behave the way they do and to write them down in concrete form. The philosophy of Byron Katie is something like this, a modern take on the classics. Our morals and values are constantly changing as we dig deeper into the mysteries of the universe, it is only natural that we would need to recalibrate even very fundamental truths for our own lives. It is okay for each person to live according to their own beliefs.
Descartes covers a variety of other topics, including physics, the cosmos and medicine, but my personal takeaways were his simple methods and ethics. He briefly dances around his belief in the revolutionary Copernican model, in which the earth was discovered not to be the center of the universe, and for which Galileo had recently been imprisoned. Similar to the planetary model, many of the ideas in this text which are widely accepted today may have been considered radical at their time. All in all, I think that anyone looking for an approachable and short philosophical text will appreciate this masterfully written book. Happy reading.