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1 The methodology of the
Meditations: tradition
and innovation
Descartes intended to revolutionize seventeenth-century philosophy
and science. But first he had to persuade his contemporaries of the
truth of his ideas. Of all his publications, Meditations on First
Philosophy is methodologically the most ingenuous. Its goal is to
provoke readers, even recalcitrant ones, to discover the principles of
“first philosophy.” The means to its goal is a reconfiguration of traditional
methodological strategies. The aim of this chapter is to display
the methodological stratagem of the Meditations. The text’s method
is more subtle and more philosophically significant than has generally
been appreciated.
Descartes’ most famous work is best understood as a response to
four somewhat separate philosophical concerns extant in the seventeenth
century. The first section describes these. The second section
discusses how Descartes uses and transforms them. A clearer sense of
theMeditations’methodological strategy provides a better understanding
of exactly how Descartes intended to revolutionize seventeenth century
early modern methodology: tradition
and innovation
In order to understand the methodological brilliance of the Meditations,
we need to recognize both its continuity and discontinuity
with earlier philosophical traditions and its clear-headed response to
difficulties of the period. Scholars have long noted Descartes’
Augustinianism, skepticism, anti-Aristotelianism, Platonism, and
interest in the tradition of religious meditation. For each of these
traditions, a strong argument has been made that it was a main
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inspiration for his thought.2 In fact, Descartes borrowed heavily from
all of them. This should not come as a surprise. The early seventeenth
century is teeming with philosophical options from which philosophers
casually borrowed and whose boundaries were porous. Like so
many of his contemporaries, Descartes picked and chose ideas that
suited his purpose at the moment, blending them together to solve
the problem at hand.
In this section, I survey the traditions that formed Descartes’
intellectual milieu and from which he drew. They help us see the
Meditations as traditional and innovative. They are as follows.
The Search for Stability
The Europe of Descartes’ youth was a period of religious, political,
and philosophical instability. It contained a startling array of philosophical
options and eager zealots passionately arguing against one
another. The Protestant reformers had splintered into warring factions,
and the Counter-Reformation was in full swing. The period is
packed with people bemoaning the falsities and misunderstandings
around them while claiming the power of truth.3 The English philosopher
and statesman Francis Bacon exemplifies this attitude. In an
essay published in 1597, entitled “Of Truth,” he discusses “the
Difficultie, and Labour, which Men take in finding out of Truth.”
He warns that falsities and lies corrupt the mind when they “sinketh”
and “setleth in it.” But he avers that despite the human capacity for
“depraved Judgments, and Affections, yet Truth which onely doth
judge it self, teacheth, that the Inquirie of Truth, which is the Lovemaking,
or Wooing of it” and the understanding “of Truth, which is
the Presence of it, . . . is the Sovereign Good of human Nature.”
Indeed, “no pleasure is comparable, to the standing, upon the vantage
ground of Truth.”4
Descartes was willing to use any material at hand to create, in Bacon’s
words, a “vantage ground” for truth. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century
humanists had often woven together quotations and ideas explicitly
drawn from ancient philosophical schools and many believed that,
whatever their apparent differences, these traditions could be made
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to cohere.5 It is no wonder that, by the early seventeenth century, the
boundaries of philosophical schools had become porous and sectarian
categories unclear.
Descartes insists that he does not intend to build his system
explicitly out of the ideas of Plato or Aristotle. He makes this point
in The Search for Truth: “I hope too that the truths I set forth will not
be less well received for their not being derived from Aristotle or
Plato” (AT 10: 498). But this attitude toward the explicit use of
ancient ideas is consistent with drawing heavily from the rich philosophical
traditions available to him. Descartes suggests as much
when he explains,
everything in my philosophy is old. For as far as principles are concerned,
I only accept those which in the past have always been common ground
among all philosophers without exception, and which are therefore the
most ancient of all. Moreover, the conclusions I go on to deduce are already
contained and implicit in these principles, and I show this so clearly as to
make it apparent that they too are very ancient, in so far as they are naturally
implanted in the human mind. (Letter to Father Dinet, AT 7: 580)6
The main point I want to make here in relation to Descartes is that
Platonism was ubiquitous in the early modern period. Because
Platonist doctrines were interpreted in radically different ways in
the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries and because
early modern thinkers were happy to combine ideas from diverse
sources, the task of identifying and then tracing the divergent paths
of Platonism through the period is virtually impossible. The designation
‘Platonism’ is frustratingly vague although various strands and
loosely connected doctrines can be associated with the term.7 With
this vagueness in mind,we can turn to the “Platonisms” of Descartes’
intellectual milieu. They derive from three main sources.
First, when the Aristotelian Latin texts and ideas were imported to
Europe from the Arab world in the thirteenth century, they were
steeped in Platonism. Scholasticism resulted from the blending of
Platonized Aristotelianism and medieval Christianity, which itself
had Platonist roots. Thus, despite the philosophical subtlety of scholastic
thinkers and despite their commitment to the Philosopher,
they unknowingly promulgated a wide range of Platonist ideas,
about the soul, the intellect, and the relation between the divinity
and the world.8
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Asecondmajor source of earlymodern Platonismis Augustinianism.
The philosophy of Augustine laid the groundwork for medieval
Christianity in the fifth century and set the stage for the reformations
of Christianity that occurred a thousand years later.9 Luther himself
emphasized the importance and profundity of Augustine’s thought, as
did Counter-Reformation theologians. For example, the important
French Catholic Antoine Arnaud wrote to Descartes that “the divine
Augustine” is a “man of the most acute intellect, and entirely admirable
not only in theology but also in philosophical matters.”10 When early
modern reformers and Catholic counter-reformers turned to Augustine
for inspiration, they were absorbing Platonist ideas.
Italian Renaissance thinkers who translated and interpreted Plato’s
works constitute the third source for early modern Platonism. At the
beginning of the fifteenth century, few thinkers in the Latin west had
access to more than a couple of Plato’s dialogues;11 by the end of the
century, thanks to Marsilio Ficino’s translations and editions, all of
“the divine Plato’s” workswere in print.12 Not only did Ficino produce
the first Latin translation of Plato, his commentaries and interpretations
form the materials for all of early modern Platonism. And the
awkward truth about Ficino’s Platonism is that it owes as much to
the thought of Plotinus, whose works he also translated, as to Plato
Search for a New Philosophy
In the decades leading up to Descartes’ Meditations, Europe was full
of philosophers trying to replace Aristotelianism. Whether the ideas
were based on the ancient philosophies of thinkers like Democritus,
Lucretius, and Epicurus or were newly formed, the goal was to forge a
new account of the world. Each of these competing philosophies had
to find a way to convince readers of its truth. The rhetoric was often
flamboyant. To cite one such prominent example, Galileo provokes
his readers to accept his proposals as follows:
Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually
open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first
learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.
It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are
triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly
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impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders
about in a dark labyrinth.14
This passage from The Assayer is so often quoted that it is easy to
overlook Galileo’s threat: either the reader will follow him and learn
to read the language of “the book of nature” or be forever lost in a dark
Medieval Meditations
When Descartes chose to present his first philosophy in the form of a
meditation, he was doing something provocative: he was placing
himself and his proposals in a tradition going back to Augustine’s
Confessions of 397–98 CE and announcing as much to his early
modern readers. In order to recognize the fascinating ways in which
Descartes uses and transforms the meditative discourse, we need to
know more about it. In this subsection, I summarize the meditative
tradition that began with Augustine and developed in important ways
in the late medieval and early modern period, and that formed a
crucial part of Descartes’ education.16
In Cotgrave’s French–English dictionary published in 1611, the
English given for the French meditation is: “a deep consideration,
careful examination, studious casting, or devising of things in the
mind.”17 The history of Christianity contains an evolving set of
spiritual exercises where the point is to acknowledge the divinity
deep within oneself and devise a mental process to find it.18 For
many Christians, the underlying assumption is that we must learn
how to turn our attention away from ourselves and on to God. In a
striking passage, the Gospel of Mark has Jesus claim: “If any want to
become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their
cross and follow me.”19 For Paul and many other early Christians, our
sinful nature makes this turning to God impossible without the
direct help of Jesus Christ. Paul summarizes the point succinctly:
“just as sin came into the world through one man,” so “through the
one man, Jesus Christ,” we “receive the abundance of grace” so that
we might be “set free” from sin (Romans 5: 12–17; 6: 7).
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) is the single most influential meditator
in the history of philosophy. Deeply moved by the epistemological
pessimism of Paul, the Confessions contains the remarkable
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story of his decades-long effort to find ultimate truth and attain
enlightenment. After years of struggle, Augustine realized that his
corrupt nature could not find enlightenment on its own: “But from
the disappointment I suffered I perceived that the darknesses of my
soul would not allow me to contemplate these sublimities.”20
Rather, “wretched humanity” will remain in darkness without the
direct help of Jesus Christ. As this radical epistemological claim is
put in the Gospel of Matthew, “no one knows the Father except the
Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew,
11: 27). For hundreds of years after Augustine, the direct help of
Jesus was considered a requisite for knowledge of the most significant
truths about God and the human soul. Only when such divine help
was conferred on the believer could there be the right “turning
around” or conversion. Spiritual exercises developed to encourage
self-improvement and increase the chances of attaining divine help.
Their point was to teach meditators how to “take up the cross” and
ready themselves for illumination. For the vast majority of medieval
Christians, the final step in self-improvement required the intervention
of Jesus Christ.
After generations of meditative practices based loosely on
Augustinian ideas, the twelfth century witnessed a flourishing of
systematic meditative treatises. Written from the first-person perspective,
these spiritual exercises contain detailed steps about how to
prepare to receive divine help.21 The author of such a meditation
counsels the creation of a receptive state of mind through prayer
and/or attention to one’s unworthy soul and then makes precise
recommendations on how, when, and where to meditate. The main
point is usually to learn to identify with Christ, especially with his
sufferings, and to avoid temptations, demonic and otherwise. The
striking thing about these “affective meditations” is that, as a recent
study shows, they “ask their readers to imagine themselves present
at scenes of Christ’s suffering and to perform compassion for that
suffering victim in a private drama of the heart.” These writings “had
serious, practical work to do: to teach their readers, through iterative
affective performance, how to feel.”22
This tradition of spiritual meditation developed in close proximity
with the rise of scholasticism. Meditative exercises absorbed philosophical
terms and nuance. Authors came to explicate meditative
steps in terms of the faculties of memory, imagination, intellect, and
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will. The faculty of imagination became particularly important in
affective meditations, where the goal was to imagine the emotional
reality ofChrist’s sufferings as vividly as possible so as to elicit the right
affect. Somemeditations contain instructions for howtomeditate over
a short period of time; others would be used throughout a year.
Early Modern Meditations
The Reformation changed the course of meditative practices. After
the reformers rejected the sanctity of saints and demanded a reconsideration
of their role in spiritual life, there was a general reconsideration
of meditative practices. The Catholic theologians at the Council
of Trent (1545–1564), in the words of one scholar, “shaped new models
of spiritual accomplishment.”23 Before the Reformation, saints
were considered to be direct interveners in the lives of believers.
Believers prayed to saints for help. After Trent, saints became paragons
of spirituality, offering lessons on how to live a proper life.
Against the Protestant reformers who took Biblical study to be a
sufficient means to salvation, Catholic meditations used saints as
In this context, it is not surprising that sixteenth-century spiritual
leaders offered imaginative reformulations of spiritual exercises.
The Catholic church moved quickly to canonize post-Reformation
spiritual advisers like Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) and Teresa
of Ávila (also called ‘Teresa of Jesus’ (1515–1582)). Ignatius himself
grounded the proper religious life in an education that included a
rigorous pedagogy mixed with meditative exercises. The Jesuits
founded schools and universities around the world including
the one Descartes attended in La Flèche. During Descartes’ youth,
Teresa of Ávila was enormously popular for her humble and
poignant reflections on the proper Christian life and the means to
As this brief history of post-Augustinian meditations suggests, it
has dramatic phases and moving parts. The popularity of new spiritual
exercises and the Catholic commitment to the role of saints in
spiritual development inspired hundreds of early modern meditative
manuals. To be sure, the traditional spiritual exercise persisted, but
there quickly developed variations on that tradition and many new
meditative modes, including many written by Protestants. In order to
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discern the rhetorical subtlety in Descartes’ Meditations on First
Philosophy, it is important to see it as a clever negotiation of this
diverse literary landscape.26
I would like to offer a few brief examples of that diversity. The
meditations summarized here represent the heterogeneity of early
seventeenth-century meditative options. For our purposes, the most
important differences among early modern meditations are in the
goal of the exercise, the faculties and other elements that contribute
to that goal, the power of demons to distract from it, and the role of
the author in relation to the reader and to God.
I begin with an early seventeenth-century commentary on a canonical
medieval meditation on the passions of Christ. The English title
of the work expresses a good deal about its goal: Saint Bernard, his
Meditations: or Sighes, Sobbes, and Teares, upon our Saviours [sic]
Passion. The text contains a translation of major parts of Bernard of
Clairvaux’s (1090–1153) twelfth-century meditation, but it doesmore
than that. “To the Reader” explains: “these divine and comfortable
Meditations on the Lords Passion, and Motives to Mortification . . .
[are] selected out of the workes of S. Bernard, and other ancient
Writers, not verbally turned into English, but augmented with such
other Meditations, as it pleased God to infuse into my minde.”27 As a
divinely inspired commentary on Biblical passages about the passions,
relying on earlier Christian canonical writings, the work is
full of direct proclamations to God and to the soul: “Learn therefore
(oh my soule) to imitate the blessed Savior.”28 The book’s goal is to
engage the reader to meditate on the sacrifice and sufferings of Christ
in order that the reader’s soul might learn to imitate him.
In 1607, Antonius Dulcken published a book entitled A Golden
Book, On Meditation and Prayer, which is an edition and translation
(into Latin) of an important Spanish work by Pedro de Alcántara (1515–
82). The latter had become famous in the late sixteenth century partly
because he had been the spiritual adviser to Teresa of Ávila and partly
because hewas frequently seen to levitate in his cell. He was canonized
in 1669. Pedro de Alcántara’s Meditations nicely captures the point of
many affective meditations: “Meditation is nothing other than the
means to use our imagination to make ourselves present. . . in the life
and passion of Christ.”29 But Pedro de Alcántara also emphasizes the
role of the intellect, acknowledging that some “meditations require
the intellect more.”30 The Dedicatory Letter that Dulcken wrote for
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his edition exemplifies the Tridentine emphasis on saintly lives and an
underlying epistemological optimism based on them. He explains that
all people contain “the seeds of virtue in our souls,” which only need to
be properly nourished. Because saints have “supernatural affections,”
they encourage human hearts “to grow” in the right way.31
Carlo Scribani, a Jesuit, published a book in 1616, entitled Divine
Love. Although it has the structure and focus of a traditional meditation,
this very long and very odd work asks the reader to focus
on the passions of Christ with the goal of immortality. Scribani
concedes in his nearly 600-page work that one of the main difficulties
in igniting “the flame of divine love” is that humans are weak and
that demons provoke that weakness.32 He asks: “Where are you my
love? . . . You are not in the bread, or in the virgin milk . . . or in the
cross or the sword.”33 He insists that by focusing on the nature of
divine love, we can overcome all difficulties. He speaks erotically of
the love between Mary and Christ and between Christ and his followers.
According to Scribani, this love “inebriates us,” causes “a
stream of tears,” and “creates torrents of love.”34
A huge two-volume Meditations on the Mysteries of our Holy
Faith, published in 1636, marks a shift in the power of the intellect
and the role of education in meditative exercise. This work, by
the Spanish Jesuit, Luis de la Puente (1554–1624), is a grand and
thoroughly scholastic treatment of topics common to meditations.
For example, the second treats the “mysteries of the passions”
and the resurrection, before moving to the trinity and then to “the
most perfect attributes” of God. The text cites Aquinas and other
“Scholastic Doctors” in an attempt to give “a rational account” of
conflicting views about the mysteries. The hope here is to create a
“fount of spiritual science [scientia].”35 The frontispiece of the book
summarizes its approach: the author sits in his priestly robes with a
crucifix on one side and a pile of books on the other.
Earlymodern spiritual meditations differed significantly in terms of
points of emphasis and modes of presentation. Consider, for example,
Philipp Camerarius’ Historical Meditations of 1603. The point of this
huge, two-volume work in French, is to show that the history of
philosophy is full of diverse ways to purify “the heart” and approach
God. Camerarius’ work does not fit any of themodels usually offered of
earlymodernmeditations. It is not itself ameditation, in the sense that
it does not ask the reader to meditate, and it appears to suppose that
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we do not require God’s direct assistance in accessing fundamental
truths. Rather, it begins with the assumption that there are different
ways of coming to God and different ways of purifying one’s heart;36 it
then sets about discussing those historical figures who presented “vain
and useless efforts” and those who offered help in attaining a “true
heart.”37 Although Camerarius is critical of many philosophers, he
compliments many others, including non-Christians. From “Greek
sages” to Cicero and beyond, he acknowledges that “pagan” thinkers
were able to understand the right approach to virtue. Within a few
pages, he quotes Homer, Augustine, and the Emperor Justinian in
evaluating their views.38 There is a chapter on the “virtues and vices
of the ancient Romans.”39 For our purposes, it is important that he
offers a thorough analysis of Plato’s cave allegory. Camerarius is particularly
concerned to note that this famous story from Book VII of the
Republic proves how easily people remain in “false opinion and vain
The books described here represent only a small sample of the
range of meditations published between 1603 and 1639.41 My intention
is to show that, although the tradition of spiritual mediation
persisted well into the seventeenth century, there was a great variation
among them and that post-Reformation Europe developed new
meditative modes.
When Descartes entered the Jesuit school La Flèche in 1606, at the
age of ten, his Jesuit teachers (and the professorswho had trained those
teachers) were thoroughly educated in this diverse meditative culture.
As part of his education, Descartes would have studied Jesuit classics
like Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and very likely the works of Teresa of
Ávila, which were extremely popular in the period. When Descartes
was composing his Meditations in the final years of the 1630s, he was
fully aware of this complicated context. It is noteworthy that the
French translation of the Meditations that appeared in 1647 had the
title Les méditations métaphysiques de René Descartes. Subsequent
French editions also gave it the title Metaphysical Meditations.42
Descartes’ Meditations was written to revolutionize seventeenthcentury
philosophy and science. Section 1 described four methodological
traditions extant in the early seventeenth century. In order to
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forge his revolution, Descartes needed to respond to each of these. Some
he used; others he transformed. It is time to consider how.
The Search for Stability: Meditation and Reorientation
We have noted the religious, political, and philosophical instability
of the early seventeenth century. Philosophers were eager to cast
aside the lies that “corrupt” the mind in order to find, in Bacon’s
words, “the vantage ground of Truth.” But as Bacon also admits
such “finding out of the Truth” requires “Difficultie, and Labour.”
In his Meditations, Descartes encourages his readers to do this
labor. The traditional spiritual meditation demanded that readers
shift attention from themselves to a greater and greater identification
with Christ. To return to the Gospel of Mark, the meditators
learn to “deny themselves and take up their cross” so that they shed
“the world” and gain “their soul” (Mark 8: 34, 36). This reorientation
of the self requires practice and a willingness to reconsider
one’s world.
As we have seen, beginning with Augustine’s Confessions and
persisting through the early seventeenth century, the main goal of
spiritual meditation is a reorientation of the self so that the exercitant
is prepared for illumination. The means to this goal is a series of
intensive meditative exercises. The assumption is that, if the meditator
becomes properly reoriented, then the chances of divine illumination
are greatly increased. As we have also seen, there are
differences in the roles and significance assigned to the meditator’s
memory, intellect, will, and imagination, but the assumption
remains that only by identifying with Christ and experiencing his
love will illumination occur.
One of the most rhetorically stunning features of Meditations on
First Philosophy is that it frames the search for metaphysical truths in
meditative terms. For his seventeenth-century readers, Descartes’ title
itself would imply three things about their task: they would have to
struggle to reorient their relation to themselves as experiencers of the
world; they should expect such reorientation to be difficult and require
rest along theway; and they could hope for illumination if they properly
applied themselves. The meditative framework for the “first philosophy”
prepares readers to be thoroughly changed. It is a brilliant way to
prepare them for a revolution.
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The Meditations as a meditation: steps in reorientation
Descartes’ Meditations both uses the meditative tradition and transforms
it in important ways. It is now time to explain how. In hermost
important work, Interior Castle, Teresa of Ávila describes one of the
main elements in spiritual illumination in terms roughly similar to
those of the Meditations. She explains that although we begin with “a
distracted idea of our own nature,” the goal is “a notably intellectual
vision, in which it is revealed to the soul how all things are seen in
God.”43 Descartes’ Meditation One creates “a distracted idea” of
one’s self, which the meditator confronts in Meditation Two. In
Meditations Three through Five, the meditator is lead to more and
more notable instances of “intellectual vision.”
It will be helpful to list the standard elements of meditative exercises
and note how Descartes used, rejected, and transformed them.
Here are the main steps in reorientation.
step 1: desire to change. The authors of spiritual meditations
begin with the assumption that readers want to find the way to truth
and enlightenment. There is no reason to read a spiritual meditation
unless one is seeking help. Descartes can assume no such thing.
Unlike his spiritual cohorts, he has to convince his readers of
the need to meditate on “first principles” and to reorient themselves
metaphysically. In the first paragraph of Meditation One, he
famously attempts to engage his readers in the need, once in life,
“to demolish everything completely and start again right from the
foundations” (AT 7: 17). Given the familiarity of his readers with the
meditative tradition, Descartes’ rhetorical strategy here is clever.
His meditator takes a step that virtually all meditations ask their
readers to make, namely, to admit their past mistakes and in that
sense reject the foundations of their past lives.44 Like the authors of
spiritual manuals, Descartes believes that all his readers need complete
reorientation. And like them, he assumes that, although his
readers might be confused in different ways and to different degrees,
they all need to “start again.”45
step 2: doubt and demons. As we have seen, many meditations
discuss the dangers of demons. In his two-part Lives of the Saints of
1583, Alonso de Villegas writes about the ease with which demons
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lead people astray. For many authors, the only way to avoid the power
of demons is to learn to meditate properly. It is clear that Descartes
intended the skeptical arguments of Meditation One to force his
readers to doubt all of their beliefs. Scholars have long debated the
strategy of the arguments and debated their cogency. But the rhetorical
subtlety of the Meditation has not been sufficiently noticed.
Given the religious and philosophical turmoil of the period and
given the common warnings about demons, his early modern readers
must have found the deceiver argument particularly poignant.
Whether they were Catholic or Protestant, they wanted to avoid
demonic power and find a secure foundation for true beliefs. When
Descartes framed the presentation of his philosophy as a meditation
and then introduced a deceiving demon, he was both forcing his
readers into the philosophical equivalent of sinfulness and signaling
to them that he was doing so. Whatever the soundness of the demondeceiver
argument, its rhetorical force must have added to its power,
especially given recent warnings of thought-controlling demons.46
Echoing the language of Alonso de Villegas and others in the tradition,
he writes: “I will suppose therefore that . . . some malicious
demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies
in order to deceive me” (AT 7: 22). For some readers, this possibility
must have sent chills up their spine. Similarly to current
religious meditations, the warning is: struggle against demons or be
step 3: the meditating subject and the authorial voice.
In his Confessions, Augustine describes the step that must be taken
to find God:
These books [of the Platonists] served to remind me to return to my own self.
Under Your guidance I entered into the depths of my soul. . . . I entered, and
with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw the Light that never changes
casting its rays over the same eye of my soul, over my mind. . . . What I saw
was something quite, quite different from any light we know on earth . . . It
was above me because it was itself the Light that made me, and I was below
because I was made by it.47
Following Augustine, meditators assumed that the “changeable”
mind could only reach the “unchangeable” truths “by turning
towards the Lord, as to the light which in some fashion had reached
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it even while it had been turned away from him.” Thanks to God’s
intimate presence in the humanmind, humans can attain knowledge,
though only “through the help of God.”48 But even with divine help,
as he explains in Confessions, “the power of my soul . . . belongs to
my nature” and “I cannot grasp all that I am. The mind is not large
enough to contain itself.”49 Because the mind ismutable and finite, it
can never grasp the whole of its contents; with the help of God,
however, it can grasp some part of it.
As these passages from Confessions suggest, the author of spiritual
exercises often speaks directly to God to praise the divinity and to ask
for help. The spiritual adviser has attained illumination and so can
speak with authority. In the Confessions Augustine speaks only to
God, and so the advice he offers the reader is indirect. Instead of
telling his readers what to do, he shows them his life. But it is clear
that the authorial voice is that of someone who has experienced
Most late medieval and early modern spiritual meditations offer
explicit advice to their readers about how to reorient themselves. In
her Interior Castle, Teresa of Ávila constantly addresses “her sisters,”
offering them directions based on her own experience. She
frets about the obscurity of these “interior matters,” admitting to
her readers that “to explain to you what I should like is very difficult
unless you have had personal experience.”50 She asks God for help
and beseeches those who are struggling along with her: “But you
must be patient, for there is no other way in which I can explain to
you some ideas I have about certain interior matters.”51 In the end, if
her readers follow her advice, they may attain illumination.52 But
there is also a constant instability in the process of spiritual development.
Teresa is clear about the precariousness of the journey to
enlightenment because its success depends entirely on God’s support.
She writes: “whenever I say that the soul seems in security,
I must be understood to imply for as long as His Majesty thus holds it
in His care and it does not offend him.” Even after years of practice,
one must “avoid committing the least offence against God.”53 Teresa
insists in My Life that the soul can never trust in itself because as
soon as it is not “afraid for itself” it exposes “itself to dangers.” It
must always be fearful.54 For Teresa and for many other meditators,
there is never real spiritual security, and so there must be constant
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Like Teresa, Descartes’ meditator has to have an intellectual
vision. Like Augustine and the spiritual exercises inspired by his
Confessions, Descartes’ truth-seeker must begin his journey to illumination
by learning “to return to my own self.” As he writes in
Meditation Two: “But I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of
what this ‘I’ is” (AT 7: 25). But the authorial voice of theMeditations
differs significantly fromthat of spiritual meditators. Descartes’ meditator
has no idea of where the journey will lead or how the demon
deceiver will be overcome. In an Augustinian mode, Descartes shows
his reader a process of struggling toward illumination. But unlike
the speaker of the Confessions, the speaker of the Meditations is not
yet enlightened. While Descartes himself has clearly devised his
first philosophy, the meditator does not let on that there is a clear
path to illumination. At the beginning of Meditation Two, he writes:
“It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which
tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom now
swim to the top . . . I will proceed in this way [continuing to doubt my
beliefs] until I recognize something certain, or, if nothing else, until
I at least recognize that there is no certainty” (AT 7: 24). To the reader,
the authorial voice seems much more humble: it begins in confusion,
turns to despair, and then moves only slowly to clarity.55 And, in the
end, it is much more optimistic: the meditative journey implies
that any human being who takes the steps described will attain illumination.
Unlike Augustine and his followers who restrict human
knowledge to a mere part of the truth, and unlike Teresa and others
who suggest that illumination does not effect stability, Descartes’
meditator is able to grasp the entirety of “first philosophy” once
and for all. Compared to the instability of religious illumination,
Descartes’ promise of certainty must have seemed appealing. And
because his meditator moves from confusion to certainty, Descartes’
readers might have felt more optimistic about their own struggle.
step 4: the arduous journey. The reorientation of the self in
spiritual exercises takes time and effort. It is no wonder that the
meditative journey is slow and arduous. Many early modern spiritual
advisers preach the development of discipline, which they often
explicate in terms of the faculties of memory, intellect, and will.
The acquisition of such discipline requires brief periods of intense
attention and must be punctuated with periods of rest. Given the
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fickleness of human attention, one has to develop the capacity to
concentrate and then practice what was learned.
Descartes’ Meditations has all these features. Concerning discipline
and rest, each of the first three Meditations constitutes a breakthrough
that leaves the meditator discombobulated and in need of
rest.56 The end of Meditation One displays an attitude common in the
discourse of spiritual exercise, namely, the fear of backsliding and
inescapable darkness: “I happily slide back into my old opinions and
dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may
be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil
not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems
I have now raised” (AT 7: 23).
Like his early modern predecessors, Descartes’ meditation also
involves the redirection of the intellect, the proper application of
memory, and the strengthening of the will. For example, Meditation
Two concludes with a standard insistence: “But since the habit of
holding on to old opinions cannot be set aside so quickly, I should like
to stop here and meditate for some time on this new knowledge I have
gained, so as to fix it more deeply in my memory” (AT 7: 34). In
Meditation Four, the meditator realizes that in order “to avoid
error,” he must remember “to withhold judgement on any occasion
when the truth of the matter is not clear” (AT 7: 62). Then, echoing a
common sentiment about the weakness of will and the human propensity
to error, he acknowledges:
Admittedly, I am aware of a certain weakness in me, in that I am unable to
keep my attention fixed on one and the same item of knowledge at all times;
but by attentive and repeated meditation I am nevertheless able to make
myself remember it as often as the need arises, and thus get into the habit of
avoiding error. (Ibid.)
I have noted that earlymodernmeditations began to highlight the role
of the intellect. In the next section, I argue that the “pure” intellectualism
of the Meditations owes more to Platonism than do standard
spiritual meditations. But it is worth noting here that, by the end of
Meditation Five, Descartes is willing to state: “if there is anything
which is evident to my intellect, then it is wholly true” (AT 7: 71).
step 5: illumination. The main point of spiritual exercises is to
be illumined. The authors who talk about illumination differ in their
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accounts, but a common assumption is that the experience involves a
full recognition of the beauty and love of God. One is taken by that
love and changed accordingly. As we have seen, Francis Bacon avers:
“no pleasure is comparable, to the standing, upon the vantage ground
of Truth.” For many early modern philosophers, whether Protestant
or Catholic, there is a close relation between truth, love, and pleasure.
Teresa describes her experience of God as “absolutely irresistible . . .
It comes, in general, as a shock, quick and sharp . . . and you see and
feel it as a cloud, or a strong eagle rising upwards, and carrying you
away on its wings.”57 We will discuss the illumination that occurs in
the Meditations in the next section. For now, the relevant point is
that although Descartes appropriates much of the language and
imagery of Christian spirituality, he has dropped all talk of divine
love. He mentions the beauty of God at the end of Meditation Three,
but it does not function as a motivating force or even an attraction.
Descartes’ account of illumination differs significantly from the tradition
in that it is virtually devoid of affect.
But it is also easier to attain than the tradition allowed. Although
Descartes recognizes that the path to illumination will not always be
easy, he is committed to the view that proper meditation will lead to
insight. In Second Replies, he acknowledges that for those who have
“opinions which are obscure and false, albeit fixed in the mind by
long habit,” it may be hard to become accustomed “to believing in
the primary notions.” But he insists:
Those who give the matter their careful attention and spend time meditating
with me will clearly see that there is within us an idea of a supremely
powerful and perfect being . . . I cannot force this truth on my readers if they
are lazy, since it depends solely on their exercising their powers of thought.
(AT 7: 135–36)
In the end, however, those who are not lazy and who practice will be
properly illumined.
Transforming Platonism
Section 1 listed the three main sources of Platonism in early modern
thought: scholasticism, Augustinianism, and the Plotinian Platonism
promulgated by Ficino. Although there is no reason to believe
that Descartes ever made any thing like a thorough study of Plato’s
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philosophy, his education would have given him a familiarity
with Platonist ideas from these three sources. A Jesuit secondary
school education in the seventeenth century retained a pedagogy
structured around scholastic textbooks, with special attention paid
to the thought of Aquinas. Scholars have long noted the Platonist
ideas in the writings of Aquinas, whose popularity had increased
in the Counter-Reformation. He became a pillar of the new Jesuit
order after its formation in 1540 and was declared a “Doctor of the
Universal Church” by Pope Pius V in 1567.58 Descartes’ Jesuit education
also contained huge amounts of Augustinianism. As we
have seen, the medieval tradition of spiritual meditation grew out
of Augustine whose ideas inspired early modern Reformers and
Catholics alike.59 Concerning the Platonism promulgated by Ficino
and other humanists, it is unlikely that Descartes’ secondary education
required a study of Plato’s works, but his teachers were familiar
with Platonism, and their textbooks would have included Platonist
Given the ubiquity of Platonism in early modern Europe, it is not
surprising that Descartes appropriates Platonist ideas. Some of these
bear a close resemblance to Augustinian sources; others suggest non-
Augustinian Platonist roots. For example, elements in the epistemological
journey described in Meditations Two, Three, and Five bear a
striking similarity to Plato’s cave allegory. In Book VII of the
Republic, when the truth-seeker escapes his chains and turns from
the shadows, he looks with difficulty at the fire in the cave. Once he
accustoms himself to the fire’s illumination, he moves with difficulty
to the entrance of the cave, where he is nearly blinded by the sun’s
brightness. He slowly becomes accustomed to that light until he is
able to gaze upon the sun and see the realities it so beautifully
illuminates. In Plato’s words, once the truth-seeker “is able to
see . . . the sun itself,” he can “infer and conclude that the sun . . .
governs everything in the visible world, and is . . . the cause of all the
things that he sees” (516b). In The Republic, the epistemological
moral is that the truth-seeker is able to grasp the Good itself and see
how it is “the cause” of everything else.61
What makes the Meditations so clever is that it uses all of these
traditions to suit Descartes’ particular needs. On the one hand, as we
have seen, he explicitly models his work on Christian spiritual meditations.
On the other, he replaces an essential feature of those
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exercises with exercises that are devoted to “the pure deliverances of
the intellect.”62 As we have noted, Augustinian notions of sin make
divine intervention a requisite for illumination. Descartes ignores the
standard Christian need for intervention and relies instead on a purer
form of Platonist intellectualism, according to which the intellect
needs no such help. Similar to Augustine and the Augustinian spiritual
tradition, Descartes’ journey begins with a turning “inward.” But
unlike that tradition, his meditator is able to escape the shadowworld
without the aid of any divine or human source.
The narrative arc that begins with the first paragraphs of
Meditation Two and ends with the conclusion of Meditation Three
roughly parallels the steps that Plato’s cave-dweller takes: it begins
with disorientation and confusion, moves to a first glimpse into the
nature of things (the nature of mind and body), followed by the
dramatic moment when the ultimate reality is apprehended. Plato’s
truth-seeker sees the light of the sun at the edge of the cave;
Descartes’ has his first glimpse of God. Neither needs divine help.
At the end of Meditation Three, Descartes neatly combines elements
drawn from religious meditations with those of the Platonist
tradition to create a dramatic epistemological shift. Although the
argument for the existence of God occupies much of Meditation
Three, its conclusion strongly suggests that one of the main points
of this part of the meditative exercise is to reorient the intellect so as
to recognize its cognitive range and it relation to God: “I perceive . . .
the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive
myself” (AT 7: 51). Although Descartes emphasizes the importance
of having turned his “mind’s eye” upon itself, the result is illumination.
The meditator perceives God. As a conclusion to Meditation
Three, he writes that, before “examining” this idea of God “more
carefully and investigating other truths which may be derived from it,
I would like to pause here and spend some time in contemplation of
God; . . . and to gaze with wonder and adoration on the beauty of this
immense light, so far as the eye of my darkened intellect can bear it”
(AT 7: 52).
The first paragraph of Meditation Four summarizes the lessons
drawn from the meditative enterprise: “During these past few days
I have accustomed myself to leadingmy mind away from the senses”
and recognized that “very little about corporeal things . . . is truly
perceived, whereas much more is known about the human mind, and
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still more about God” (AT 7: 52–53). As a consequence of this meditative
exercise, “I now have no difficulty in turning my mind . . .
towards things which are the objects of the intellect alone.”
Descartes is perfectly clear that it is “the human intellect” by itself
that knows these things. Looking forward toward the next phase of
meditation, he writes: “And now, from this contemplation of the true
God, in whom all treasures of wisdom and the sciences lie hidden,
I think I can see a way forward to the knowledge of other things” (AT
7: 52–53).
For seventeenth-century readers of the Meditations, this was
surely a dramatic moment. Descartes’ meditator had reached the
point of reorientation: he has escaped the shadows of doubt to attain
illumination, accomplished by his own intellectual endeavors. The
lesson is clear: the human intellect is able to make the arduous trek to
illumination entirely on its own. Descartes’ readers would have been
fully aware of the difference between this journey to illumination and
the Augustinian one. And many readers would be familiar with the
story of the cave, if not the details of Plato’s Republic.63 It seems
likely that Descartes is here cleverly engaging with these Platonist
traditions to suit his needs. By elegantly interweaving different
Platonist strands he creates something both old and revolutionary.
Reorientation and New Philosophy
The revolution that Descartes hoped to effect was primarily a scientific
one. Scholars have persuasively argued that his main concern
was to furnish the world with a science that would replace
Aristotelianism and explain “the whole of corporeal nature.”64
Descartes believes that the “establishment” of his new philosophy
would render the Aristotelian system “so absolutely and so clearly
destroyed . . . that no other refutation is needed” (“To Mersenne,
22 December 1641,” AT 3: 470). As I have noted, when he claimed
his system would replace Aristotle, he joined a chorus of early modern
voices announcing that a philosophical revolution was at hand.
But unlike most others, by the mid-seventeenth century, Descartes’
proposals had become one of the “new philosophies” that had to be
taken seriously.
The similarities between the “pure intellectualism” of Galileo in
The Assayer and that of Descartes are obvious. For both natural
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philosophers, the mind turns itself upon its concepts, reflects on
them, and discovers the truths therein contained. Also, like Galileo,
Descartes believes that if the mind does not attend to its concepts in
the right way, it will remain in a world of its own prejudices. But
Descartes goes well beyond Galileo in offering a first philosophy that
will ground his physics and doing so in a way that gradually prepares
his readers for a revolution. After the illuminations of Meditation
Five, Descartes concludes that meditative exercise by summarizing
what he has learned and preparing his readers for the science of nature
that will come:
Thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends
uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was
incapable of perfect knowledge about anything else until I became aware of
him. And now it is possible for me to achieve full and certain knowledge of
countless matters, both concerning God himself and other things whose
nature is intellectual, and also concerning the whole of that corporeal nature
which is the subject-matter of pure mathematics. (AT 7: 71)
The success of Descartes’ proposals in natural philosophy is surely
due to their innovation and explanatory power. But we should not let
their success hide the power of the Meditations’ rhetorical arc. While
it is impossible to gauge the exact contribution that its meditative
rhetoric made to its philosophical success, the methodology of reorientation
must have cushioned the blow of its proposals. In grounding
his account of nature in first principles discoverable through a
reorientation of the mind, Descartes was preparing his readers to
accept radical change.
conclus ion
The goal of this chapter is to contextualize the methodology of
Descartes’ Meditations in order to reveal the subtlety of its rhetorical
strategy. Historians have long noted the work’s brilliance and originality.
The same has not been true of the richness and finesse of its
method. I have tried to show some of the complicated ways in which
Descartes uses, ignores, and transforms traditional philosophical and
religious elements to create a work of astonishing subtlety. He negotiated
a complex philosophical landscape to set a path that would
surprise, illumine, and change his contemporaries. The Meditations
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is much more than a series of arguments. It is an attempt to reorient
the minds of its readers and ultimately to forge a revolution.65
note s
1. On the relation between Descartes’ first philosophy and concern to argue
for his natural philosophy or physics, see especially Hatfield 2003 and
Garber 1992.
2. For example, Menn 1998, chapters three and four; Broughton 2002;
Curley 1978; Garber 1986; and Schmaltz 1991, Popkin 1979, chapters
nine and ten; Hatfield 1985 and 1986.
3. For some of these, see Cunning 2010, chapter 10.
4. Bacon 2000, 7–8.
5. Mercer, 2000, 2002; Kraye and Stone 2000.
6. In this letter, Descartes describes his reaction to the Seventh Set of
Objections, written by Pierre Bourdin. The letter is to Bourdin’s superior,
Father Dinet, who had taught Descartes at La Flèche. (See CSM 2: 64–65.)
Descartes is clear that he was very concerned that this one man’s views
did not represent “the balanced and careful assessment that your entire
Society had formed of my views” (AT 7: 564).
7. It is an awkward truth about prominent Platonists that they put forward
elaborate theories that are sometimes only remotely connected to the
texts of the Athenian philosopher himself. On the heterogeneity of early
modern Platonism, see Kristeller 1979 and Mercer 2002. On the question
of what Platonism is, see Gerson 2005.
8. As the Renaissance historians Copenhaver and Schmitt 1992 have written:
“Given the quantity of Platonic material transmitted” through
Arabic authorities “or generally in the air in medieval universities, it is
not surprising that parts of Thomist metaphysics owe more to
Augustine, Proclus, or Plotinus than to Aristotle” (133).
9. Augustine himself acknowledges his Platonist sources, noting the special
importance of the thought of Plotinus. See, e.g., Augustine’s
Confessions, VII. 10 (16).
10. For the importance of Augustinianism in seventeenth-century France
and for other examples of major figures proclaiming the importance of
the “divine Augustine,” see Menn 1998, esp. 21–25.
11. Twenty-first century scholars are often surprised to discover that, despite
the importance of Platonism in medieval Europe, very few of Plato’s texts
were available. Only the Timaeus was widely available. Dialogues as
important as the Republic and Symposium had been lost and had to be
“rediscovered” in the Renaissance. OnDescartes’ relation to the Timaeus,
seeWilson 2008.
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12. Formore on this history, see Copenhaver and Schmitt 1992, esp. chapters 1
and 3.
13. Much has been written about Ficino, his thought and influence. A fine
place to begin an exploration of these topics is Allen 2002 and Garfagnini
14. The Assayer, in Drake 1957, 237–38.
15. There has been important recent work done on the “emergence” of
science. For an overview and reference to other works, see Gaukroger
2006. It is noteworthy that few of these studies discuss the role of
Platonism in the period.
16. The standard treatment of the relation between Descartes and Augustine
is Rodis-Lewis 1954. Also see Janowski 2000, and esp. Menn 1998.
17. Cotgrave 1611.
18. For an interesting comparison between ancient and early Christian
notions of self, see Barnes 2009. For an important study of religious
meditations, see Stock 2011.
19. All Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Mark 8: 34.
20. Augustine, Confessions, VII.20.26–27. Also see XIV.15.21.
21. Bennett 1982, 32.
22. McNamer 2010, 1–9. Since Bynum 1987, scholars have increasingly
discussed the gendered aspect of such meditations. For a summary, see
McNamer 2010, 3–9.
23. Leone 2010, 1.
24. Alonso de Villegas published his The Lives of Saints in 1583. On Alonso
de Villegas and the role of saints in the Counter-Reformation, see Leone
2010, 4 and passim.
25. Teresa of Ávila’s fame has hardly decreased. For the importance of her
writings to modern Spanish literature, see Du Pont 2012.
26. I agree with Rubidge that “Descartes’s Meditations do not resemble
Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises more than other devotional manuals” (28),
though I think the similarities between Descartes’ work and other early
meditations are more philosophically significant than Rubidge suggests.
For a helpful account of those manuals, the role in them of memory,
intellect, and will, and references to earlier studies, see Rubidge 1990.
27. Bernard of Clairvaux 1614, A 3r.
28. Ibid., 33.
29. Ibid, 2v.
30. Ibid, 136–37.
31. De Alcántara 1624, 2v–3r.
32. Scribani 1616, 582.
33. Ibid, 565.
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34. Ibid, 2v–4r. Scribani also published a more standard meditations. See
Scribani 1616.
35. De la Puente 1636, 3–5.
36. Camerarius 1603, 2–3.
37. Ibid, 334.
38. Ibid, 3–5.
39. Ibid, 183.
40. Ibid, 167.
41. Catholics wrote the majority of early modern meditations. But
Protestants also took up the meditative banner. For example, a famous
Lutheran theologian, Johann Gerhard (1582–1637), published a Latin
work that went through several editions and was translated into
English and German. For the English version, see Winterton 1627.
42. The first French translation is: Les méditations métaphysiques de René
Descartes. Traduites du Latin par M. le D.D.L.N.S. [i.e. Louis Charles
D’Albert de Luynes]. Et les objetions faites contre ces Meditations . . .
avec les réponses de l’Auteur. Traduites par Mr. C.L.R. [i.e. Claude
Clerselier] (Paris: Camusat), 1647.
43. Teresa, 1921, 6
th mansion, chapter 10. For a major Latin edition of her
works, which were originally in Spanish, see Teresa de Jesús 1626.
44. On the similarity between some of the steps in spiritual exercises and
those in the Meditations and on their goal of illumination, see Hatfield
1986, esp. 47–54. But the historical context is more complicated that he
suggests. Also see Rorty 1983.
45. Scholars have interpreted the rhetoric and skepticism of Meditation One
in different ways. See for example Wilson 2003 and Broughton 2002.
Cunning is very helpful in introducing the notion of the “unemended
intellect” and emphasizing the fact that Descartes’ strategy here is to
offer a means for any sort of reader (whether Aristotelian, mechanist,
atheist, or theist) to follow the method and discover the truths. See
Cunning 2010, esp. 7, 28–33, 103.
46. See Cunning 2010 and reference to other sources, 62–63, esp. 1 40.
47. Confessions VIII.10.
48. Ibid., XIV.15 (21).
49. Ibid., X.8 (15).
50. Teresa, 1921, Mansion 1, chapter 2.
51. Ibid., Mansion 1, chapter 1.
52. Ibid., Mansion 6, chapter 10.
53. Ibid., Mansion 7, chapter 2, section 13.
54. Teresa, 1904, chapter XIX, section 22.
55. See also Curley 1986, 153–57; Hatfield 1986, 69–72; and Cunning 2010,
37–43, 217–30.
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56. In a famous letter to Elisabeth of June 28, 1643, Descartes writes that one
should spend “very few hours a year on those [activities] that occupy the
intellect alone” (AT 3: 692–93).
57. Teresa, 1904, chapter X, section 3.
58. For a summary of the range of Aristotelianisms in the early modern
period, the place of Aquinas in the Counter-Reformation, and citations
to other studies, see Stone 2002.
59. Scholars have often noted the striking similarities between Descartes’
ideas and those of Augustine. The latter is also concerned with proving
that the self exists in the face of skeptical arguments. His response is
summed up in the statement “Si fallor, sum,” which is recognized to be
the distant antecedent of Descartes’ defense of the same idea. For more
on Descartes’ relation to Augustine, see Menn 1998. But despite striking
similarities between some of Augustine’s views and those of Descartes, it
is doubtful that Descartes knew Augustine’s texts very well. He denies
direct knowledge of those works and I see no reason not to take him at his
word. The similarities between his ideas and Augustine’s are easily
explained by the ubiquity of Augustinian ideas in the period. For a recent
scholar who does not take Descartes at his word, see Brachtendorf 2012.
60. Robert Black has shown that in late medieval and Renaissance secondary
schools, students learned about Plato’s cave allegory. Students also
learned, in Black’s words, the “basic doctrines of the ancient philosophical
schools,” including Plato, who was called “semi-divine and
preferred by the gods themselves” (Black 2001, 305–07).
61. For a brief discussion of the similarities between Descartes’ Meditations
and Plato’s cave allegory, see Mercer 2002, 37–39. Buckle 2007 argues for
a similar point, but seems unaware of the variety of Platonisms available
to Descartes.
62. This is language from Hatfield 1986, 47. I agree with Hatfield’s basic
point that the Meditations attempts to “evoke the appropriate cognitive
experiences in the meditator.”
63. See Black 2001, 305–07.
64. AT7:71. See also Garber 1986, 83–91.
65. I would very much like to thank David Cunning for asking me to write up
my ideas about methodological matters as they apply to the Meditations
and then offering feedback along the way. A conversation with Gideon
Manning was also very helpful. I would like to thank the Herzog August
Bibliothek for offering me a Senior Fellowship so that I could use their
wonderful library while researching early modern meditations.
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