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Discourse on Malady

a fiction by Jürgen Lawrenz


Attributed to Rene Descartes

Edited by Jurgen Lawrenz


"Preparing to enter the stage of
learning, I come forward wearing
the mask of a simple soldier."
(From the Register [Descartes'
notebook] 1619)

Editor's Note

Some few years ago, a study of Descartes by Bernard Williams bore the magnificent title The Project of Pure Research. A good case can be made out that the noble sentiment reflected in this title also reflects the historical truth; it is after all, a claim put forth by Descartes himself. One should every so often, he wrote, descend to bedrock and examine the very idea of a human capacity for knowledge, its preconditions, and the dangers lying in wait for anyone who might enter upon such a novitiate.

Taking Descartes' self-analysis at face value does not seem to require justification. What could be nobler than such a sentiment, such a selfless service rendered to philosophy, especially at a juncture in its career when the sheer quantity of bric-a-brac brought life-threatening obesity in its wake and urged a radical slimming cure? History vindicated the 'project of pure research', indeed triumphantly so. Descartes belongs among the major saints in its hall of fame.

The setting could not have been more propitious. A brilliant mathematical genius, Descartes cracked at the age of 19 a problem left unsolved by Pappus 1700 years before and proceeded in short order to lay the foundations of analytical geometry and reductive-eliminative physics, which comprise jointly the power base of modern science. At the same time, his metaphysical papers revamped a whole branch of philosophy, so there is indubitable truth in Eric Bell's observation that "it is given to but few men to renovate a whole department of thought. Descartes was one of these few". And he renovated two, of course.

The Discourse on Method (hereafter: MET) with its scientific appendages, which inaugurated this revolution, is too famous to require any dilation on my part. The Discourse on Malady, however, is evidently an early and by all appearances hasty sketch of what was destined to become the MET, as may readily be confirmed by noting the transfer of verbatim phrases and whole sentences. What the MET lacks in its highly polished and manicured exposition, however, is the very immediacy of experience which distinguishes this draft. The 18 years separating this document from its published sibling were clearly devoted to gaining an objective distance and allowing all-healing time to close psychological wounds, thus enabling the writer to paint a fine glaze of rational thinking and aristocratic reserve over it.

The MS was discovered as long ago as 1898 under a wooden staircase of a small Black Forest homestead leading from the kitchen to the chicken pen. The staircase broke as the woman stepped on it. In the course of digging out its lower part, a carpenter found what seemed like a pouch or wallet enclosing some (mostly rotted through) papers. Noting the foreign language, and worried that it might have some connection to an espionage ring then known to be active in the region, he reported it to the police and from there the papers eventually came into the hands of the curator of rare and ancient manuscripts of the Swabian State Library. It was soon identified as written in Descartes' own hand, confirmed by the letters "[o]itevin" [2] running into the last page from the torn-off margin. The piece was not, however, ever published owing to its corrupt state. The present effort is the first to make that attempt.

The Text

As much as could be reconstructed from the fragment is herewith offered to the reader. Ellipses indicate breaks in the author's text.

= I =

Superstition [3] is of all things in the world so evenly distributed, and everyone so abundantly endowed with it, that scarce one of even the most hard-to-please men feels bereft of their share and desires more of it. And it seems to me unlikely that we should be mistaken in trusting our powers of judgement and discernment of the true from the false in respect of it; for what is properly called good sense or reason is by nature equal among all men. And so the disparities in our opinions arise not from a want of largesse of mind, but from the habit of scattering our attention in too many directions at once, rather than concentrating upon the objects of our thoughts as they occur to us. Reason, which makes us men and separates us from brutes, I believe to be completely vested in every man; yet when I gaze through the eyes of philosophy upon the doings and motives of men, and especially the deeds and reasons displayed in the name of those supe[rstitions] [4]..., many seem so devoid of sense to me, and vain and useless, that I have come to doubt the very foundations of truth in all that I had been taught. And so at length I resolved little by little to discard those many errors which obscure the natural light of reason [5] ... [and resolved?] no longer to be duped by the promises of alchemists, the predictions of astrologers, the impostures of magicians and the assurances of priests that flames cleanse the souls of witches. [6] And I resolved to study my own nature as well, and to employ all the resources of my mind with a view to choosing a path which henceforth I might fo[llow] ...

= II =

I was in Germany at the time [ed: November 1619] and on my way from the coronation of the Emperor to my army contingent, when a severe winter stopped me in my tracks and obliged me to seek quarter in a little Black Forest village where, with no society to distract me [7] and cooped up in a small, stove-heated room I had no other occupation than to follow the wanderings of my thoughts. Crouched by the side of the stove, I fell at length into a reverie [8] marked by three long periods in which nightmarish phantoms wracked my peace. [9] A fire gripped my brain and I fell into a state of excited hallucination, as phantoms danced attendance on a stranger of horrid mien, who approached me bearing a melon-sized yellow ball in his hands; the terror of his approach turning my blood to ice, while yet rivers of sweat poured down my temples and my neck and my knees scarce sustained the crouch. And in my fear I felt as though the stranger, without so much as a touch, squeezed me like a sponge and I seemed to be standing barefoot in a lake of mud bubbling with hell's gurgles. [10] The melon bore the title LE MONDE in clear and distinct characters; and as the stranger held it up I saw depicted in it, as in a crystal balloon, my own image: here bent over a seething cauldron scooping droplets of gold from a steamy, sulphurous bath; elsewhere attired in a green and purple robe swinging a charger and chanting a strange and barbaric babylonian abracadabra in a mock ceremonial; and in yet another place lighting a stack of hay and timber gathered in a circle around a pole to which two maidens had been strapped, whose shrieks and wails as the flames gorged themselves on their flesh froze my veins and stopped my heart, so that I broke into a senseless, inane, panicky laughter, whose peal continued to ring in my ears as the vision faded and I awoke, panting and choking and reviling the response of my body to the imaginings of my mind.

Falling asleep from exhaustion, a second dream came to me, even more fearsome than the first, where the stranger, dressed in cap with horns and wearing just one shoe shaped like a coven hoof, while his chest was tattooed with the blood-red inscription MALO SPIRITU in clear and distinctly shaped letters, approached me as if emerging from a gauze-like curtain of fog. But he drew it aside, and behind was revealed the universe entire, the stars and the planets, the sun and the moon; and on earth the flora and fauna in their habitats; and in the cities the people, the traffic, the commerce, the running hither and thither, buying and bartering, haranguing and hectoring. But soon dusk fell, and now I saw men studiously bent over volumes of books, all titled "False Knowledge" and "False Beliefs", while over the chimneys of their houses witches rode on broomsticks towards the lunar sickle, and ghosts clad in pale shrouds haunted the graves of their cemeteries; and elsewhere, in many a secret enclave, men and women were gathered in nakedness to worship before monstrous effigies of Lust and Dissolution. At this the demon snapped his fingers and said, "What is?" And at once the lights of the cosmos, the candles of the men, became extinguished and I stood shivering and alone in the vastness of this emptiness. The demon, too, had vanished; though I still heard his whispered "What is?" echoing from I know not how many millions of corners in a staccato of sibilant hisses. -- Then silence. A mute, soundless, extinguished world.

Alone. I thought I heard a voice, but as I focused on it, I realised the vain endeavour, for my ears and eyes and limbs had vanished. Nothing was left of me but my thoughts. What is? the demon had asked. Somewhere inside me a scream of terror arose and engulfed me, but I heard not a sound. And still the scream endured, filling the whole vastness of this cosmic cathedral with my pain, yet I heard not a sound.

How many aeons did I bear this mute solitude? I know not; but my consciousness did return to me eventually, and throughout this gradual reluminescence a single thought kept fizzing in my mind like a spinning top, "cogito", "sum". Again and again, the mere shadow of a shadow, until at last my limbs returned from their deadness and the taste of blood on my lips and a sharp, piercing pain in my left side assured me that this ordeal had no extinguished my life. How could I have known? How could I be sure, when it had been so easy for the evil demon to make me doubt that anything exists? Because, as my awakening spirits made known to me, the demon had not destroyed my soul, and while my soul remained 'athinking', I continued to exist.

At this, I relapsed into a benevolent reverie in which I reflected on this solitary truth retrieved from the clutches of the evil demon. I think, I exist. I will put this brick into the first corner, as my foundation stone. And I saw another vision, in which an elderly man held down a small sheaf of books on a table, one with "True Knowledge" emblazoned on the title page, another, a collection of poems, opened on Ausonius' verse "What road in Life shall I follow?" And I realised that I must devote my life to cultivating reason and to revealing to mankind the truth with invincible proofs. And at once I resolved upon a pilgrimage to Loreto, to offer thanks at the shrine of the Virgin for thus delivering me from the evils and falsehoods in which hitherto I had found my contentment.

[...] And I determined like a man lost in a dark forest to proceed slowly and with the utmost circumspection, and not to idle in any one spot for long, to avoid being trapped in the snares of error where the agency of my mind might be powerless to guide me in my perplexities. [11] And so I became convinced that I could do no better than to rid myself, forthwith and at least this one time in my life, of all the teachings I had hitherto accepted without question and to reform my own thoughts on this foundation belonging to me alone. I am only afraid that this reconstruction will prove too bold an enterprise for others, for the mere resolution to discard one's beliefs is not an example easily followed ... This is why I thought I must look for some method or rules of the mind, so that I should be enabled to discipline myself through the adoption of a few precepts; and I considered that four should suffice me provided that I remained fixed in my resolve never once to depart from them.

[Here follow, word for word, the four rules of the MET; but thereafter the text peters out in incomprehensibility and picks up again 2 pages further on, presumably still as part of Ch. II.]

1. I cannot fathom what kind of God the world believes in: that kind of God seems to me a vicious and evil spirit, a phantom and fata morgana of all the evils festering in men's souls. Hence I must fashion my own God: a God who does not lie, who honours faith and truth. My God receives my complete trust and faith and will never fail me. [12]

2. In the world created by my God, demons cannot exist, because my God gives me clear and distinct perceptions, and no demons occur therein.

3. In the world created by my God, no witches need to be burned, because witches, astrology, alchemy and all the other fancies of diseased minds are impossible, simple errors of knowledge.

4. In the world of my God, the spirit belongs to Him and the flesh is mine, a machine to aid me in my need to ambulate. My body and all bodies of men and animals alike are to be mere machines, mere mechanisms, over which no spirit or demon can have power except the soul which controls it.

5. In the world created by my God, all evolution proceeds by orderly progression from the simple to the complex and from the small to the large. Neither ghosts nor demons exist, because these cannot be decomposed into their parts.

6. There is no meliorating false knowledge, for superstition stripped of its vestments today simply returns in another garb tomorrow. It must be desiccated of its substance; it must be PROVED to be an empty husk without possibility of existence in my God's universe.

7. In my God's world, the heathenish and pernicious doctrines of Aristotle are replaced by a true metaphysics. [...] Sorbonne [...]. Finis.

Editor's Appendix

1. After 10 years of studious peregrinations, a series of parhelia observed in 1629 set Descartes aflame with the desire to at last deliver to the world the fruits of his long thinking. Le Monde was ready for the printer by 1633, when the ban on Galileo was pronounced; and Descartes may well have reflected on Aristotle's words, "I do not wish the Athenians to sin against philosophy a second time." His semi-public excuses are lame subterfuges; in reality he wanted to burn his MS, [13] for his God had meanwhile been created and one look with a cool objective eye at such passages as 11:37-8 or 11:47 would have convinced him that his effrontery in dictating to the almighty Lord the 'rules' under which He was allowed to create the world exceeded the worst that Galileo had dared to print. [14]

2. In 1644 Descartes submitted his Principles of Philosophy to the Sorbonne. He did so in the firm expectation that any sane reader would be compelled to spontaneously accept the truth of his physics in any direct confrontation with Aristotle and that the university would forthwith consign the Stagyrite to the dust bin. Allow me the comment that this was not megalomania, but a conviction with which Descartes had lived for 25 years, and that he must have regarded his intervening publications as a gentle easing of the world into his new concept of God and the world, and that the world was now ready to act without delay: to destroy, once and for all, root and branch, the witch universe in which he had grown up.


1. This the editor's title, guided by alliterative considerations. The MS bears a scribble in which only the words "malo spiritu" are clearly discriminable.

2. In those years, Descartes was often referred to as "Poitevin" (cf. Aquinas, the man from Aquino).

3. MED: Good sense. The change in emphasis is too apparent to require comment. It is worth noting, however, that superstition was rife in all classes, and none more so than the educated -- from popes and kings down, anyone who could afford their services retained astrologers, magicians, alchemists etc in their pay: cf. the reference to them in the text. One of young Descartes' study books contains notes on hydrography, geometry and surveying, reading designed by his teacher Francois to alleviate the "superstitions of astrology". Hence it transpires that Descartes shared in this general affliction of the age; and the question remains only: did he ever successfully manage to cast off his superstitions?

4. Here, at the torn edge of the page, a gap of probably 4-5 sentences occurs.

5. At this points, several lines are heavily blacked out; is it safe to conjecture that the text of MET supplies the deficiency? I think not; but the deleted passage is unreadable even under ultraviolet light.

6. The reference to witches omitted in MET. However, it is indispensable for an understanding of Part II and indeed the whole trend of Descartes' philosophy and physics, that the year of this draft is 1619, in which the craze for burning witches reached its apogee in Germany and left not the tiniest or least significant village unaffected by its paroxysm of murder, and almost invariably directed at females. Wherever Descartes was billeted, chances are that he witnessed at least one such execution and heard of many more; and it would be surprising indeed if such a sensitive soul had remained unaffected by these horrid spectacles that were part of his social reality.

7. This passage, which recurs unchanged in MET disproves Baillet's surmise that Descartes had on that day participated in a drunken rout.

8. Dwellers in all alpine or polar regions of the world know that sudden exchanges between the icy-cold temperatures outside and the dry heat from wood fires -- especially if these are enforced by, say, the need to visit an outside toilet several times -- are apt to wreak havoc with one's physiological equilibrium and induce hallucinatory states in the victim. Moreover Descartes' latent consumptive conditions is likely to have exacerbated the problem.

9. The reader will note at once that this account is missing altogether from the published MET and dispersed across other writings from Descartes' pen or his biographers.

10. Herr Quacksalber, the present custodian of the ms, disputes my decipherment of this passage and urges instead "squeezed etc" the reading, "it scared the shit out of me; indeed it was running down my legs as these events transpired and the resulting mud and stench increased my discomfiture, as one may well imagine."

11. This sentence recurs in MET but under very much changed lighting. It may be conceded that the fear stirring in these words was to reverberate silently throughout Descartes' life and may in part explain his inveterate changes of lodgings and his 'forgetfulness' in leaving a forwarding address. Furthermore, neither MET nor MED actually fulfil what their programmes promise, Descartes vacillating between resolve and timidity, so that his whole metaphysics needs to be pieced together from several writings and his letters, the latter frequently explicating what his published circumlocutions conceal rather than reveal.

12. It is well-known that the theological fraternity was never happy with Descartes' non-stop protestations about God. Yet none of them thought to ask (as they might have), which God? As his correspondence with More reveals, that question could have discomfited Descartes. An insightful note by John Barry suggests that "his rebuff of More [relates to] his conception of God. He recognised behind the issues raised by More the spectre of the old world and its God. [But] the new world is a realm of strict and principled structures ... pure mind is more than a fable, it is the creator and monitor of all that is real and true. Thus, Descartes' quest for God of pure mind is a search for a new God upon which to ground his new world." Barry, James: Measures of Science. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill. 1996, p. 30.

13. But there were probably copies abroad, and such action might have attracted just the suspicion he sought to avoid.

14. The passages read: "It is easy to accept that God, who is, as everyone must know, immutable, always acts in the same way [like a machine? Ed.]. Without going any further into these metaphysical considerations, however, I will set out here two or three of the principal rules by which we must believe God to cause the nature of this world to act ..." and "... if God had created many worlds, [these rules] would be as true in each as in this one. Thus those who know how to examine the consequences [of our rules] will have a priori demonstrations of everything that can be produced in this new world." [i.e. each new world is a clone of all others. Ed.].

© Jurgen Lawrenz 2003