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Abstract

Descartes described himself as coming on to the world stage in a mask. Although he was a reticent and in some respects enigmatic figure, who chose to publish his philosophical manifesto anonymously, our contemporary understanding of his significance has been systematically distorted by various personae that have been retrospectively fitted on to him. One, perhaps the most anachronistic, is that of the academic 'epistemologist', preoccupied with abstract and technical issues in the theory of knowledge. A second, fostered by a particular interpretation of some of the language Descartes himself used especially in the Discourse, is the persona of the 'scientist', aiming to develop an autonomous domain of knowledge about the natural world. This paper will argue that neither of these masks should be allowed to eclipse the older conception of philosopher as sage which Descartes, despite his pretensions to modernity, never completely abandoned. Both in his metaphysics and in the moral theory stemming from it, he locates himself within a contemplative tradition whose aim is less to control and manipulate reality in the manner envisaged by the philosophie pratique that he advertised, than to cultivate a programme of systematic self-training that would generate a life oriented towards the good. Seen in this light, the authentic persona of the Cartesian philosopher, albeit fashioned in a distinctively new way, can be seen as linked to the traditional role of the searcher for selfhood, the goals of inquiry being defined in terms that have a discernible continuity with the idea of an interior spiritual journey of self-discovery, which Descartes inherited from his more overtly religious predecessors such as Augustine and Bonaventure

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