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Meditations First & Second by René Descartes

In the First Meditation, Descartes expresses his intention to break the foundation of falsehoods that he had accepted as true since childhood. He begins by stating that everything he has accepted to be true is acquired from or through his senses. The first belief that seems unlikely to be doubted is his having his own body. However, Descartes admits that his body’s sense of reality may be nothing more than a dream, during which he has the same ability to perceive and experience things. Even if he does not have a body, Descartes notes that other things – simpler and more universal – are real, and from their compound, the imagination takes a source to create images. These kinds of universal things are, for example, “corporeal nature in general, and its extension; the shape of extended things; the quantity, or size and number of these things; the place in which they may exist, the time through which t they may endure, and so on”.

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Descartes believes that his faith in the omnipotent God and Descartes’ consequent existence as he is are immutable – but he still cannot be sure that God does not mislead him. He assumes that if someone deceives him, it is not God but a powerful malicious spirit, and his task is to guard against any lies, even if recognizing the truth in such circumstances is impossible.

Second Meditation starts with the notion that the only thing one can be sure of is that there is no certainty. Descartes further concludes that even being deceived, he still is because while he believes in being something, no one can convince him of being nothing. Hence the phrase “I am, I exist,” is true insofar as it is accepted by the mind. Descartes then tries to understand what exactly he is, discovering that “man” is too complex of a concept to elaborate on. He still denies his body’s existence, allowing for the evil spirit to create this illusion, and concludes that thinking is the only thing there strictly is; thus, he is a thinking thing. That is “a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions”. All of this, according to Descartes, can be applied to him.

Descartes then turns to the consideration of things that are understood to be the most conceivable – that is, bodies. He talks about a piece of wax that was changing its properties by being in the open fire while Descartes was composing the text. Everything in this piece of wax that could be sensed changed; however, the wax remained the same as it was. What the eyes perceive comes only from the faculty of judgment inherent in the mind. Thus, wax perception is a case of purely mental scrutiny that may be either imperfect or quite clear depending on the degree of concentration on the parts of the body.

Additionally, Descartes suggests that if a piece of wax exists, because it is visible, his existence is more clearly revealed – if only from how Descartes is aware of the wax. Nothing can contribute to the perception of the body without simultaneously revealing even more the nature of the human mind. The conclusion that Descartes has arrived at is that if the bodies are perceived only by the intellect, by understanding – not by touch or observation – then nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than one’s mind.

As to why it all is essential to comprehend, these meditations might be the key to resolving one’s struggles related to self-esteem. Many people, at one point or another, start to question their self-worth. Descartes, through his ponderings, concludes that nothing in the world is more integral than a human being’s mind and its consequent ability to perceive. When one of the greatest philosophers ever lived points indirectly at one’s fundamental nature, it is hard not to believe and may fill someone up with a sense of purpose.

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