Matt Hettche. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 48, Issue 3. July 2010.
The literary format of Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy is undoubtedly one of its more distinguishing features. During the seventeenth century, the standard convention for a work in metaphysics was a treatise or disputation. Descartes’s conversational tone, writing in the first person present tense, and unique organization of chapters into “meditations,” was clearly a departure from the norm. At first glance, given the sentiments expressed in the work’s dedicatory letter and preface, the unconventional writing style appears to be a rhetorical device. As architect for the new science, Descartes was certainly eager to gain approval for his philosophical agenda from the proper authorities, such as the Doctors of the Sorbonne and the Jesuits. His request of the reader to “meditate seriously” and give the subject matter “attentive consideration,” therefore, fits naturally with the motif of his book. At the end of the replies to the Second Objections, for example, Descartes writes: “I am therefore right to require particularly careful attention from my readers; and the style of writing that I selected was one which I thought would be most capable of generating such attention.”
Contemporary discussions on the literary format of Descartes’s Meditations typically focus on two issues. The first is whether Descartes’s text resembles and is possibly influenced by the genre of religious devotional exercises. During the early-to-mid seventeenth century, and especially in France, devotional writings experienced a heyday of prevalence and popularity. As a sanctioned product of the Counter-Reformation, devotionals provided a creative outlet for authors in a politically charged, if not dangerous, intellectual climate. The narrative and personal aspects of devotional writings afforded artistic license for authors in a well-established literary tradition. Religious devotionals, particularly from continental and Catholic sources, are credited as having a tangible influence on poets, painters, and dramatists of the era. The question for Cartesian scholars, therefore, at least in part, is whether Descartes was influenced by the devotional genre when composing and first presenting his metaphysics. Given his educational background and religious heritage, Descartes certainly would have been aware of some of the more prominent writers in the tradition, such as Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint François de Sales. And furthermore, given Descartes’s revisionist agenda for the discipline of philosophy, he no doubt would have welcomed an affiliation with the progressive tenor of the devotional literary movement.
The second main issue raised in discussions on the literary format of the Meditations is whether the stylistic devices employed by Descartes are philosophically significant. That is to say, separate from its rhetorical function, does the way in which Descartes presents his ideas have implications for how we are to understand and interpret his philosophical claims? This latter issue, although related to the former, motivates an interpretation of the Meditations that contrasts sharply with standard Anglo-American approaches to the text. An emphasis on “mode of presentation,” for example, forces a reevaluation of the role that epistemological skepticism plays in the first two Meditations. Rather than being seen as a unilateral effort to establish foundationalism in a theory of knowledge, Descartes’s temporary alliance with skepticism can be redescribed as a methodological requirement that leads the reader/meditator to a special kind of experience and intellectual insight.
In his article “The Senses and the Fleshless Eye,” Gary Hatfield presents a thesis very much along these lines. Hatfield maintains that Descartes’s Meditations function as a series of “cognitive exercises” that are designed to lead the mind away from the senses, toward reason and will, in the apprehension of metaphysical truth. On Hatfield’s account, the innate ideas of Cartesian metaphysics, such as the indubitability of the cogito, the existence of a benevolent God, and the separation of mind and body, are established not by formal deductive arguments, but rather by a process of cognitive/meditative exercises. Hatfield believes, in particular, that Descartes’s strategy in the Meditations is influenced by an Augustinian tradition of religious exercise and that Descartes’s knowledge of the devotional genre is significant for his philosophical appropriation of meditational technique.
Bradley Rubidge presents one of the more formative challenges to Hatfield’s interpretation. Rubidge maintains that any significant influence on Descartes’s Meditations from the genre of religious devotional exercises is limited to merely a rhetorical function, given the social and political situation that Descartes faced when promoting his work. He writes:
The relationship of the Meditations to the meditation genre … should not alter our reading of the text … The reference to the meditation genre serves only to underline Descartes’s view on how his arguments should be studied, and to remind his audience that he is not attacking or undermining the position of the Church.
Responding to Hatfield, Rubidge questions both the actual presence of a distinct Augustinian style of religious exercise during the seventeenth century and how Hatfield attempts to connect it to Descartes. Rubidge argues, on the one hand, that there is nothing essential to the notion of a “cognitive exercise” that requires such a tight connection to the devotional genre, and on the other hand, that the Augustinian features of the Meditations are perhaps best explained by Descartes’s knowledge of Saint Augustine (the philosopher), rather than by Descartes’s knowledge of some minor current within the devotional literary movement. If nothing else, Rubidge’s criticism of Hatfield illustrates how the question of a possible devotional influence on the Meditations depends, in part, on the question of how Descartes, as an intellectual resident of the seventeenth century, would have known and understood the devotional genre.
My focus in this article is to provide a partial defense of Hatfield’s interpretation. I argue, in particular, that there is historical and textual evidence that Descartes’s Meditations is influenced by an Augustinian devotional tradition of spiritual exercise and that this influence is philosophically important for how we understand the cogito. I agree with Rubidge, though for different reasons, that Hatfield struggles to connect Descartes to a specific Augustinian spiritual exercise. Yet at the same time, against Rubidge, I believe the devotional genre during the seventeenth century does include a distinct Augustinian tradition, and furthermore, that the meditational techniques of this tradition are utilized by Descartes in his Meditations for a unique philosophical purpose. Hatfield’s notion of a “cognitive exercise” serves well to explain both the “therapeutic value” of Descartes’s method of doubt and the way in which the cogito is intended to be arrived at (or discovered in) a moment of intuitive insight (AT 7:140).
In my view, a likely source of Descartes’s knowledge and understanding of an Augustinian spiritual exercise is Mersenne. Early in his career, in 1623, Mersenne published his own spiritual exercise, L’usage de la raison. This work has been recently rediscovered, and as I will argue below, it exhibits the features of an Augustinian meditation. Given Descartes and Mersenne’s very close relationship, and particularly the latter’s role in bringing the Meditations, Objections, and Replies to press, it is not unlikely that Mersenne influenced both the style and substance of Descartes’s metaphysics. At the very least, when defending Hatfield’s interpretation of the Meditations against the skeptical challenges of Rubidge, Mersenne’s text establishes that an Augustinian style of devotional meditation was at least present during the seventeenth century, and perhaps more importantly, there was ample opportunity for Descartes to gain knowledge of its structure and defining techniques.
Descartes and the Transparency of Influence
Influence is always difficult to measure in the creative work of an individual. If it is overstated, for example, a thinker’s own contributions are easily marginalized. The task of bringing into focus elements that sit in the background of a person’s work is often done at the risk of overexposing what is original. In addition, it is rare that a particular influence can be easily separated from others. The various influences that form the intellectual backdrop of a person’s ideas are often tightly intertwined. Any effort to isolate one invariably involves artificially separating it from others. The task of tracing a particular influence in Descartes’s work also has its own set of challenges. Not only is Descartes reluctant to mention the names of individuals and titles of works that have contributed to the development of his thought, but arguably, his reluctance (itself) is both a product and feature of his philosophical method. The Cartesian method demands intellectual autonomy, where, at least in spirit, preconceived notions and the thoughts of others are cast aside for the pursuit and discovery of truth. In a well known letter to Beeckman, Descartes reveals his attitude about the relative unimportance of documenting sources:
It is ridiculous to take the trouble as you do to distinguish, in the possession of knowledge, what is your own from what is not, as if it was the possession of a piece of land or sum of money. If you know something, it is completely yours, even if you have learnt it from someone else … (AT 1:159; CSMK 27)
Although this letter is part of a disagreement with Beeckman over the content and originality of Descartes’s Compendium Musicae (1618), the comments above help to explain the conspicuous lack of attribution in Descartes’s published writings. Given his view about the acquisition of knowledge, therefore, it is not much of a surprise that Descartes never reveals his source or inspiration for the mode of presentation that we find in the Meditations. During the seventeenth century, meditations and spiritual exercises were simply parts of the intellectual landscape, and as far as Descartes was concerned, fair game to be used for his own special purpose.
The vast majority of commentators on Descartes who have considered the question of a devotional influence on the Meditations point to Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as the significant text. Loyola’s handbook was enormously popular during Descartes’s life and it exhibits some of the classic features of religious meditation. First, the major divisions within the work correspond to a set of exercises that are intended to be worked through chronologically, organized by weeks and subdivided, respectively, into days. And second, there are sections of the work that call for contemplative pause and reflection. A person working through the Ignatian Exercises, for example, is instructed at different points to review the insight she has gained and to clarify the overall goal of her endeavor. In addition to these structural elements, which are easily located in Descartes’s text, commentators are also quick to point out that Descartes would have been aware of Loyola’s Exercises, at least in some form, from his school days at La Flèche. As reported by Rochemonteix and others, all students of this Jesuit institution were required to attend a spiritual retreat each year during Holy Week and would have most likely taken part in an abridged version of the Exercises. It is also known that Father François Véron, a professor of philosophy during Descartes’s term, published his own version of the Ignatian meditation, Manuale Sodalitatis (1608), designed especially for students. A quite natural assumption, and the claim of many commentators, is that even if Descartes did not personally read Loyola’s text, he would have been fully aware of its basic design and central techniques from his Jesuit academic training.
Rubidge, unsurprisingly, is skeptical that an Ignatian influence has any real bearing on Descartes’s Meditations. He points out that the so-called meditational features of Descartes’s text, such as the textual divisions into days and breaks for contemplative pause, are not uniquely Ignatian, and maintains further that, if they refer to anything, they refer very generally to the entire devotional genre. Rubidge openly admits Loyola’s text “is perhaps the most influential of all devotional handbooks” within the genre; however, he insists that the features distinctive to it, and those that define it as its own tradition, are nowhere present in Descartes’s Meditations. According to Rubidge, the historical evidence linking Descartes to Loyola’s Exercises, while credible, merely establishes that Descartes would have had a general understanding of devotionals and their basic design. Rubidge is adamant that any meditational influence on Descartes’s metaphysics is limited to merely a stylistic or rhetorical function.
More recently, Dennis Sepper has challenged the view put forth by Rubidge by calling into question Rubidge’s claim that Neoplatonist meditation did not play a major role in the types of texts that were present during the seventeenth century. Sepper maintains that Rubidge’s description of the devotional genre oversimplifies the importance of medieval influences, such as Saint Bonaventure and Hugh of Saint Victor, and arbitrarily and anachronistically favors devotional works after 1650 as those that principally inform Descartes’s understanding. Stressing Descartes’s relationship with Cardinal Bérulle and other (Augustinian) Oratorians, such as Guillaume Gibieuf, Sepper argues there is a psychologically rich notion of meditation stemming from a Neoplatonist tradition that would have been available to Descartes and that plays an important role in the way Descartes regards the faculty of imagination and production of non-corporeal ideas. In a manner that is consistent with, if not complementary to, Hatfield’s interpretation, Sepper explains how religious meditation is important to the philosophical exposition of Descartes’s ideas in the Meditations.
A central point of disagreement between Rubidge and Sepper hinges on what real influence Neoplatonist meditations have for the devotional genre during the seventeenth century. Whereas Rubidge explicitly denies any significant contribution, Sepper finds evidence to the contrary. In an effort to mediate this scholarly debate between Rubidge and Sepper, I think it is important to clarify the difference between (1) describing the devotional genre as it most likely existed during the early-to-mid seventeenth century, and (2) describing the devotional genre as it most likely was engaged by Descartes and his philosophical contemporaries. As popular as religious devotionals were, and without denying Descartes’s potential for possessing a sophisticated understanding of the genre, both Rubidge and Sepper appear to miss the subtlety in this distinction.
From one perspective (sympathetic to Sepper), there is no question that the religious devotional genre during the seventeenth century has been under-described by Cartesian scholars. In this context, even Hatfield’s designation of the “Ignatian” and “Augustinian” traditions of meditation (a distinction I support and return to later in the next section) begins to pull apart under the fine detail of Sepper’s historical account. By the time Descartes began to write his Meditations, there was almost certainly in place a complex genre of religious meditation from which Descartes could have drawn. But part of Rubidge’s insight, as I understand him, is that unless there is compelling evidence to identify a direct devotional influence on Descartes’s philosophical ideas, it is best to retain the “default reading” of the Meditations, where Descartes’s originality as a secular philosophical thinker survives intact. Recall, Rubidge finds no problem attributing a weak influence of religious devotionals on the rhetorical dimensions of Descartes’s text. And furthermore, he is also open to the possibility that Descartes receives a philosophical influence more directly from the works of Saint Augustine. Rubidge’s skepticism about a devotional influence, therefore, appears to be aimed at preserving Descartes’s autonomy and independence as a philosopher. His position, put succinctly, is simply that even if there is historical evidence that Descartes interacted with various Jesuits and Ortatiorians, and even if there are traces of Neoplatonic/Augustinian ideas in Descartes’s text, these reasons are not sufficient to read a significant devotional influence into the Meditations.
Arguably, the debate that emerges between Rubidge and Sepper on the importance of Neoplatonist meditation parallels the debate between Rubidge and Hatfield on the reality/existence of an Augustinian tradition of meditation. Both Sepper and Hatfield, for example, appeal to Descartes’s relationship with Bérulle and other Oratorians as a basis for connecting Descartes to a sophisticated understanding of religious meditation. And presumably Rubidge’s response to Hatfield applies with equal force to Sepper (i.e., there is nothing uniquely “religious” or “devotional” about the philosophical ideas in the Meditations that Descartes himself could not have come up with on his own or adapted from his own reading of Saint Augustine). Later in section 3, I will comment in some detail on Hatfield’s particular attempt to use Bérulle to connect Descartes to the Augustinian tradition of meditation. For now, however, I only caution that Sepper and Hatfield should not place too much stock into Descartes’s early relationship with the Parisian Oratorians. Although there are a handful of letters and reports that establish Descartes had contact with Bérulle and Gibieuf prior to and shortly after leaving France for Holland, the exact reasons why Descartes opted for self-imposed exile remain a mystery. As a consequence, Descartes’s precise relationship with the Oratory stands as a point of contention among scholars.
One theory to explain Descartes’s expatriation, arguably the “standard account,” comes from Baillet. After Descartes met privately with Bérulle (the story goes), Descartes was inspired to write a new Christian philosophy and decided to leave Paris and its distractions in order to achieve his goal. On this account, Bérulle is credited as Descartes’s “director of conscience” who not only helps Descartes set his philosophical agenda for the next twenty years, but also personally initiates Descartes’s long and well maintained relationship with the Oratorians. Although recounted frequently in the literature, this version of events is difficult to verify historically. Baillet is notoriously unreliable and too often depicts the events of Descartes’s life in terms of Descartes’s strict devotion to Catholicism. Since the primary sources of Baillet’s account are no longer extant, some scholars argue that Baillet’s motives are transparently revisionist and overly sympathetic to Descartes’s religious heritage. According to an alternative interpretation of the Bérulle meeting, for example, it is not Descartes’s admiration for the Cardinal, but rather his fear of him, that ultimately serves as Descartes’s reason to leave France.
As I indicated earlier, I believe the key to understanding Descartes’s engagement with the religious devotional genre is Mersenne. Not only did Mersenne produce his own spiritual exercise, L’usage de la raison, a work, I argue later, that fits neatly into the Augustinian tradition of meditation, but he also stands as a plausible mediating figure with whom Descartes could have discussed religious and theological ideas. While sharing many of Descartes’s interests in natural science and mathematics, Mersenne was also actively involved in the Christian apologetic movement and well versed in several theological traditions. Clarifying Mersenne’s own engagement with the religions devotional genre, I believe, serves to mitigate Rubidge’s skepticism about the role religious devotionals have on Descartes’s Mediations.
One other consideration that speaks against Rubidge’s skepticism has to do not with Descartes’s originality, but rather his unoriginality. In particular, what Rubidge fails to consider is that there were other philosophical projects, concurrent with Descartes’s own, that utilized the strategies and techniques of religious devotionals; and simply put, Descartes was not the only person to philosophically appropriate aspects of the devotional genre. For our purposes, two important standouts who borrowed from the religious devotional movement are Pierre Charron (publishing De la sagesse in 1601) and Jean de Silhon (publishing L’immortaltié de l’âme in 1634).
Although it might be reasonably argued that Charron is properly classified as a theologian, there are clear philosophical components to his De la sagesse. Following Montaigne, Charron provides a critique of sensual and experiential knowledge and argues that revelation from God is the only true source of knowledge. Charron identifies two earthly impediments to knowledge, one external, the other internal, and maintains that only after a person frees herself from both can she be in the position to receive the truth. Charron writes:
One must rid oneself of … [confusing passion and tumultuous affection], so as to become empty and clear, like a white sheet. Only then can one receive the coloration and stamp of wisdom against which the passions struggle.
Charron recommends a therapeutic procedure of intellectual and emotional purging that is intended to transform a person into the appropriate state whereby knowledge of God is then possible. The strategy he outlines draws from devotional techniques and religious ceremony, where confession and psychological purification (particularly in the Catholic tradition), are prerequisite for later moments of spiritual insight. Charron’s procedure is therapeutic in the sense that a person, through a self-initiated process, can rid herself of distracting and corrupting prejudice. Charron, in particular, presents his method of doubt in a series of steps or lessons, and there is frequent reference to the “wise sage” who has mastered the various “dispositions to wisdom.”
The philosophical projects of de Silhon also have a strong affinity with religious devotionals. Unlike Charron, de Silhon was not a theologian by trade, and his work is typically described as a part of the Christian apologetic movement. Apologetic tracts aim generally to provide an intellectual basis for the faith and often culminate with advice on spiritual enlightenment. As a form of writing, they are designed to confront atheism and reinforce the principles of natural theology. In his published works, de Silhon explicitly addresses Pyrrhonian skepticism as a threat and furnishes proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. De Silhon maintains that spiritual awakening begins with a recognition of the self (as an existing thing), proceeds to knowledge of God (as the principle cause of all being), next to knowledge of the soul’s immortality, and finally concludes with recognition of God’s majesty. In a synoptic passage of his L’immortaltié de l’âme, de Silhon explains the process:
[The] judgment that a man makes, that he is, is not a frivolous piece of knowledge, or an impertinent reflection. He can rise from there to the first and original source of his being, and to the knowledge of God himself. He can draw from it the demonstration of the existence of a divinity… He can draw from it the first movements toward religion and the seed of this virtue that inclines us to submit ourselves to God, as to the first cause, and to the supreme principle of our being … In brief, the most holy and inviolable duties of man, in accordance with his purely natural condition, grow from this root and flow from this principle.
A distinctive feature of de Silhon’s work is his emphasis on method. Only after establishing God’s existence, for example, does he believe it is prudent then to consider God’s providence and the basis for the soul’s immortality. His strict recommendations on method are grounded in both epistemological and tactical considerations. On the one hand, de Silhon believes that recognition of God’s majesty is a product of coming to know other truths in a particular order. Although differing slightly from the type of procedure outlined in a spiritual exercise, where the steps taken by the reader involve the reader’s own internal/personal thoughts, the route to God outlined by de Silhon involves an intellectual procedure that culminates in a certain type of realization. And on the other hand, the particular route outlined by de Silhon, one that begins with a cogito-type argument and emphasizes the first person perspective, has interesting implications for Pyrrhonian skepticism and is easily traced to the narrative perspective so prominent in religious devotionals.
As it turns out, de Silhon’s argument against the Pyrrhonian fails because it does not address the anti-intellectual element so central to the Pyrrhonian’s position. The Pyrrhonian, for example, cannot assert ignorance on a particular matter because the grounds for such an assertion would require an actual inference. And since human ratiocination is faulty and cannot be trusted, the only acceptable alternative for the Pyrrhonian is to embrace a perpetual attitude of doubt and indifference. De Silhon attempts to refute this form of skepticism by identifying the “activity of doubt” as something that is both essential and undeniable to the Pyrrhonian’s position. According to de Silhon, since not even God could instantiate an action without an actor, on pain of contradiction, it follows that every person can come to the infallible knowledge of his/her own existence. The argumentative strategy of isolating the self and placing emphasis on activity (or action) is certainly interesting when compared to Descartes’s strategy in the Meditations. What is more, de Silhon published his L’immortaltié de l’âme three years before Descartes’s Discourse on Method, and there is evidence that the two men were personally acquainted with one another. Descartes mentions de Silhon by name several times in his correspondence, and there is even an extant letter by Descartes, dated March or April 1648, believed to be written to de Silhon. I will consider this letter briefly later in the next section.
What the work of Charron and de Silhon help to establish is that the techniques of religious devotionals were utilized for various philosophical purposes during Descartes’s lifetime. The appropriation of devotional technique in these works also goes beyond a mere stylistic or rhetorical function. If Descartes makes philosophical use of devotional techniques in his work, as Hatfield and others argue, he was certainly not alone in doing so. Skeptics and Apologists alike borrowed elements from the devotional genre to advance very specialized agendas. To gain a better understanding of how Descartes would have understood the devotional genre, however, what is required is an outline of the different styles, methods, and traditions of devotionals that were present during the seventeenth century. I believe, in particular, by understanding some of the internal distinctions within the genre itself, we can gain insight into what Descartes and his contemporaries found so philosophically interesting about devotional meditation.
Styles, Methods, and Traditions of Religious Devotionals
A standard and basic division within the genre of religious devotionals is between “paradigmatic devotionals” and “performative exercises.” Both styles were present during the seventeenth century and both outline a practice that was intended to cultivate the spiritual life of the reader/exercitant. Paradigmatic devotionals, such as tracts written on the lives of the saints and treatises on perfection, are less instructive as they are exemplary of Christian spirituality. These writings focus on the kinds of pious actions that will make the reader more holy and more worthy of God’s grace. In one sense, these texts are the most “Catholic” of all devotionals. In contrast to Luther’s rather famous catchphrase, “God’s favor is not a prize to be won, but a gift to be accepted,” paradigmatic devotionals stress the importance of “good actions” as a pathway to heaven.
The label “performative devotional” is applied to those texts within the genre that require the reader to perform a prescribed task or exercise. Instead of describing and giving examples of pious actions, performative devotionals require the reader actually to do something. That is to say, they require a person to engage consciously in a certain process or activity that will lead to spiritual and/or devotional enhancement. The practices of prayer, chant, song, and spiritual exercise all fall into this category, as do perhaps apologetic tracts, such as de Silhon’s, where spiritual enlightenment comes after the intellectual task of finding God through rational argument.
When evaluating Descartes’s text, the most promising type of performative devotional to consider is the “spiritual exercise.” Described broadly, spiritual exercises have two distinctive features. First, they are designed to be a set of mental instructions for a believer to follow in order to achieve a predetermined goal, such as a renewed relationship with God, a lesson learned from sacred history, or the preparation of one’s soul for heaven. The exercises function to help one attain a certain type of experience that facilitates spiritual development. And although different traditions may prescribe different techniques, the basic idea is the same. Spiritual exercises prescribe a reflective and internal procedure for the meditator to work through, usually in a series of steps or lessons, in order to achieve a desired goal. The second distinctive feature of spiritual exercises is how they end with a resolution whereby the will of the reader/exercitant is influenced. From a religious perspective, this is perhaps the most important aspect of a spiritual exercise. The guidance of the will through an internal experience is essentially what separates these religious writings from philosophical treatises on morality and religion. The purpose is not to persuade the reader’s will through the force of logic or rational argument, but rather to cause a change within the reader by means of illumination or a moment of intuitive insight. Hatfield’s notion of a cognitive exercise, as it is believed to be operating in Descartes’s text, strongly resembles a spiritual exercise in precisely this sense.
For a given exercise, the type of internal experience prescribed (i.e., the way in which the will of the reader is intended to be influenced), determines what kind of exercise it is. Within the seventeenth-century genre, there are two basic kinds of spiritual exercises, distinguishing between (1) the intellectual, or “meditation” (proper), and (2) the mystical, referred to formally in Descartes’s era as ‘contemplation’. An intellectual spiritual exercise, loosely defined, relies on “ordinary grace” (i.e., what is endowed to everyone, evidenced through a person’s own mental faculties or “natural powers”). The internal experience achieved by this kind of exercise originates from the reader’s ability to reason and to perform a series of mental steps for a predetermined purpose. As a meditator progresses through the various stages of an exercise, her self-initiated efforts will lead to a mental intuition or epistemic experience whereby her will can then be influenced.
The mystical form of exercise, in contrast, relies less on a meditator’s concerted effort than it does on “special grace” (i.e., what is given directly by God in a moment of religious ecstasy, rapture, or direct conveyance). For example, the reader proceeds through the beginning stages of the exercise just as if it were a meditation, by relying on her own natural powers, and in the final stage she is bestowed with God’s divine love to influence and direct her will. It is thus within this final stage, in a moment of mystical revelation, that the division between contemplation and meditation is most clearly drawn.
Both kinds of spiritual exercises were employed during the seventeenth century and often within the same devotional text. For example, they both appear in the works of de Sales and Loyola. Loyola, in particular, describes meditation to be especially fitting for beginners (incipientes) and he essentially uses it as a warm-up exercise for his more important exercises of contemplation. In a relative comparison, the mystical form of spiritual exercise is much older than the intellectual form, and consequently there are traces of these older forms in many of the meditational texts of the seventeenth century.
Two techniques of meditation common to many but not all traditions of spiritual exercises are the doctrines of the “three ways” and the “three powers.” These techniques find their origin in the theological doctrine of the Trinity and are set forth in great detail in the third chapter of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (1259). The method of the three ways (via purgativa, via illuminativa, and via unitiva) refers to the different stages by which the meditator proceeds through an exercise. The “purgative way” is when the exercitant confronts her own sinful nature and seeks the means to rid herself of fault and weakness. The “illuminative way” is when the meditator reflects upon a certain topic and gains particular insight or knowledge. The “unitive way” is the last stage and serves to unite the exercitant spiritually with God. This stage within a meditation relies on ordinary grace and on a person successfully employing her natural powers on a predetermined topic of reflection.
The doctrine of the “three powers” refers to the traditional three faculties of the soul: memory/imagination, understanding, and will. These faculties, collectively, represent the natural powers of the meditator and are often applied during the illuminative and unitive stages of an exercise. To illustrate briefly: first, the topic of meditation is examined by what the meditator remembers or can imagine about the subject matter; second, what it means, through the reflection of the intellect; and third, what she is going to do about it, through the movement of the will. For the purpose of discussing the different traditions of meditation that pertain to Descartes, focusing on the faculty of memory/imagination is very useful. This faculty conceptualizes or intuits the subject matter of thought and meditation and introduces it to the intellect. In his discussion, Hatfield refers to this stage in the process as “exemplification.” Ultimately, the manner in which a specific meditational text instructs the reader to consider or exemplify a particular topic of reflection will determine to what tradition the meditation belongs.
The two dominant traditions of meditation acknowledged in the secondary literature on Descartes are the Ignatian and the Augustinian traditions. In one important respect, the terms ‘Ignatian’ and ‘Augustinian’ do not signify precise meditational doctrines that originate, respectively, in a particular devotional work. On the contrary, each designation refers only loosely to the particular historical figure that shares its name, and both are essentially a product of convention. Strictly speaking, Saint Augustine never produced a spiritual exercise as such (at least as we would want to classify it by seventeenth-century standards), and the defining quality of an Ignatian meditation, as we shall see, is neither original nor distinctive to Loyola’s Exercises. The defining difference between the two traditions of meditation, therefore, turns on how each tradition construes the notion of ordinary grace. Underlying the method of exemplification that is distinctive to each meditative tradition are two opposing epistemological interpretations of ordinary grace. Let us now consider each in turn.
Ordinary grace might first be thought of in terms of the formal Thomistic idea of “natural reason.” With the exception of knowledge by revelation, all human knowledge according to Aquinas is acquired through a two step process involving, first, the sensible faculties, and, second, “the light of nature.” In his Summa, Saint Thomas explains:
The knowledge we have by natural reason requires two things: images derived from the sensible things, and a natural intelligible light enabling us to abstract intelligible conceptions from them.
The Thomistic rendering of ordinary grace involves that part of human reason that enables a person to abstract from sensory particulars to form concepts and ideas. It is described as an ability or power that provides a necessary but not sufficient means for human knowledge. Even abstract ideas, such as geometrical concepts, depend on the intellectual apprehension of certain objects from the sensible imagination. Representing a sense-based epistemology, this doctrine of natural reason is epitomized by the Scholastic slogan: “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses.”
The tradition of meditation that adopts the Thomistic conception of ordinary grace is the Ignatian tradition. This style of meditation employs techniques that utilize a sense-based form of cognition during the exemplification stage of the spiritual exercise. In particular, an Ignatian meditation instructs a person to consider a topic of reflection by first employing her sensible faculties and then applying the “light of nature” or intellect. In Loyola’s Exercises, for example, the first part of this process is typically prompted by one of two methods (i.e., either the “composition of place” or the “application of the senses”). Whereas “composition of place,” involves recalling a specific memory, either shared or personal to the meditator, the “application of the senses” involves the imagined or actual use of the meditator’s five senses. A classic example of this latter method appears in Loyola’s Exercises during the “Fifth Exercise” of “The First Week.” Here, the meditator is instructed to imagine the torments of hell by entertaining a series of symbols. First, the meditator is instructed to see the fires of hell; second, to hear the screams and cries of the burning souls; third, to smell the filth and smoke; fourth, to taste the bitter tears of the damned; and fifth, to feel the burning flames. Although “emotional violence” is sometimes cited as a defining feature of Jesuit meditation, it is precisely this type of representational experience that best depicts the role of sense and imagination in the Ignatian tradition.
Another version of ordinary grace that is important in our analysis of Descartes is what we might call an Illuminationist theory of ordinary grace, and it is derived loosely from Saint Augustine’s theory of knowledge. On the one hand, this version of grace is similar to the Thomistic account in how it regards the intellect as a type of inner light that is endowed to every rational human being; yet, on the other hand, it is different in what it considers the function of the intellect to be. Aquinas, for example, deems the intellect as the means by which a person acquires knowledge, and it is through the intellectual abstraction of sensory particulars a person is able to employ her “natural reason” to discover universal concepts and ideas. The Augustinian, in contrast, regards the intellect more formally as “intelligence” and as a much more direct means to such knowledge. For Augustine, universal ideas exist in the mind of God and are revealed or impressed upon humans through “divine illumination,” described by Augustine as “a sort of incorporeal light of a unique kind.” Similar to the Platonic contemplation of the forms, these ideas are the eternal truths, which serve as the norms and standards for a person to judge experience. For Augustine, it is not the senses which determine knowledge, but rather it is knowledge, derived from the eternal truths of reason, that determine and judge the senses. In his De magistro, Augustine explains:
But when we have to do with things which we behold with the mind, that is, with the intelligence and with reason, we speak of things which we look upon directly in the inner light of truth which illuminates the inner man and is inwardly enjoyed.
Truth is interior to the mind and cannot be communicated from without. It is the independent operation of the intellect, man’s inner light of truth, that serves as the foundation for Augustine’s knowledge and is the defining feature of illuminationism.
Perhaps obviously, the tradition of meditation that adopts the illuminationist conception of ordinary grace is the Augustinian tradition. This style of meditation employs techniques that rely on the independent operation of the intellect during the exemplification stage of the exercise and instructs a reader to consider a topic of reflection in a manner that excludes the use of the sensible faculties. This tradition utilizes a theory of meditative cognition whereby the meditator arrives at the central insight of the exercise by applying her own self-initiated mental powers and “inner light of truth.”
Now before turning our attention in the next section to two devotional works in the Augustinian tradition, both of which can be connected to Descartes, I would like to comment briefly on the letter I referred to earlier (i.e., the one written by Descartes, believed to be addressed to de Silhon). Although we do not have conclusive proof that de Silhon was the actual and intended recipient, the content of the letter, at the very least, provides evidence that Descartes is very much aware of the type of distinctions in the devotional genre that I have just outlined. Two passages from the letter are particularly revealing. In the first, Descartes writes:
You have yourself, it seems to me, given a good answer to your other question about the nature of our knowledge of God in the beatific vision: you distinguish it from our present knowledge of God in virtue of its being intuitive… . Intuitive knowledge is an illumination of the mind, by which it sees in the light of God whatever it pleases Him to show it by a direct impress of the divine clarity on our understanding, which in this is not considered as an agent but simply as a receiver of the rays of divinity. Whatever we can know of God in this life, short of a miracle, is the result of reasoning and discursive inquiry.
The “beatific vision” is the direct or immediate knowledge of God enjoyed by angels and the blessed in heaven. In his letter, Descartes refers to this immediate form of knowledge as “intuitive knowledge,” and his description of it follows very close to our description of illuminationism. Although technically speaking, the “beatific vision” is a supernatural experience and not a spiritual exercise, its epistemic process parallels the devotional practice of contemplation. Descartes describes the experience as a passive one and explicitly contrasts it with the active and discursive process of coming to know God in normal/everyday life. Although not specifically utilizing the terms ‘special’ and ‘ordinary’ grace, it is abundantly clear Descartes is aware of the distinction. The second revealing passage of the letter appears a few short paragraphs from the passage quoted above. Here, Descartes writes:
Now [knowledge of the proposition ‘I am thinking, therefore, I exist’] is not the work of your reasoning or information passed on to you by teachers; it is something that your mind sees, feels and handles; and although your imagination insistently mixes itself up with your thoughts and lessens the clarity of this knowledge by trying to clothe it with shapes, it is nevertheless a proof of the capacity of our soul for receiving intuitive knowledge from God.
Descartes is careful to describe the content of the cogito (referring to it here as a “proposition”) in very much the same terms as he describes knowledge of God in the “beatific vision.” Both, although arrived at in different ways, are instances of intuitive knowledge. The content of the cogito, in particular, is not the result of a formal argument, nor is it passed on from the authority of others. According to Descartes, knowledge of the thinking-existing-self is gazed from the mind’s eye and serves as proof, at least in some sense, that the human mind can cognize clear and distinct ideas. One hurdle, of course, is untangling the mind from the senses and imagination. A meditative process or cognitive exercise, therefore, falling within the Augustinian tradition, now appears not only philosophically plausible, but philosophically required.
Although we will never be certain that the letter quoted above is indeed intended for de Silhon, assuming that it is gives the letter an interesting subtext. By classifying the cogito as an instance of intuitive knowledge, Descartes tacitly acknowledges what is plausible about de Silhon’s argument against the Pyrrhonian while, at the same time, diagnosing why it fails in a way that his own argument against the skeptic does not. Recall, de Silhon presents an argument against the skeptic that is based on a cogito-type conclusion. Yet unlike Descartes, de Silhon arrives at the indubitability of the existing-self by way of rational argument. Since the Pyrrhonian will always question the legitimacy of human reason, and logical inference as a reliable process, de Silhon is unable truly to establish the cogito as an undeniable fact. In this respect, Descartes’s cogito, as an instance of intuitive knowledge, and as something arrived at through a meditative process, remains impervious to the protestations of the Pyrrhonian. For Descartes in the Meditations, the cogito is not the product of a logical inference. Rather, it is something that lies dormant in the mind and is realized after the mind is freed from the senses and imagination by way of a cognitive exercise.
Although the content of the above letter lends support to the idea that Descartes was influenced by an Augustinian tradition of meditation, there is the issue of actually locating an Augustinian text that Descartes would have known about, and possibly consulted, prior to writing his metaphysics. That is to say, in addition to the textual and philosophical reasons for thinking there is an Augustinian influence at work in Descartes’s Meditations, there is the task of tracing the historical evidence to a likely Augustinian source.
Connecting Descartes to the Augustinian Tradition
As it turns out, the claim that there is an Augustinian meditational influence on the Meditations is not a thesis original to Hatfield. Roughly thirty years earlier, Martial Gueroult articulated the position at an international colloquium on Descartes held at Royaumont Abbey in France. Responding to a suggestion by Evert Willem Beth that the Meditations receive an Ignatian meditational influence, Gueroult maintains that Descartes’s text does not resemble Loyola’s Exercises because of the dissimilarity between how each text employs the use of image and the faculty of imagination. Gueroult explains, in particular, that the goal of Loyola’s Exercises is to persuade the will of the meditator through a meditational technique that requires the mental representation of certain images. For Loyola, these images are ascertained from the sensible imagination, which, in Gueroult’s opinion, differs from the methodology that Descartes employs. Gueroult argues instead that Descartes’s method of leading the mind away from the senses is closer to the style of meditation found in the Soliloquies of Saint Augustine. He comments:
With Descartes there is without a doubt an influence of an Augustinian-type meditation, transformed by the use of the discipline of mathematics as means of segregation from the sensible with what it is not. For example, in the first three meditations we really sense that Descartes responds to Augustinian meditation. Moreover, there is a pause in his meditations to exert oneself and dwell on contemplation. But as soon as we arrive at the fourth, and above all at the sixth meditation, the meditation ceases at bottom to be a meditation, it becomes a treatise.
The interesting claim by Gueroult here is that although Descartes’s metaphysics is influenced by an Augustinian style of meditation, it is an influence that can be attributed only to the first three Meditations. Later, in the final section of this article, I will outline an account of the meditational quality of Descartes’s text that conforms to Gueroult’s recommendation. In the meantime, however, I will turn in the present section to consider how Hatfield attempts to connect Descartes to an Augustinian meditation, and after considering how his effort fails, I will then discuss the importance and relevance of Mersenne’s L’usage de la raison.
The devotional text that Hatfield considers significant for Descartes’s Meditations is Eustachius a Sancto Paulo’s Exercises Spirituels (1630). Although Rubidge argues that Hatfield fails to show Eustachius’s text as falling within the Augustinian tradition, even according to Hatfield’s own specification of the tradition, the historical evidence to support such a connection with Descartes is rather weak. In his article, Hatfield explains that because Eustachius was an acquaintance and correspondent of Cardinal Bérulle, he was consequently connected with the circle of Descartes. The first part of Hatfield’s claim is fairly uncontroversial; Eustachius and Bérulle were both students at the Sorbonne (c. 1603). However, the second part of Hatfield’s statement is at best tenuous. The most reliable source for establishing the details of Descartes’s life is his published writings and correspondence. What we gain from consulting these texts is that Descartes’s relations with Bérulle were quite brief. Descartes mentions the Cardinal only once in his correspondence, in a letter dated “Summer 1631,” in which he gives an account to Monsieur Villebressieu of his experience three years earlier at the lecture of Chandoux. Moreover, when Eustachius published his Exercises in 1630, Descartes was in Holland and Bérulle was already dead. Therefore, it is not very likely that Descartes’s knowledge of Eustachius came from Bérulle.
Direct knowledge of Eustachius’s Exercises by Descartes is also unlikely. In a letter to Mersenne, dated September 30, 1640, Descartes expresses an interest in obtaining scholastic textbooks. He tells Mersenne that, while waiting for objections to his Meditations from the Jesuits, he intends to reread some of their philosophy. After claiming not to have looked at their treatises for twenty years, he writes: “I want to see if I like it better now than I did before.” He inquires whether there is an abstract on the whole of scholastic philosophy, an abridged version that would save him from having to pore over “huge tomes.” Referring indirectly to Eustachius’s Summa Philosophica Quadripartita (1609), he writes: “There was, I think, a Carthusian or Feuillant who made such an abstract, but I do not remember his name.” Although we do not have Mersenne’s reply to Descartes, he undoubtedly identified this abstract as Eustachius’s Summa. In a letter, dated November 11, 1640, Descartes tells Mersenne that he purchased a copy of the Summa, noting it to be “the best book of its kind ever made” and inquiring if “the author is still alive.” Moreover, the Summa was clearly the kind of abstract Descartes was looking for. Its format omits both the Aristotelian text and the explanationes, considers only the quaestiones, and treats the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy in a single volume.
In his article, Hatfield admits that his overall argument depends on establishing, “with some exactness,” Descartes’s acquaintance with a meditational text in the Augustinian tradition. However, it seems odd to identify Eustachius’s Exercises as being this text, when Descartes is unable to recall the author’s name literally months before his Meditations are published. Hatfield might reasonably argue that this comment merely suggests a mental lapse on Descartes’s part when recalling the name and author of a specific text that he once read. However, this would only be speculation and not the “exactness” that Hatfield’s argument aims for and depends on. On the whole, there are no good reasons to believe that Descartes was cognizant of Eustachius’ work before 1640-that is, other than remembering that Eustachius wrote the Summa. If Descartes were to model his Meditations after Eustachius’s Exercises, a work published in 1630 after Descartes was in Holland, one would at least expect more evidence to establish their acquaintance.
In my view, the much more likely source for an Augustinian meditational influence on Descartes comes from Mersenne. In fact, of all the people who could have personally influenced Descartes’s efforts in the Meditations, Mersenne is certainly at the top of the list. When Descartes was writing the majority of his philosophical work in Holland, Mersenne was his principal correspondent. Their friendship can be dated from about 1625 and perhaps earlier. Mersenne played an important role in the publication of both the Discourse on Method and the Meditations. There is even proof that two years prior to the publication of the latter work, Descartes elicited and received written input from Mersenne concerning the content of the Meditations. Mersenne’s relationship with Descartes certainly exceeds that of consultant and publishing editor, however. The two men consistently wrote and met with each other for a period of more than two decades, discussing in this time many issues. In fact, there is even a pair of extant letters from 1637 and 1638 where it appears Descartes and Mersenne exchanged ideas about how passages from Saint Augustine’s work resemble Descartes’s cogito.
In 1623, four years after establishing residence at the Minim convent in Paris, Mersenne began his literary career by publishing two short religious works: L’usage de la raison and L’analyse de la vie spirituelle. The first of these was rediscovered by Klaus Stichweh in 1978, in the Vatican Library; however, the latter remains lost. Writing extensively in the areas of biblical scholarship, mathematics, and science, it is perhaps not surprising that Mersenne, a monk of the Minim Order, also made contributions to the literature of devotional exercises. The Minims of the seventeenth century, allied in a certain sense with the Jesuits and Oratorians, were considered to be a powerful weapon of the Catholic Church in combating the Reformation.
Mersenne’s L’usage de la raison is organized into two books, each having a parallel structure of eleven chapters. Book I is a theoretical treatment of the way in which the two faculties, the understanding (l’entendement) and the will (la volonté), are directed or affected by the use of one’s reason. Mersenne refers to these affections as the “actions” or “movements” of reason upon the will. Book II is the application of ideas discussed in Book I, and it is addressed to the reader in the second person. The publication also includes a letter of dedication, addressed to a women, Madame la Mareschale de Vitry, and a foreword to the reader (avantpropos au lecteur).
Although touching upon many of the scientific and philosophical themes that prevail in his later works, Mersenne’s principal concern in L’usage de la raison is fairly obvious. He writes:
My very dear reader, this small publication has no other purpose than to prepare your soul for its entry into the heavenly Jerusalem, so that it may praise eternally its creator with the angels and all the blessed, who fully enjoy the admirable beauty and ineffable goodness of the living God.
From the fact that this work was written in French and dedicated to Madame la Mareschale, we gain an idea of the type of audience the work was intended for. Mersenne was not writing a formal treatise on theology directed to Church authorities; rather he was writing to a less learned (i.e., non-Latin-reading) audience. Moreover, the ideas presented by Mersenne were not viewed as radical or out of the ordinary; it was published with the approval of the Doctors of the Sorbonne.
Consider now the ways in which L’usage de la raison exemplifies the features of a spiritual exercise, and more specifically, the ways in which it resembles the Augustinian tradition of meditation. As we have seen in the above passage, there is a pre-determined purpose or goal: to prepare the reader’s soul for heaven. Next, Mersenne is quite exact in prescribing the procedure or path for the reader to attain this desired goal. In the “Foreword to the Reader,” he writes:
Now the path that I wish to trace for you, my dear reader, is not borrowed from the stars and planets, and not even from sublunary things; they will not be far from your mind; it is not necessary to roam and sail to the Indies, nor to the Canary Islands, in order to see the beginning, the middle, the progress, or the end. I do not want either to seek … the way of conforming oneself to the divine attributes and emanations which has been taught very excellently by the great Bishop of Geneva inside his “Theotime,” even though this will be a rich way of perfecting oneself. But I will take the path which I trace for Heaven inside you-yourself, so that at any moment that you wish, in the middle of royal greatness, during banquets, dances, pastimes, day and night, in prosperity or adversity, poor or rich, caressed or abandoned, healthy or sick, you will be able to practice that which will be your salvation.
This passage is significant for several reasons. First, it is a moment in the text where Mersenne addresses the reader and describes the main idea of the forthcoming exercises. He explains that the procedure is internal (i.e., the path to heaven is found within the reader). Furthermore, it is a method which the reader can practice at any time under any circumstance. The second reason that the above passage is significant is because Mersenne is contrasting the path which he prescribes with other well known methods. This is evidenced when he mentions favorably the “Theotime,” by the “great Bishop of Geneva.” Although not immediately apparent to the modern reader, Mersenne is making a reference to the Treatise on the Love of God by de Sales. Before being canonized as a Saint in 1665, de Sales’ principal title was the “Bishop of Geneva.” Although de Sales did not formally publish a work entitled “Theotime,” within the Treatise, he addresses the reader throughout the entire work as Theotimus (the title given to the work informally and in some translations). It is in this respect that Mersenne was more than likely referring to the Treatise. The contrast is important because although Mersenne is not prescribing the same method as the Salesian tract (i.e., conforming oneself to the divine attributes and emanations, which is essentially an exercise of contemplation), he is locating his own work within the genre of devotional exercises by such a comparison. The kind of exercise Mersenne offers, instead, is most clearly the intellectual style or meditation (proper): the internal and intellectual exercise that relies on an Augustinian conception of ordinary grace and a meditator’s natural powers.
The way in which L’usage de la raison resembles the Augustinian tradition of meditation turns on Mersenne’s exclusive use of will and the faculties or powers of the soul. In the second chapter of Book One, he writes:
There are two posts on which the spiritual and rational life turn: the understanding and the will. These are the two Royal powers and faculties, which serve God and adore him in spirit … the understanding is the one that sees and discovers all … it is the torch which shines in the middle of the darkness; the beacon that trains the will and shows it the goal to which it must aim.
Within this passage Mersenne is quite explicit in describing the way in which the understanding and the will interact. The understanding is the faculty of the soul that acquires insight or knowledge. Similar to the illuminationist conception of ordinary grace, whereby reason is bestowed upon humans “by a sort of incorporeal light of a unique kind,” the understanding is affected by the spiritual “actions” or “movements” of reason that descends directly from God. According to Mersenne, once the intellect is “enlightened” by reason, it acts as the “torch” that influences or “trains” the will. Mersenne explains in more detail what he means by this “light of the intellect”:
This light that the will receives is not similar to the one we receive from the sun, even though we can name the intellect the sun of the soul. This is because the will is not capable of light in the way of a diaphanous body transmitting the brightness of the sun, or of an opaque body, which is reverberating and reflecting. The will is rather capable of light in a more wonderful manner, similar to the way in which imagination illuminates the sensory appetite.
For Mersenne, the will of the reader is not influenced by the intellect by means of the senses, but rather from the Augustinian “inner light of truth.” The intellect operates independently of the sensible imagination, and it is essentially in this respect that Mersenne’s publication fits within the Augustinian tradition.
It is important to note that whether or not we can actually prove Descartes read Mersenne’s spiritual exercise is really not a pressing concern. Given Descartes’s extremely close friendship with Mersenne, there is nothing very controversial in claiming that Descartes would have been aware of the basic design and approach of the Augustinian meditation tradition. Furthermore, when Descartes calls Mersenne the “godfather” of his metaphysics, allowing Mersenne to play a central role in preparing his text for publication, it is not be very hard to imagine how the two might have exchanged ideas on Descartes’s selected writing style and its philosophical significance.
Cartesian Meditation and the Cogito
The central task that remains in this paper is to outline how Descartes’s text exhibits the features of an Augustinian meditation. Following Gueroult, I believe the Meditations resemble an Augustinian spiritual exercise up through the Third Meditation; however, at the start of the Fourth Meditation, and on through to the Sixth Meditation, Descartes’s tract essentially becomes a treatise. I maintain, in particular, that Descartes’s philosophical appropriation of religious meditation primarily revolves around his presentation and discovery of the cogito. In contrast to the way the cogito is presented in the Discourse on Method, in the Meditations the cogito is discovered in a moment of intuitive insight that is preceded by a therapeutic method of doubt and a series of cognitive exercises. The function of these exercises is to disengage the mind from the senses and imagination in order to reveal the thinking-existing-self as an innate idea. Although Hatfield finds the notion of a cognitive exercise operating throughout the Meditations and instrumental for establishing a number of metaphysical truths, I suggest the devotional influence on Descartes’s metaphysics is much more limited. In this respect, I believe Descartes is best regarded as an innovator of philosophical method but not, at Hatfield’s urging, a member of the philosophical avant-garde.
In the Meditations, Descartes’s project begins with a meditative conversation with his own thoughts and continues, as Hatfield claims, with a series of cognitive exercises. As we have seen, these exercises are very similar to the practice of religious meditation, but more specifically, they are comparable to the “movements” of Mersenne’s spiritual exercise. These exercises rely on a person’s own natural powers and intellect. The exercises aim at evoking a certain type of internal experience that is realized or actualized in a moment of intuitive insight. Similar to the Augustinian tradition of meditation, the cognitive exercises of the Meditations do not elicit the use of one’s imagination, but rather require a person to turn inward to discover the clear and distinct idea of self-existence that is innate to the human mind.
Through a reflective procedure, Descartes attempts to establish a method by which his will is guided to avoid error by the intellect’s capacity to recognize clear and distinct ideas. This procedure begins with Descartes’s method of doubt that predominately takes place during the First Meditation. This portion of Descartes’s text is analogous to the therapeutic “purgative stage” of a religious meditation. Just as the exercitant of a religious meditation confronts her sinful nature and seeks the means to rid herself of fault and weakness, Descartes likewise acknowledges his imperfection and seeks a means by which to eliminate his errors. Descartes is not concerned with the imperfect moral condition of his soul, but rather with the certitude of his knowledge. The dream thought experiment in the First Meditation serves as an example in which Descartes confronts the unreliability of his own sensory experience. Although often referred to as the “dream argument,” this part of Descartes’s text is less of an argument than it is an example of a mental exercise whereby the narrator is engaged in an examination of his own thoughts. The same holds true for the “deceiving God argument.” When the logical truths of mathematics and geometry are undermined, Descartes does not present a set of formal theses, but rather is involved in his own meditative conversation.
The purging skepticism of the First Meditation leads us up to what we might call Descartes’s “illuminative stage” in the Second Meditation. In this stage of his cognitive exercise, Descartes discovers an indubitable idea: the cogito. The cogito is conferred as a “simple intuition of the mind” or a “spontaneous and self-evident truth.” As Descartes himself tells us, it is not meant to be argued in the form of a syllogism, but rather is exemplified to the intellect in a moment of intuitive insight. In the Second Set of Replies, he writes:
And when we become aware that we are thinking things, this is a primary notion which is not derived by means of any syllogism. When someone says “I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist,” he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind.
The cogito, therefore, is not a proposition to be argued, but rather a truth to be discovered. The idea of the thinking-existing-self is arrived at in a moment of meditative intuition. This idea is innate to the mind of the meditator and can only be uncovered after a person proceeds through a series of mental exercises that lead the mind away from the senses. When we consider the purgative stage as a necessary procedure in order to realize the “clear and distinct” idea of the existing-self, the cogito is then properly demonstrated or “exemplified” to the intellect. In the same manner in which we might draw the three lines of a triangle on a blackboard to teach a young child what a triangle is, Descartes teaches the cogito. That is to say, he leads the reader through the experience of a series of mental exercises as a process in which the reader can discover a particular metaphysical truth. Just as the child learns the idea of a triangle by experiencing the process in which the triangle is constructed, the reader of the Meditations learns the self-evident truth of the intellect by experiencing the process in which self-existence is experienced through intuition.
For Descartes, the cogito establishes a beginning that allows the rest of his metaphysical system to fall into place. The cogito is the starting point from which he can derive a foundation of certain knowledge for mathematics and science. It is an instance of a clear and distinct idea that he is able to use to grasp other innate ideas that lie immanent in the mind (e.g., the existence of God and extension as the essence of bodies). In fact, the cogito serves as the standard or criterion from which he can judge all of his ideas. Once Descartes proves the existence of God and can trust that he is not systematically deceived (Third Meditation), then the standard of clearness and distinctness becomes the basis in which he can determine the truth and falsity of all his ideas (Fourth Meditation). Just as in religious meditation, where the will of the exercitant is influenced by an internal experience to achieve a predetermined goal, the experience of the cogito allows Descartes to influence his will to achieve absolutely certain knowledge.
The devotional quality of Descartes’s Meditations comes to an end, however, at the conclusion of the Third Meditation. Descartes’s closing comments on the contemplation of God, in particular, signal the final “unitive stage” of his philosophical cognitive exercise. These comments represent a significant change of focus and strategy within the text. After it is established that a non-deceiving God exists, the cogito takes on a different function and justification. Prior to establishing God’s existence, the cogito really only stands as a clear and distinct idea during the moment of its intuitive discovery. Without God to guarantee its status a metaphysical first principle, the cogito has a very limited scope. However, at the close of the Third Meditation, after Descartes proves God’s existence, the cogito and the idea of an existing-benevolent-God serve as axiomatic basic beliefs in Descartes’s philosophical system. In this respect, at least on Gueroult’s suggestion, Cartesian metaphysics takes the form of an ordered system of metaphysical truths, where one set of facts purportedly follow from another.
On Hatfield’s interpretation, Descartes utilizes cognitive exercises throughout the Meditations to establish not only the cogito, but other metaphysical truths, such as “the apprehension of thought as something known independently of the body, the idea of a benevolent Supreme Being, [and] the pure conception of extension without attendant sensory qualities.” Although this is an interesting suggestion, and may even serve to rescue Descartes from some of the standard complaints raised against his metaphysical arguments, there are at least two reasons to question Hatfield’s liberal extension of the technique. First, there is an important sense in which the discovery of the cogito is tied to the first person perspective in a way that the discoveries of other metaphysical truths are not. That is to say, the content of cogito relies on a self-initiated epistemic process, in a very precise manner, where the performative demonstration of doubting one’s own existence is what causally brings about the intuitive experience of the cogito (itself). The epistemic discoveries of other innate ideas, in contrast, if they are the result of meditative-type cognitive exercise, have no obvious connection with a first person performative demonstration. If there is intuitive knowledge of other innate ideas resulting from a cognitive exercise, as Hatfield seems to suggest, it is unclear who or what is responsible for bringing those ideas about in the mind of the meditator. Whereas the cogito is plausibly self-caused through the right meditative experience, it is difficult to see, short of divine intervention, how the content of any other innate idea must materialize for the meditator from a specific type of mental exercise.
A second reason to question Hatfield’s suggestion that cognitive exercises play a fundamental role throughout all the Meditations has to do with Descartes’s philosophical conservatism. The idea here is that as radical and revolutionary as Descartes’s philosophical agenda appears in hindsight, it is important to be mindful of the delicate balance Descartes was trying to strike in his own day between novelty and tradition. Although openly hostile to scholastic Aristotelianism in many of his letters, it is often surprising to see how little Descartes was actually willing to deviate from the details of the philosophical status quo. Some commentators have suggested, in a somewhat different context, that Descartes was only willing to deviate from scholastic authorities as much as he needed to in order to fulfill the demands of his mechanical/mathematical physics. In a similar manner, therefore, I am skeptical that Descartes would really want to rely too much on the devotionallike practice of cognitive exercise as a method of epistemic discovery throughout the entire text of his metaphysics. Whereas the philosophical demands of the cogito (I argue) license a limited and exacting use of cognitive exercise, anything more simply seems too radical and out of character for Descartes.
Although he does not explicitly say so, I suspect part of the reason why Hatfield wants to claim that the Meditations contain cognitive exercises throughout the entire work (i.e., beyond Meditation Three) is because of the sectional divisions that comprise the work itself. After all, the chapter divisions of Descartes’s work are arranged into six consecutive “meditations,” not three. However, in response to this point, it is perhaps important to note that during the seventeenth century the term ‘meditation’ (meditatio) was not exclusively reserved for religious and devotional works. Although Descartes appears to be unique in how he borrows and transforms the features of the Augustinian tradition of religious meditation for the purpose of presenting his cogito, it is important to note that there were other authors during the seventeenth century, some even publishing before 1641, who employed a notion of meditation disengaged from a religious context. Notable research by Peter Dear, for example, points to several authors of scholastic textbooks who employ a philosophical or secular sense of the notion “meditation.” For these authors, meditation simply meant purposeful thinking or a method for informal reasoning. That Descartes himself might be adopting this additional sense of meditation in his Meditations is certainly not out of the question.
Ironically, perhaps, the one feature of Descartes’s text that seems to have prompted scholars to investigate the possible connection with religious devotional genre (viz. its sectional divisions labeled ‘Meditations’) turns out to be not what is so distinctively devotional about his text after all. The important insight that Dear’s research introduces into our discussion is that Descartes’s use of ‘meditation’ (as a term) is neither exceptionally novel nor very far from the ordinary. Although much of our attention in this article has been focused on religious meditation and the different ways in which Descartes borrows and transforms the conventions of the Augustinian tradition, the philosophical sense of meditation as employed within scholastic textbooks undoubtedly provides another dimension in which to evaluate Descartes’s text. The scholastic notion of meditation is not in itself a collection of literary devices or a formalized procedure; however, it does seem to capture or rather resemble the way in which Descartes uses the term in his “Preface to the Reader,” where he writes: “I would not urge anyone to read this book except those who are able and willing to meditate seriously with me.”
Perhaps the best way to understand the meditational quality of Descartes’s Meditations is to think of ‘meditation’ as a notion or term that requires a person/ reader to consciously engage in a certain process or activity. On the one hand, Descartes text is meditational in the Augustinian sense in how it leads the reader through a series of cognitive exercises that direct the mind away from the senses. Insofar as this meditative process leads to the intuitive experience of the cogito, Descartes’s text exhibits a religious devotional influence. And yet on the other hand, Descartes’s text is meditational in the philosophical or scholastic sense of the term in how it reveals a process in which the reader can autonomously discover certain metaphysical truths. Both senses of meditation are important to a philosophical understanding of Descartes’s ideas, and each can be seen operating within his text.
In conclusion, my primary focus in this article has been to suggest how Descartes’s direct engagement with the religious devotional genre was most likely mediated through Mersenne, and perhaps other Christian Apologists, such as Jean de Silhon, rather than the Jesuits or Parisian Oratorians. My central insight has been that Descartes was not particularly original in either his philosophical appropriation of religious devotional technique or in the way he wanted to establish the thinking-existing-self (cogito) as a basic or fundamental truth. However, what does appear to be original in Descartes is how he isolates the epistemic experience of a performative spiritual exercise, as it is specifically practiced in the Augustinian meditative tradition, to establish the cogito as a self-initiated intuitive fact.