In his history of atheist thoughts, the famous Italian Catholic priest and scholar Cornelio Fabro wrote that “this radical libertarian tendency will gradually reveal itself as responsible for that positive and constructive atheism which is typical of modern philosophy.” The radical libertarian tendency in question was the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Fabro criticized this philosophy because in Descartes God is no longer “posited as creator of the world and Father of men” and He instead created “the philosophy of freedom, considering freedom an ultimate and therefore a viable first principle”.
“Cartesian immanentism concentrated itself in man’s most intimate and all-embracing act, that of willing; it was therefore bound to close to man all avenues of escape from the long straight road leading down to d’Holbach, Feuerbach, Nietzsche and Sartre.” The roots of this concentration on “willing”, i.e. freedom of will and thought is explained by Descartes scholar Harry Bracken as “Descartes had good reasons for introducing a second substance (res cogitans, “thinking things”), for e.g., that our creative use of speech cannot be understood in terms of the mechanics available to him”. The essential character of humans, for the Cartesian, is this creative and willing aspect of the intellect.
Which in Calvinist terms of the time was also the “Way Of Examination” – which alone can judge the truth of religious texts and teaching. Cartesian, like Bayle developed the ideas and gave this freedom and Way Of Examination the primacy over the Way Of Authority. The state or church cannot dictate what the individual must believe because it is against the faculty of free judgment that God has endowed us with. While dethroning God from the paternalistic position Cartesian thoughts also laid the foundation of radical freedom of thought and speech, where the privacy of the intellect takes the priority.
Bracken says that “when we read Bayle’s views on toleration, we should recall that he is perhaps the first person to separate the domains of religion and morality by arguing that there is no logical anomaly in conceiving of a highly moral society of atheists. One can be religious and immoral and also nonreligious and moral. His rationalist views on universal natural (moral) law, that is, independent of religion or culture, should be seen in that context.” One can also, perhaps add the separation the domains of national laws and morality.
This was a radical break from those who advocate authorities’ right to hold our tongue because they have the right to hold our hands. A principle advocated and adhered till this date by those who do not (and for reasons of power cannot) give primacy to the individual’s intellect and her expressions.
This distinction also separated the rationalist-cartesians from the empiricists like Locke and Hume. For the empiricist there is no distinction between the tongue (the expression of one’s thoughts) and the hand (actions and physical attributes). Where for the Cartesian the essence of being human and our most important characters are our intellect and freedom of will, for the empiricists the physical features play as important or more important role in defining the essence of human beings. And from here begins the philosophical justification for racism and sexism.
In these spheres too, the Cartesian philosophers were among the first to (at least theoretically) defend freedom for All human beings. While the racists and sexists were debating over color, physical abilities one of the most prominent French Cartesian philosopher, Poullain de la Barre simply stated that “the mind has no sex.”
Among the people who think about these things, for most Descartes and his ideas have been reduced to caricatures of positions that were for the most part secondary to him and are for us. While, many also sideline him for ideological reasons. But people in radical political circles might still find fruitful insights in the work of the Cartesian.