Descartes sent a copy of Meditations of First Philosophy to his friend and confidant, Father Mersenne, with the request that he circulate it among the influential members of his inner circle. As its title suggests, the manuscript contained a description of Descartes’ new philosophy. One of those who read it was Le Maistre de Sacy, who offered the following critique:
God created the world for two reasons… one, to provide an idea of his greatness, the other to depict invisible things in the visible. M. Descartes has destroyed the one as well as the other. ‘The sun is a lovely piece of work,’ one says to him. ‘Not at all’, he replies, ‘it is a mass of metal filings.’ Instead of recognizing invisible things in the visible, such as the God of nature in the sun, and seeing an image of this grace in all that he has produced in plants, he insists, on the contrary, on providing a reason for everything.” (Cambridge Companion to Descartes, 402)
As far as I can tell, Le Maistre de Sacy was not the reactionary type. He was the driving force behind the translation of the Bible into the French vernacular which means that he was willing to risk offending church authorities. Blaise Pascal and Antoine Arnauld were among his close associates. What disturbed Le Maistre de Sacy about Descartes’ philosophy was that it inclined towards a completely mechanistic view of the cosmos, and of life. This criticism was also shared by Blaise Pascal. “I cannot forgive Descartes,” said Pascal, “In his whole philosophy he would like to dispense with God, but he could not help allowing Him a flick of the fingers to set the world in motion, after which he had no more use for God.” Perhaps nothing illustrates Descartes mechanistic view of life better than an experiment he conducted to learn how the circulatory system functions in animals. He nailed a live dog to a plank and cut it open in order to observe its still beating heart. The howls of pain emitted from the creature meant nothing to Descartes because his philosophy taught that animals are machines. They have no soul. Well ok, but then what would prevent Descartes’ beast-machine doctrine from morphing into a completely materialistic account of man? It wouldn’t take long to find out. One of Descartes’ disciples, Benedict Spinoza, went the logical next step and argued that it was time to dispense with the notion of a soul completely. To see what this philosophy looks like in practice, we have only to look outside our window (I am in a 1970’s apartment tower seemingly inspired by brutalist architecture). It is the world we live in.
Le Maistre de Sacy and Pascal perceived something in Descartes philosophy that troubled them. Jesus taught us to see nature in terms of parables: the lilies of the field, the wind that moves imperceptibly, the seed that multiplies, the little children, the water that springs up to eternal life, the fire that cannot be quenched, the unfailing love of a Father. These parables follow a pattern rooted in the Old Testament where nature is treated, not as the subject of mythology, but as an allegory that points to a transcendent reality: the glory of the heavens, the sun shining overhead, the pounding of surf against the rocks, the tree planted by quiet waters, the snow falling on Zalman, the pinions of a dove, the stork in the heavens, the gleam of gold in the inner sanctuary, the gentle breeze, the quiet whisper, the love of a woman, the crouching lion, the slithering serpent, and yes, even sickness and death.
I remember sitting in a botany course while the prof explained how a parasite feeds on a healthy tree. It is truly gruesome what a parasite can do to its host. What struck me is that a tree can live with a parasite for a long time and still look quite healthy. But it will eventually succumb to the disease until it is reduced to a scabby, gnarled, stump. The thing about a virus or a parasite is that it is an alien thing. It has no life of its own. The only way it lives (or replicates) is by attacking and destroying the life of something else. A virus takes over the machinery of a cell that is designed to give life, and uses it for destructive ends.
Although we’ve always known that a pandemic may strike at any moment, we’ve only recently had to come to grips with this reality. The result has been widespread panic and a total lock-down of our economy. It seems to me, that, if Jesus were walking among us today, he would use this opportunity to remind us that we should not fear what kills the body, but what destroys the soul. Sickness is, after all, one of the many metaphors employed in the Bible to describe the effect of sin on our soul. “Is there no balm in Gilead… no physician there… to restore the health of the daughter of my people,” lamented Jeremiah. “The healthy have no need of a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day. If we thought of sin in terms of the coronavirus it might change our outlook.
Descartes was fixated on matter in motion. But life cannot be reduced to mathematics, nor the sun to a mass of metal filings. This Easter morning, as the sun shines brightly through my apartment window, I am reminded that there is medicine for the sick, that the sun’s rays kill the virus, and that where there is death, there is also life. The Son has risen!