Descartes on the Cure for Indecision
“There are no grounds for fear of the unknown: for often the things we most dreaded, before we experienced them, turn out to be better than those we desired.”
By Maria Popova
“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist,” wrote Dani Shapiro in her beautiful meditation on why creativity requires leaping into the unknown, “is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” John Keats called this “negative capability” and it resides at the heart of Rilke’s timeless incantation to “live the questions.” But ours is a world strewn with dualities, where everything exists in parallel with its opposite, every point tethered to its counterpoint. And among the most pervasive dualities are uncertainty and indecision — one a constructive force of self-expansion predicated on an active embrace of the unknown, the other a destructive contraction of the spirit paralyzed before possibility.
The cause and cure of the latter is what the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) explores in a section of The Passions of the Soul (public library) — his final published work, which gave us Descartes on nobility of soul and the crucial difference between confidence and pride.
Descartes considers indecision a “species of fear” — like jealousy, envy, despair, and superstition — and writes:
Indecision is also a species of fear that, holding the soul, as it were, in suspense between several actions it might carry out, causes it to perform none of them, and thus gives it the time to make a proper choice before opting for one of them. In which respect, it is genuinely of some use.* But when it lasts longer than it should, and causes us to squander on deliberation the time we need in order to act, it is very bad. Now I call it a kind of fear, even though it may happen that, when we have a choice between several things that appear to be virtually equal in goodness, we remain uncertain and undecided, without, however, feeling any fear. For this kind of indecision stems purely from the situation, and not from any agitation of the spirits: hence it is not a passion, unless the uncertainty of the choice is aggravated by the fear of making a mistake. But in some people this fear is so habitual and so powerful that often, even though they have no choice to make between alternatives and see only one line of action to pursue or to avoid, it holds them back and causes them to waste time in looking for other possibilities; in this case, there is an excess of indecision, which stems from an excessive desire to do the right thing, and from a weakness of the understanding, which has no clear and distinct notions, only a host of confused ones. That is why the remedy for this excess is to accustom ourselves to form definite and determinate judgements about whatever things we are confronted with, and to believe that we are always doing our duty when we do what we judge to be best, even though, perhaps, we may be judging quite wrongly.
He examines the subject of indecision and its seedbed of fear from another angle in a 1646 letter to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, to whom he dedicated the book and whom he considered a woman possessing intelligence “so far above the common run that she grasps with ease what our scholars find most difficult.” In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to echo half a millennium later in asserting that “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation,” Descartes writes:
I am convinced that resolution and promptitude are very necessary virtues in the handling of a business already begun. And there are no grounds for fear of the unknown: for often the things we most dreaded, before we experienced them, turn out to be better than those we desired.
For a vitalizing counterpoint to this particular portion of The Passions of the Soul, see psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in praise of missing out, then revisit Descartes’s twelve timeless tenets for critical thinking.
Published December 1, 2016