While it is generally admitted that Descartes is “the father of modern philosophy,” his relation to modern political philosophy is less clear.  After all, he never wrote a systematic discussion of political things.  And yet despite that, d’Alembert in his Encyclopédie declared that “Descartes laid the foundations of a government more just and more happy than has ever been established.”  What then is the relation of modern philosophy to modern political philosophy?  A first clue is perhaps found in the link between Descartes and Sir Francis Bacon, the open admirer of Machiavelli and advocate of the mastery of fortune or nature in human affairs.  Since Descartes famously imitated Bacon and his call for a philosophy founded on a new method and dedicated to “the mastery and possession of nature” for the greatest glory of philosophy and the greatest benefit for society.  Accordingly, Descartes’ political teaching, aims at establishing this harmony between philosophy or science and society, what has come to be called “the Enlightenment”

Part of the difficulty in ascertaining Descartes’ politics is the coy and cautious writing style he employs.  As he put it, “I have composed my philosophy in such a way as not to shock anyone, and so that it can be received everywhere, even among the Turks.”  Moreover, nowhere in his writings do we find praise or blame of any political philosophy but that of Bacon.  There are, however, private letters that speak highly of the politics of Machiavelli and Hobbes.

The beginning of wisdom in the search for Descartes’ political teaching is to note that it belongs to “the highest most perfect moral science” which Descartes understands to be the end of philosophy tout court.  In his famous image of the tree of knowledge:

“The whole of philosophy is like a tree, the roots of which are in metaphysics (knowledge of God and the human soul)… the trunk is physics, and the branches which come from the trunk are all the other sciences (principally medicine, mechanics and morality)… Just as it is not from the roots or the trunk of trees that one gathers the fruits, but only from the extremities of their branches, so the principle utility of philosophy depends on those of its parts that one can only learn last… The ultimate branch is the perfect moral science… which, presupposing an entire knowledge of the other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom.”

And despite – or because – of the lofty position of this “perfect moral science,” it is nowhere to be found explicitly in his published or unpublished writings.  The poetic image itself is also confusing: man is both the second metaphysical root and the highest branch, but Descartes in his metaphysics treats first the human soul and then God.  The poetic simile also leaves out the “roots,” namely the metaphysical principle coeval with the soul, so-called corporeal substance, but it is precisely that out of which the tree “trunk” must grow.  So the roots and beginnings of the poetic tree of knowledge remains obscure.

If we turn to Descartes’ more popular Discourse on Method (1637) we find there a presentation of all the parts of his philosophy, and their order from beginning to end.  Descartes states that he sought “a clear and certain knowledge of all that is useful to life.”  And with an eye to utility, he examined all learning, but only mathematics was of any use.  As contrasted with mathematics, philosophy which ought to supply the “foundations of the sciences is wholly disputable, useless and uncertain.”  And while “theology… shows the way to gain heaven”, which he “aspired as much as any other.”  But “revealed truths are above our intelligence”, in other words, they do not belong to knowledge clear, certain and useful for life.  And so Descartes abandons the goal of the classic tradition since he abandons the source of the “speculations” or the quest for knowledge for its own sake, seeking only “useful knowledge.”  He justifies his rejection of the classical approach by means of his critique of pagan philosophic writings on virtue.  Descartes replaces the ancient distinction between passions and virtues with that between good and bad passions.  In other words, he rejects the very basis of the classical understanding, that the soul has parts, that there is a hierarchy of the parts that some parts can be ordered to obey reason, so that reason can rule a natural hierarchy in the soul.  But according to Descartes, there is no natural order of the soul, the ancients were ignorant of the “dependence of the mind… on the temperament and the disposition of the organs of the body.”

The conjunction of his reflections on the power of the passions as well as that of mathematics lead Descartes to call for a new method in philosophy and it precisely the call for the new method that constitutes Descartes’ principal political teaching.  The replacement of virtue by passion, means that “the useful for life” is that which best serves the ends of the passions.  The passions, however are complex, some are good, some bad, some are useful, some useless, some noble, some ignoble.  The crucial thing is to find a comprehensive passion, a passion capable of providing a principle of order for the other passions, and in that way be the passion capable of ruling or mastering all the other passions, the most noble and masterful passion.

To elucidate what he demands of the master passion, Descartes begins his argument for method by noting that what is made by one master is wholly in the power of that master.  And he offers a series of seven examples of masters which culminate in reason as a form of master.  Except that now, since it is “the will of some men using reason” that leads to perfect mastery, reason is in the service of the will, or of that supreme passion that Descartes will call “generosity.”  The series of examples of masters moves from a single architect, to a single engineer, to a single divine legislator, God, to Lycourgus, to the reasonings of a man of good sense, to the example of a man who had perfect use of his unaided reason from infancy, untouched by “appetites or preceptors.”  All the masters author “works,” and “work” now includes the work of reason, there is no distinction, as with the Ancients, of practical and theoretical, or techne and philosophy.  Descartes, like Bacon, describes philosophy as “architecture.”  And “perfection” of mastery seems to refer at the same time, to singleness of master, magnitude of the subject a master works on, and its source in unaided human reason.  Accordingly, the master passion, which Descartes designates the master virtue, or “generosity” is the sensation in oneself of “a firm and constant resolution… never to fail of one’s own will to undertake and execute all the things (one) judges to be the best.”  This “generosity,” the greatest master, then is the most comprehensive, the master of the whole series so to speak, which implies mastery of the whole of nature, fusing mastery of the greatest magnitude with the highest practical mastery, or “legislation” of the greatest magnitude.  Descartes’ new philosophy, “architecture” will replace Aristotle’s political science, as the “architectonic” or master art.

Descartes’ final example, as is often observed, that of the a man who could make use of his unaided reason from infancy, free of “appetites or preceptors,” is purely mythical.  But what it does make clear is the need for a method that will purge the mind of all opinions and beliefs that depend on “appetites and preceptors.”  In other words, only by means of the construction of a method, and not natural human reason can overcome the natural disproportion between our passions and appetites and our reason.   Since even our sense perceptions are formed by prejudices of the appetites and passions from our childhood.  As a result, all previous philosophy which began simply with sense-perception, and lacked a sure method for the purgation of prejudice and passion, was a failure.  The model for such method lies in mathematics, whose certainty flows form the fact that it is not sensuous, and owes nothing to the bodily senses.  And so the project begins to take shape:  Method can master the natural defects of human nature and achieve comprehensive mastery which includes the mastery of man’s body, by becoming the comprehensive master of all body, by means of mathematical physics.

The “generosity” of this master method is political and connects private and public reform.  For the reform of “the body of the sciences” will willy-nilly lead to reform in “the order established in the schools” to teach the sciences, the very repositories of the opinion that stand as the “foundations of the great bodies,” i.e., states and nations.  The very publication of Descartes’ Method in the vernacular was intended to instigate just such a reform in the direction of “clear and distinct” mathematical opinion so as to transform that opinion that lies at the foundation of all societies.  As such, Descartes must deem it necessary to reform existing states, especially reconfiguring the relation of philosophy and the public.  Indeed, Descartes’ method implies a permanent reform.  For the entire reflection on mastery, his famous “day at the stove,” begins with a reference to the “wars” in Germany and ends with the war in Holland; it is framed by the post-reformation wars between Catholic and Protestant powers of Europe.  Christianity, or the central authority for the existing foundations breeds civil war, “the controversies of the schools, by insensibly making those who practice themselves in them more captious and obstinate, are possibly the chief causes of the heresies and dissentions that now exercise the world.”

But to demonstrate the legitimacy of the supreme mastery for which he calls, Descartes must show the possibility of the total mastery of fortune.  In his words, “one must totally reject the vulgar opinion that there is outside of us a Fortune that makes things happen or not happen.”  How can a single private man set about public reformation?  Descartes’ solution lies in the attractive power for all men of the “fruits” of his philosophy and his propagandistic advertisements for them.  The popularization of the principles of physics renders Descartes’ “project” a “practical philosophy”, “useful for life” meant to supplant that “speculative philosophy taught in the schools.”  Through the “mastery and possession of nature” man can invent an “infinity of artifices that would enable us to enjoy, without any pain, the fruits of the earth, and all the comforts that are to be found there.”  The very fruits of the tree of knowledge will furnish what the priests deny us in this life, that the consequences of the Fall can be undone.  Descartes proposes a heaven on earth.  In other words, the science that leads to happiness is not the study of the excellencies of the soul – moral and political philosophy – but medicine, the science of the body.  For “Health is without doubt the first good and the foundation of all other goods of this life.”  Medicine is the the way to prolong life, but above all it is the science that produces “wisdom,” the ultimate fruit: “the mind depends so much no the temperament and on the disposition of the organs of the body that if it is possible to find some means which generally renders men wiser and more skillful than they have been hitherto, I believe that it is in medicine that one must search.”  So that he might “show clearly the utility that the public could receive” from his philosophy, he “would oblige all those who desire in general the good of men, that is to say, all those who are in fact virtuous and not merely seem so, not only to communicate to me (the experiments) they have already made, but also to aid me in the search for those that remain to be made.”  This good of man – the satisfaction of needs, comfort, health, long life – is now the standard of virtue.

The completion of Descartes’ new method in mathematical physics compelled him to face the status of the soul and its knowledge in the famous metaphysical argument in the Meditations (1641).  Descartes will doubt absolutely, every opinion or source of opinion ni the slightest degree dubious, in search of “foundations” for the edifice of science.  In the sequel, this “universal doubt” is severely restricted; finally in Principles I, no. 10, its even denied.  The point of doubting is to suspend our natural trust in our senses, and the dependence on images that derive from them.  In order to test the dubitability of what does not depend on the trust in images, especially mathematics, Descartes conjures his famous God “who can do everything”, even that the sum of two plus three is five.  If God can suspend the principle of contradiction, all human reasoning would be over, unless the perfection of God somehow excluded such deception.  But our knowledge of God is but “an old opinion”, and so Descartes replaces the problem with an “Evil Genius” not so omnipotent as to jeopardize mathematics, nor the reasoning that is independent of trust in images.  The Evil Genius renders dubious the existence of “all external things” or the bodily, including the body of the doubter.  Only two theses are doubted within the range of “universal doubt”  It is logically possible to doubt the existence of the bodily, while asserting the existence of the body of the doubter; it is even necessary to assert the existence.  Hence, “this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it or that I conceive it in my mind.”  Since the knowledge that “I am” does not depend for its truth on the knowledge of the body, or on any knowledge of nature, it has an “epistemological” priority to any assertion of “metaphysics.”  And with this discovery, Descartes thinks he has found an “Archmidean point” that establishes the existence of the knowing ego within the whole, the enmity of which, as represented by the “Evil Genius”, is overcome by the mathematical physics and the project of the mastery of nature.  After laying out this principle, Descartes asks what mind or thinking is: the “cogito” is prior to and independent of, any determination of the materiality or immateriality of the mind.

“Generosity” is the master passion or virtue, the knowledge of which, is the main part of “wisdom,” or that perfect moral science, that teaches man to be master of and hence enjoy the passions, by which man “tastes the highest sweetness in this life.”  Descartes’ “reformation” begins with the transformation of philosophy into the project of the mastery of nature, of virtue into the science of the passions, and of perfect theoretical and practical virtue into the virtuous passion of “generosity.”  But not all men view the mastery of nature as their practical end, thus philosophy must take on a new relation to society to overcome this gap.  Since the useful is needed in all societies, and Descartes’ method of “universal doubt” implies that the good is the useful, Descartes’ project can be welcomed and encouraged by all societies, except those rooted in traditional virtue or piety.  It is also more or less regime neutral:  The support of science in modern times by both liberal and tyrannical regimes bears this out to some extent.  And so Descartes never raises or answers the question of the best regime.  The convergence of the ends of philosophy and society is possible despite the fact that the useful sought by each is not identical.  The final wisdom of the passions and the glory sought by the scientist/philosopher requires the same thing: the advancement of science the fruits of which society deems most useful.  The harmony of philosophy and society is based on the premise that all men are ruled by passion.

The harmony sought by the advancement of science requires new forms of social institutions.  Science will progress only if there exists the free exchange of “experiments” and free communication is sanctioned both within and between societies.  So societies must promote science by guaranteeing security, income and prestige to scientists.  Nor is that all, since the political authorities are not competent judges of scientific knowledge, they must elevate scientists to the role of judges and cannot hamper any communication of putatively scientific doctrine.  In other words, Descartes’ political reformation requires that society surrender control of its opinions, or its “foundations” since the ruling opinion of society are necessarily affected by the free circulation of doctrines, as well as the “infinity of artifices” or technologies unleashed by scientific experiment.  But society cannot have knowledge of science, only of the benefits promised by her, and so Descartes, no less than Bacon, demands that society be “enlightened” regarding both the benefits and the social orders necessary to procure such “fruit.”

The “Enlightenment” in this sense is aimed at forging the bond between philosophy or science and society in the common project of “the mastery of nature.”  And since the best condition for the advancement of science requires the cooperation of scientists from different nations, hence their free communication, the spread of knowledge regarding the conditions of the advancement of science in principle is without bound.  “Enlightenment” thus understood, means “open societies” united by the common project of “the mastery of nature.”  As a result it is necessarily at odds with those elements of societies that seek the cultivation and preservation of their own way and morality.  The “Enlightenment” of Descartes – like that of Machiavelli, Bacon and Hobbes -is of philosophic origin, and by aim and intention a universal politics, of universal or global scope.