Philosophy Weekend: Cervantes and Descartes

I probably skim 150 to 200 blog posts or articles a day, prompted by RSS and Facebook and Twitter. The headlines usually fly by without leaving a trace, but I skimmed one two weeks ago, then returned to it a few days later to read it in full, and found myself thinking about it ever since. This is a piece by a professor named William Egginton with the unfortunately unfocused title “The Novel and the Origins of Modern Philosophy” that appeared at a site called Berfrois after originally running at Stanford University’s Arcade. It’ss about the influence Miguel de Cervantes’s satirical masterpiece Don Quixote may have had on Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, which contained the philosopher’s great declaration cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”).

As I read the short article in full, the idea of considering Cervantes and Descartes together suddenly struck me as an obviously great idea — and not only because of the coincidence that they both have 9-letter names in which 5 of the letters are in exactly the same place (the pronunciations, however, are entirely different, one name being Spanish and the other French).

Cervantes was nearly fifty years older than Descartes, but their lives intersected for two decades between Descartes’s birth in 1596 and Cervantes’s death in 1616. More significantly, as William Egginton points out, their lives intersected because Descartes would have undoubtedly read Cervantes’s Don Quixote:

The first French translations of Don Quixote were published in 1614 and 1618, and the two books were translated anew by François de Rosset and published in 1639, two years before Descartes published his Meditations. But there is no need to yearn for greater evidence of a direct influence; by that time every intellectual in Europe was aware of Cervantes’ creation; his influence was impossible to avoid.

Did you catch my little joke before the quote? I wrote “undoubtedly”, but this word can never be used unironically in an article about Rene Descartes. It was Descartes’s mission to determine what we can truly know for sure, and his cogito ergo sum continues to serve around the world as the most universal starting point for philosophical discussions about the meaning of truth or knowledge. Egginton suggests that Descartes’s mention of the philosophical possibility of a malicious deceiver might have been an intentional literary nod to a currently popular work.

While it has hardly constituted a cottage industry, in the 400 years since Cervantes published Don Quixote and the almost 400 since Descartes published his Meditations, a few scholars have noted the similarities between Descartes’ evil genie and the enchanter who bedevils Don Quixote’s world, popping up as the perfect rationalization for every instance when Quixote’s assertions are disproven, when reality fails to deliver on his illusory expectations. Descartes seems to acknowledge having read Don Quixote in his Discourse on Method, where he warns readers of falling under the influence of “fables, tales of chivalry, and even of the most faithful histories … lest they conceive of plans that surpass their abilities”.

While this particular connection hadn’t occurred to me before, I have myself pondered the fact that the classic pairing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza presaged the division between Continental Rationalism (Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) and British Empiricism (John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume) that formed the spine of epistemological debate through the early modern era — a division that remains relevant even today. Don Quixote is the quintessential Rationalist, of course, driven by noble ideals, ethical imperatives and an absolute sense of certainty. Sancho Panza is the Empiricist: observant, moderate, pragmatic, highly concerned with his prospects for a comfortable bed or a good meal.

It’s refreshing to think of the battle between Rationalism and Empiricism in Cervantes’s comic/satirical terms, and the many dialogues between Quixote and Sancho that provide some of the most enjoyable sections of Don Quixote can be read as quasi-philosophical texts. Here’s a dialogue from an early chapter of the novel’s second volume, when the knight and his squire reunite to begin new adventures, and sadly remember an early adventure in which Sancho was blanketed (thrown up and down on a blanket) by a gang of ruffians.

Don Quixote shut himself up in his room with Sancho, and when they were alone he said to him, “It grieves me greatly, Sancho, that thou shouldst have said, and sayest, that I took thee out of thy cottage, when thou knowest I did not remain in my house. We sallied forth together, we took the road together, we wandered abroad together; we have had the same fortune and the same luck; if they blanketed thee once, they belaboured me a hundred times, and that is the only advantage I have of thee.”

“That was only reasonable,” replied Sancho, “for, by what your worship says, misfortunes belong more properly to knights-errant than to their squires.”

“Thou art mistaken, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “according to the maxim quando caput dolet, etc.”

“I don’t understand any language but my own,” said Sancho.

“I mean to say,” said Don Quixote, “that when the head suffers all the members suffer; and so, being thy lord and master, I am thy head, and thou a part of me as thou art my servant; and therefore any evil that affects or shall affect me should give thee pain, and what affects thee give pain to me.”

“It should be so,” said Sancho; “but when I was blanketed as a member, my head was on the other side of the wall, looking on while I was flying through the air, and did not feel any pain whatever; and if the members are obliged to feel the suffering of the head, it should be obliged to feel their sufferings.”

“Dost thou mean to say now, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “that I did not feel when they were blanketing thee? If thou dost, thou must not say so or think so, for I felt more pain then in spirit than thou didst in body. But let us put that aside for the present, for we shall have opportunities enough for considering and settling the point; tell me, Sancho my friend, what do they say about me in the village here? What do the common people think of me? What do the hidalgos? What do the caballeros? What do they say of my valour; of my achievements; of my courtesy? How do they treat the task I have undertaken in reviving and restoring to the world the now forgotten order of chivalry? In short, Sancho, I would have thee tell me all that has come to thine ears on this subject; and thou art to tell me, without adding anything to the good or taking away anything from the bad; for it is the duty of loyal vassals to tell the truth to their lords just as it is and in its proper shape, not allowing flattery to add to it or any idle deference to lessen it. And I would have thee know, Sancho, that if the naked truth, undisguised by flattery, came to the ears of princes, times would be different, and other ages would be reckoned iron ages more than ours, which I hold to be the golden of these latter days. Profit by this advice, Sancho, and report to me clearly and faithfully the truth of what thou knowest touching what I have demanded of thee.”

“That I will do with all my heart, master,” replied Sancho, “provided your worship will not be vexed at what I say, as you wish me to say it out in all its nakedness, without putting any more clothes on it than it came to my knowledge in.”

“I will not be vexed at all,” returned Don Quixote; “thou mayest speak freely, Sancho, and without any beating about the bush.”

“Well then,” said he, “first of all, I have to tell you that the common people consider your worship a mighty great madman, and me no less a fool. The hidalgos say that, not keeping within the bounds of your quality of gentleman, you have assumed the ‘Don,’ and made a knight of yourself at a jump, with four vine-stocks and a couple of acres of land, and never a shirt to your back. The caballeros say they do not want to have hidalgos setting up in opposition to them, particularly squire hidalgos who polish their own shoes and darn their black stockings with green silk.”

“That,” said Don Quixote, “does not apply to me, for I always go well dressed and never patched; ragged I may be, but ragged more from the wear and tear of arms than of time.”

“As to your worship’s valour, courtesy, accomplishments, and task, there is a variety of opinions. Some say, ‘mad but droll;’ others, ‘valiant but unlucky;’ others, ‘courteous but meddling,’ and then they go into such a number of things that they don’t leave a whole bone either in your worship or in myself.”

“Recollect, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “that wherever virtue exists in an eminent degree it is persecuted. Few or none of the famous men that have lived escaped being calumniated by malice.”

It’s worth noting that Sancho the pragmatist often gets the better of Quixote the idealist in the many conversations that fill this book, and that Cervantes drops many hints that Sancho is not as dumb as Quixote thinks he is. Even more paradoxically, it must be noted that Sancho the pragmatist really isn’t very pragmatic at all, as there is nothing pragmatic about his decision to travel with Don Quixote.

If we’re going to read Don Quixote as a philosophical text, we might as well also flip the formula and read Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy as literature. Descartes is an exciting writer, like most great philosophers. Removed from their context, these words can speak with the quiet power of, say, an Emily Dickinson poem:

I will now close my eyes, I will stop my ears, I will turn away my senses from their objects, I will even efface from my consciousness all the images of corporeal things; or at least, because this can hardly be accomplished, I will consider them as empty and false; and thus, holding converse only with myself, and closely examining my nature, I will endeavor to obtain by degrees a more intimate and familiar knowledge of myself. I am a thinking thing.

We can also have some fun by mashing up Cervantes and Descartes directly together. Picture this:

“I discover in my mind innumerable ideas of certain objects,” said Don Quixote, “which cannot be esteemed pure negations, although perhaps they possess no reality beyond my thought, and which are not framed by me though it may be in my power to think, or not to think them, but possess true and immutable natures of their own. As, for example, when I imagine a triangle, although there is not perhaps and never was in any place in the universe apart from my thought one such figure, it remains true nevertheless that this figure possesses a certain determinate nature, form, or essence, which is immutable and eternal, and not framed by me, nor in any degree dependent on my thought; as appears from the circumstance, that diverse properties of the triangle may be demonstrated, viz., that its three angles are equal to two right, that its greatest side is subtended by its greatest angle, and the like, which, whether I will or not, I now clearly discern to belong to it, although before I did not at all think of them, when, for the first time, I imagined a triangle, and which accordingly cannot be said to have been invented by me.”

“I have here an onion and a little cheese and a few scraps of bread,” said Sancho, “but they are not victuals fit for a valiant knight like your worship.”

That’s my own mashup — Descartes words in Quixote’s mouth — and I’m not sure what it means. But it does seem to scan.

4 Responses

  1. Levi….I think I’m going to
    Levi….I think I’m going to make wire sculptures of these amazing portraits….I’m saving Cervantes for when I retire….if I ever really do.

  2. I’d love to see you do that,
    I’d love to see you do that, WIREMAN — I’ll come out to the gallery when you show them!

  3. i like eric idle’s take on
    i like eric idle’s take on descartes (and philosophers) … “i drink, therefore i am” …

  4. beautiful parallel between
    beautiful parallel between Cervantes and Descartes (thanks for the idea of this angle)… but, with all respect to the great Descartes, I think it is more likely that “je suis donc je pense” than the contrary…

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