I know of no better statement of Stoic philosophy than what follows—the 3rd maxim by which Descartes lived his life. It is truly a piece of wisdom. Three long sentences that are worth continual re-reading.
My third maxim was to endeavor always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with.
But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and, amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied.
For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favors heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.
(From Rene Descartes The Discourse of Method, Chapter 3.)
4 thoughts on “Descartes’ Third Maxim”
Rene seems to be channeling Buddhism here, as well as Socrates. The Buddha believed the cause of all suffering was a desire, e.g., pleasure, material goods and immortality– that could never be totally satisfied, especially if they weren’t within our ability to do so. It’s a wise and contended man that knows himself and his needs.
I think you made a small error in the first sentence (“I know of know better statement…”). I think you meant you know of “no.” Cheers
good catch, thanks Jamil.
You are correct and there are many similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. Descartes himself wasn’t aware of Buddhism though as far as I know.