Volume 27, Issue 1, Fall 2022
Descartes’s Ethics: Generosity in the Flesh
This paper focuses on the emotional make-up of Descartes’s generous person. Described as having complete control over the passions, the generous person is not passion-free; she feels compassion for those in need but unable to bear their misfortunes with fortitude, hates vice, takes satisfaction in her own virtue, etc. To bring to light the coherence of the generous person’s emotional configuration, a compare and contrast analysis with Descartes’s deficient moral type, the abject person, is provided. Real life as well as literary examples (Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes himself and Kadhy Demba, one of the main characters of Marie NDiaye’s novel Trois Femmes Puissantes) further refine the portrait of Descartes’s generous person and show that generosity is achievable by anyone who uses their will well. Descartes’s position on harmonizing the passions is reconstructed as a developmental trajectory: harmonizing the emotions is possible courtesy of God who put this sphere of created affairs under our jurisdiction; harmonizing the passions is required since the alternative is sub-optimal (souls enslaved and miserable); finally, harmonizing the emotions is satisfying. Since, as the above examples demonstrate, in the process of making their emotional composition coherent, different people take different routes and thus “create for themselves a personal, quite personal ideal,” acquiring Cartesian generosity points the way to Nietzsche’s later notion of self-creation.