Fireflies, Light-headed Excitements and Passions of the Soul According to Descartes

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Here is my description of a moment of happiness particular to this month: In the quiet of a warm summer night, filled with the scent of linden flowers and the chirping sound of sparrows in their cozy corners; when all the colors, fragrances and the sounds of nature are settled to greet the evening, the fireflies suddenly emerged through the darkness and started their magical light dance in the garden. As the whole space whirled with the enchanting sparkles of light, one would just stand still to watch in exhilaration. A moment of supernatural beauty for the eye and of transendence for the soul…

When we pay attention, we notice that life is full of miracles which sometimes make us smile or at times keep us remain silent in astonishment. The excitement, awe and joy that we fill in such moments of full attention is often accompanied by the feeling of gratitude deep down. Sometimes this feeling just disappears like air and sometimes the effect remain with us for a while more. We keep the memory. But then in the hustle and bustle of daily life, a desire or some other passion takes over the place of this feeling. We go after that passion, believing that it is necessary for our happiness. This state of desire and necessity is always renewed; and life goes on with expectations and new desires. Some of us do variety of meditations and mindfulness exercises and some of us pray; all made in an effort to reach self-knowledge, and to nourish the soul.

Descartes, while pursuing his scientific work in math and phsyics, also done a lot of research about human nature and the soul. In his philosophical essays, he has wrtitten about the “passions of the soul” [i]:

Happiness is a perfect contentment of mind and inner satisfaction. We believe that all our desires are fulfilled…and we are in possession of the goods which are the objects of those desires. For it to last, we have to govern our desires with the correct use of our willpower. However, majority of the people are after desires which are hard to attain or preserve, but which they nevertheless believe that they can obtain them with a little bit of luck or fortune on their side. Such desires rest on a mistaken belief about what is in fact possible for us to obtain and preserve…

In Descartes’ view “we can desire only what we consider in some way to be possible…of that which depends only on us, which is the exercise of our free will. “ And in the realistic discernment of what is possibly under our power and what is not; of what is good for our lifetime progress and what is not, lies one of the keys to self-knowledge and ultimately contentment with oneself.

[i] Descartes, R. (1991) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, transl. J.   Cottingham, R., Stoothoff, D. Murdoch and A. Kenny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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