The past, of course is always a jumping off point for the future, Descartes begins his work stating his attempt to break down the beliefs of the past, in an attempt to cast away preconceived notions, forming new boundaries from which to work. Does he accomplish this? In some ways we can say he does, he talks about wax taking several forms, yet remaining wax, he then moves to that of a body. The body, while looking and feeling like an animated person, lacks that which makes us all human, our minds and thoughts. He states that his mind is the only thing he knows for a fact to be real, which is easy enough to believe, yet in his attempt to shrug off preconceived notions he must always refer back to those notions.
“Eyes, a head, hands, and the whole body are not imaginary things, but things really existent”. (Descartes 225)Then Descartes goes on to talk about a painters training. He hints that in the painters attempt to recreate life he will ultimately fail.
Unable to gather the nuances of actual life and settling for something close. While the painter may create something beautiful, if not magical, he will in no way recreate life. A series of brushstrokes aimed to mimic that which is real cannot replace what God formed.
He speaks of the all powerful God, creating life in his own image, and tears down this notion with the idea that perhaps God made the world as a non-existent entity and that we perceive them to be true. This brings a sense of certainty to our existence and allows the burden of proof to go unanswered. With these tools he attempts to break down his preconceived notions and history of thought that everything is just as it has always been.Descartes knew in that all things pass, and new inventions and manners of thought are continually evolving.
It is in this way that we begin to see Descartes plan for what it is, quite simply an attempt to break down the train of thought present since the beginning of conscious thought.Augustine shows faith, and speaks to God in the beginning chapter because he cannot turn to a God he does not know. Asking God for words to describe such greatness allows us some insight into his embracement of the past in order to build the future. The Confessions is about Augustine’s growth from youth, through adolescence, and into adulthood. This work allows us to see his reliance on the past, he begins in infanthood a time when his only memories are those given to him by his parents and he calls his own conception into question asking if he was conceived in sin.
He speaks of his distaste for schooling asking the perpetual question asked by all students, calling into question the need for this knowledge. He calls without question the passing on of knowledge as a beneficial action necessary to move humanity forward. He sees his sins as necessary in order to learn and give a foundation to his future.He then talks in book two about sneaking into an orchard and stealing simply for the sake of stealing. He did not want the pears he only relished in the act of doing wrong, “having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself.” (Augustine 32) He equates this to breaking the laws of men, not conceived by God but by mortals. We can take from this his faith, not in the faith of man but of God.
This takes us back to his reliance on the past to further press towards the future. Without his being taught of the origin of sin and that being enforced through the rod at his academy, how would he know he was doing wrong? Would he have done it had he not known it was wrong? Would the thought have even crossed his mind to do this wrong, one which he admits he had only done for the sake of wrong doing. He had no need, nor did he want the pears yet he stole them and threw them to the hogs simply for the excitement of committing the sin.
Descartes desired to take down the general belief system, to cast doubt on the teachings of the past while Augustine embraced them. Descartes states that he does not know who he is and while Augustine shared this lack of knowledge. Descartes sought the answers in the one place he stated he knew for a fact to exist, his own mind, while Augustine sought the answers through prayer, and meditation. Augustine looked to the teachings of the past to make his way forward while Descartes attempted to cast those teachings to the side and form his own conclusions. Descartes states “a thing which thinks is a thing which doubts” (229) we can draw from this his distrust of the teachings of those before him. He goes on to say that even given this thought and action he is no better or worse off than when he began this mental journey.
One cannot prevent himself from thinking.Are we to believe what Descartes states in that there is no proof of existence, or Augustine who teaches that our existence is proof enough? While Descartes tries to cast doubt onto our existence by shrugging off the teachings of the past, Augustine uses the past in order to make his way into the future. He implies that we must make this distinction for ourselves, inside the one thing we know exist, our own minds. Does a man pray for enlightenment, or seek it from within? In praying for enlightenment is he in fact seeking it from within? God tends to answer with silence, while the mind becomes a constant annoyance if it believes we are in the wrong.
Do the teachings of the past forge the future by giving us a yardstick with which to measure ourselves? This he cannot find out unless he attempts what Descartes does and forget the teachings of the past. However he will find it difficult to unlearn that which has already been learned and cannot help but take from it.Without our past we have no future. That is the purpose of writing his confessions. He relies on the past to make the future. In his confessions he implies that the wicked can become pious, and the pious wicked. Take from this the learning of a young boy who sins simply for the sake of sin, that repentance in the eyes of God, if such God exists, is a part of growing up. Every young boy has found himself in a bit of mischief for which he can offer no real explanation.
Is there no forgiveness for these sins, and what is done cannot be undone? That being the case Augustine states that it is this reason there must be a God. Without God the laws of man would take precedence and the consequences would be dire. Can we therefore assume that God does exist, or is it the teaching about God that forms the belief He exists? There must be an answer, for humans are creatures of habit, and as a modern society we take teachings from the past and apply them to the future. It is the foundation of society? How can it be denied that the past affects the future, but how are we to know if this past is real? Descartes attempted to prove that it was in fact not real until he grew weary and was forced to retire and contemplate his argument for a future date. We do not know for a fact that God exists, nor do we know for a fact that He doesn’t. Descartes cannot prove it in the manner he can prove two plus two equals four. He must take into account all that has come before.
If this is disregarded this it is easy to surmise that there is no God.Man has learned over the centuries that which was unknown in ancient times. We take what others have done and build upon it in the faith that they were correct. Descartes, while attempting to prove that we must unlearn these things in order to prove our own existence, we cannot unlearn what we have been immersed in our entire lives.
Only a newborn child has the ability to look at everything with fresh eyes, unknowing if he sins and not having the ability to repent if he does. To not take into account what we’ve learned would make us as helpless and that child, innocently wandering through life not knowing of the harm we may cause with any unknown deed.