Meditations on First Philosophy by René Descartes – Abridged (free)

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In the following meditations I will show that doubt is possible, and that to doubt is proof of the existence of mind. I will provide a clear picture of the indivisible soul. I will prove that God exists without reference to the corporeal world. I will prove that what we perceive is true, and explain the origin of falsity. And I will prove that things exist.

Of the Things which may be brought within the Sphere of the Doubtful.

So many of the opinions I held so firmly in my youth I now know to be false, that I must admit how doubtful is everything I have since constructed. Thus, I have become convinced that, to establish firm structure for the sciences, I must build anew from the foundation. To-day, since I have a leisurely retirement, I shall at last seriously address myself to this problem. I shall begin by attacking those principles upon which all others rest.

I have formerly accepted as true and certain those things I learn through the senses. Like the fact that I am seated by this fire, in a dressing gown, with this paper in my hands. And how could I deny that this body is mine, unless I was as mad as those whose cerebella are so clouded by black bile that they believe they have an earthenware head or a glass body? Yet, I must remember that I have dreams, which are almost as insane. I have even dreamt of being here whilst I was lying undressed in bed! It seems to me that I am now awake, but I remind myself that I have dreamt that too. Yet even dreams are formed out of things real and true. Just as a painter represents sirens or satyrs from a medley of different animals; even quite novel images are still composed of real colours.

For the same reason, although general things may be imaginary, we are bound to confess that there are simpler objects which are certainly real; such as colours, quantity or magnitude and number. That is why Physics, Astronomy, Medicine and those sciences which consider composite things, are dubious; but Arithmetic, Geometry and sciences which treat of the very simple and general contain some certainty. For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three always form five, and a square has four sides. It does not seem possible that truths so clear and apparent can be uncertain.

Now, I have long believed in an all-powerful God who made me. I can imagine that other people deceive themselves, but how do I know that I am not deceived when I add two and three, or count the sides of a square? If God is good, how can it be that he sometimes permits me to be deceived?

I confess that there is nothing in all that I formerly believed, which I cannot doubt in some measure. So, I intend to attach myself to the idea that some evil genie is deceiving me; that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, even my body and senses are just illusions and dreams. This is difficult, for just as the prisoner who finds himself dreaming of liberty fears to awaken, so I may fall back into my former opinions.

Of the Nature of the Human Mind; and that it is more easily Known than the Body

Yesterday’s meditation left me all but drowning in doubts. Nonetheless, I will continue the journey in hope of finding, like Archimedes moving the earth, some fixed point of certainty.

It is not even necessary that God puts ideas into my mind, for it is possible that I am producing them myself. But am I myself something? I have chosen to deny that I have senses and body, but the deceiver can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So, we must definitely conclude that; ‘I think, I exist’, is necessarily true each time I conceive it.

But I do not yet know clearly what I am. I believed myself to be a man – a reasoning animal? But what is man, what is ‘animal, and what means ‘reasoning’? I know that I considered myself as having bones and flesh, that I was nourished, that I walked, that I felt, and that I thought, and I referred all these actions to the soul: but what is the soul?

Putting aside all which is not necessarily true: then I can accurately state that I am no more than a thing which thinks, that is to say a mind or a soul, which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, imagines and feels.

I perceive things by the organs of sense, and seem to know them better than my own mind. But could these be but dreams?

Let us consider one simple corporeal thing- this piece of wax: fresh from the hive, with the sweetness of its honey and the aroma of flowers. It has its own colour, figure, size. It appears hard, cold, and if you strike it with the finger, it will emit a sound. But, I take it near to the fire; and it becomes liquid, its smell is lost and when one strikes it, no sound is made. All sensation is changed, yet we confess that it is the same wax. I can imagine that this wax might be made into a square or a triangle and still be the same wax. No! More! I imagine that it, or any piece of wax, could be formed into more shapes even that my mind can encompass. If the wax is properly to be known through appearance alone, might not the men I see outside my window be just automatic machines wearing hats and coats?

It is now manifest to me that things are not known from the fact that they are seen or touched, but because they are understood. I now see clearly that there is nothing which is easier for me to know than my mind. But it is difficult to rid oneself of a long-held view, so it will be well that I should rest at this point, to meditate on this new knowledge.

Of God: that He Exists.

I shall now close my eyes and ears, put away all thought of physical things, and try to better understand my own self. So far, my only assurance is to accept those things which I perceive very clearly and very distinctly as true, yet I know that I have often been mistaken. It remains possible that God might deceive me, therefore I must enquire as to whether God exists, and whether he is a deceiver.

If I hear sound, or see the sun, or feel heat, I judge that these sensations come from things outside of me. Just now, I feel heat, and judge that this feeling is produced by something different from me, i.e., the fire. But I must doubt that it is nature which impels me to believe in material things, for there is often a great difference between knowledge and appearance. The sun, for instance, seems very small, yet we know from astronomical calculation that it is very great.

Those ideas which represent substances all seem more solid than those that represent modes or accidents; and that idea of a supreme God, eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, seems to have even more objective reality.

Now it is manifest that effects derive their reality from their causes, that something cannot proceed from nothing and that the perfect cannot proceed from something imperfect. The idea of heat, or stone, cannot exist in me unless it has been placed there by some cause at least as real as that which exists in the heat or stone. Thus I conclude that I cannot myself be the cause of ideas, the cause must be outside me, and I seem to know so little about corporeal objects, as with the wax yesterday, that such ideas may well proceed from myself. There remains only the idea of God, whose attributes of infinity, independence, all-knowledge and all-power seem so exceptional that no idea of them could have come from within me; hence we must conclude that God exists.

The idea of substance could be from within me, as I am a substance, but, since I am finite, the idea of an infinite substance must proceed from elsewhere. We must say that the idea of God is very clear and distinct and more objectively real than others. Even if we can imagine that God does not exist, we cannot imagine that the idea of him means nothing.

Possibly the perfections of God are in some way already in me, yet I recognise that this cannot be, since it can never reach a point so high that it could not attain to yet greater increase, and where could such perfection have derived, from myself, or my parents, or some other source than God?

It is perfectly clear to all who consider the nature of time, that, in order to have existence at a particular moment, a substance must have the power to create itself anew in the next moment. But I am conscious of no such power in myself. There must be, as I have said, at least as much reality in the cause as in the effect; and since I am a thinking thing, it must be that the cause is likewise a thinking thing. But from what cause does God derive? If it derives from another cause, we must ask whether this second cause has a cause, for it is manifest that there can be no regression into infinity.

Finally, it is not my parents who conserve me, they are only the authors of the body in which the mind is implanted. Thus we must necessarily conclude from the simple fact that I exist, and that I have the idea of a perfect Being, that the proof of God’s existence is grounded on the highest evidence.

It only remains to ask how I have acquired this idea of God. Not through the senses, nor as a fiction of my mind. The only alternative is that God, in creating me, placed this idea within me, like the mark of the workman on his work.

But before I go on, it seems right to pause to think on His majesty; at least as far as my dazzled mind will allow. For faith teaches us that the glory of this, and the other life, is contemplation of the Divine.

Of the True and the False.

Over these past days I have found little certainty respecting corporeal objects, some respecting the mind, and more regarding God. I shall now go on to consider things purely intelligible.

I recognise it as impossible that God should ever deceive me; for fraud and deception testify to imperfection, malice or feebleness, which cannot be of God. So, my capacity for judgement, as it is from God, can never mislead me if I use it aright.

In the first place, knowing that I am feeble and limited, while God is infinite, I recognise that some of his ends, which seem imperfect, would be found to be perfect if we could but comprehend the whole. Considering my own errors, I find that they depend on my knowledge, and on my power of choice or free will. Though I recognise that my knowledge, memory and imagination are imperfect, in my free will I find power so great that I cannot conceive of any greater, and so see there the image of God.

Whence then come my errors? They come from the fact that my will is much wider in range than my understanding, and extending it to things which I do not understand I fall into error and sin. If I but abstain from giving judgement on things that I do not perceive with clearness and distinctness, it is plain that I act rightly. I have no cause to complain that God has not given me more powerful intelligence, since it is proper that a finite understanding should not comprehend all things. Nor have I reason to complain that He has given me a will larger than my understanding, since free-will must be complete if it is to exist at all. I perceive that God could have created me so that I never should err, although I remained free. Nevertheless, it seems that it is a greater perfection that parts of the universe should have error rather than all parts be the same.

In this day’s Meditation, I have discovered that as long as I make judgements only on matters which I clearly and distinctly understand, I can never be deceived and will, without doubt, arrive at truth.

Of the Essence of Material Things, and, again, of God, that he Exists.

Many questions about God and my own nature remain. But I must try to emerge from the state of doubt I have held to these last few days, and to see which of my ideas of the corporeal world are clear.

In the first place, I can clearly imagine extension in length, breadth or depth. For example, I have seen triangles; and I can form in my mind other shapes which have never been seen, yet still clearly know their properties. Hence they are something, for it is clear that what is true is something, and I have shown that what I know clearly is true. Indeed, I have always counted geometry and mathematics as the most certain.

When I think of this with care, I clearly see that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than having three angles can be separated from the essence of triangle. Still, from the fact that I know, say, that a mountain must have a valley, it does not follow that there is a mountain. Similarly, I may conceive of God as having existence just as I can imagine a winged horse, although no such exists.

But this is mere sophism; for as the mountain and the valley cannot be separated from one another, I cannot conceive God without existence, it follows that existence is inseparable from Him, and hence that He exists.

It is not necessary that I should ever think of God, nevertheless, whenever I do, it is necessary that I attribute to Him every perfection, although I cannot enumerate them all. The idea of God, I discern, first, because I cannot conceive anything but God to whose essence existence necessarily pertains. Second, because it is not possible for me to conceive two or more Gods. Third, granted that such a God exists that He must exist eternally. Finally, because I know an infinitude of other properties in God, none of which I can either diminish or change.

For the rest, we must always return to the point that only those things that we conceive clearly and distinctly are true. If only my mind were not pre-occupied with prejudices, there would be nothing I could know more immediately and more easily than God. Once I recognise this, and see that He is not a deceiver, I can infer that what I perceive clearly and distinctly must be true. And so I very clearly recognise that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends alone on the knowledge of the true God. Now that I know Him, I have the means of acquiring a perfect knowledge of many things.

Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinction between the Soul and Body of Man

It now remains to inquire whether material things exist. I clearly and distinctly know of objects, inasmuch as they are represented by pure mathematics, and I know that my imagination is capable of persuading me of physical existence.

This is the more clear when we see the difference between imagination and pure intellection. For example, when I imagine a triangle, I conceive it, not only as a figure of three lines, but also by an inward vision, which I call imagining. But if I think of a chiliagon, a thousand-sided figure, I cannot in any way imagine it, as the imagination is a different power from understanding.

First I shall consider those matters perceived through the senses.

I perceived that I had this body – which I considered part, or possibly the whole, of myself. Further, I sensed that this body was amidst others, from which it could be affected with pain or pleasure. I also experienced appetites like hunger, thirst, and passions like joy, titillation, and anger. Outside myself, I beheld heat, light and colour, and scents and sounds, so that I could distinguish the sky, the earth, the sea and such. And, using my senses rather than my reason, I came to believe that all the ideas in my mind that had come to me through the senses.

But when I inquired, why painful sensation leads to sadness, and pleasurable sensation to joy, or a mysterious pinching of the stomach called hunger leads to desire to eat, and so on, I could only reason that nature taught me so. There is certainly no affinity (that I at least can understand) between the craving of the stomach and the desire to eat, any more than between pain and sadness.

But experience has gradually destroyed my faith in my senses. I have seen round towers from afar, which closely observed seemed square, and colossal statues, which appeared tiny. I found error in the external senses, and in the internal; for is there anything more internal than pain? And yet I learn that some persons seem to feel pain in an amputated part, which makes me doubt the sources of my own pain. I knew that my will did not control the ideas I received from the senses.

I can only explain my ability to make distinctions between one thing and another by concluding that my essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thinking thing. And although possibly I possess a body, because I have a clear and distinct idea of myself as only a thinking and un-extended thing, and it is thereby that I possess an idea of body as an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that this soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body, and can exist without it.

But there are many other things which nature seems to have taught me. For example; I hold the opinion that all space in which there is nothing that affects my senses is void. That a warm body contains heat. That a white or green body has in it the whiteness or greenness that I perceive. That bitter or sweet taste exists in bitter or sweet things. Or that the stars, towers, and other distant bodies are of the same figure as they appear to our eyes. Nature teaches me to flee from things that cause pain, and seek things that communicate pleasure. But it seems to me that it is mind alone, and not mind and body together, that is requisite to knowledge of the truth about such things. Thus, although a star makes no bigger impression on my eye than a tiny candle flame, yet I have always judged it larger.

This pursuit or avoidance things, taught me by nature, sometimes leads to error; as when the agreeable taste of some poisoned food may induce me to partake of the poison. Though here nature may be excused, for it only induces me to desire pleasant food, not poison. Thus, I can infer that I am not omniscient, which should not be astonishing, since man is finite in nature.

But we frequently deceive ourselves even in those things to which we are directly impelled by nature, as happens with those who when they are sick desire things hurtful to them. It might be said that sickness corrupts nature, but a sick man is as much God’s creature as he who is in health. Just as a badly-made clock still follows the laws of nature, so it would be natural for a body, if it suffered the dropsy, to move the nerves and other parts to obtain drink, which is the feature of this disease although it is harmful to the sufferer. This comparison of a sick man to a faulty clock may be a mere verbal quibble, but it remains to inquire how the goodness of God does not prevent the nature of man from being fallacious.

There is a great difference between mind and body, as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is indivisible. For, if a foot or an arm is separated from my body, nothing has been taken away from my mind. I further notice that the mind does not receive impressions from the body directly, but only from the brain, or perhaps even from the small part of the brain where common sense resides. But because the nerves must pass through a long route, it may happen that some intervening part is excited, which may excite a mistaken movement in the brain. More usually, when, say nerves in the feet are violently moved, their movement, passing through the medulla of the spine to the inmost parts of the brain, gives a sign to the mind which makes it feel pain, as though in the foot. By this, the mind is excited to do its utmost to remove the cause of the evil as dangerous to the foot. It is true that God could have constituted the nature of man such that this movement would have conveyed something quite different to the mind, but nothing would have contributed so well to the conservation of the body.

Notwithstanding the supreme goodness of God, the nature of man, composed of mind and body, can sometimes be a source of deception.

This consideration helps me to recognise the errors to which my nature is subject, so as to avoid them, or correct them more easily. Knowing that my senses usually indicate to me truth respecting what is beneficial to the body, and being able almost always to avail myself of many of those senses in order to examine things, together with my memory to connect the present with the past, and my understanding of the causes errors, I ought no longer to fear the falsity of my everyday senses. So, I ought to set aside all the doubts of these past days as hyperbolical and ridiculous, particularly that very common uncertainty respecting dreams, for I now see that memory never connects dreams together as it unites waking events. I ought in never to doubt the truth of such matters, if having called up my senses, memory, and understanding to examine them, nothing is perceived by any one of them which is repugnant to that set forth by the others. For because God is no deceiver, it follows that I am not deceived in this.

But because the exigencies of action often oblige us to make up our minds before having leisure to examine matters carefully, we must confess that the life of man is frequently subject to error. We must in the end acknowledge the infirmity of our nature.

Glyn Hughes and Squashed Editions are gratefully acknowledged
as the abridgers of this work. Learn more at

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