René Descartes: Early Modern (1596–1650)

Meditationes_de_prima_philosophia_1641

MEDITATIONS

Meditation One

Of the Things of Which We May Doubt

1. Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

2. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.

3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.


A hundred years ago G.K. Chesterton wrote that man’s reliance on human reason alone had wrongly created an inverse juxtaposition of cognitive humility and individual dogmatism. In plain talk, this means truth must be held with loose hands because it can never fully be known, but people should boldly stand firm as their own moral authority. Nonsense.

As Chesterton rightly said

Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

Rather than relaying on that which is reasonable to a limited human mind, Chesterton says “The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:

Modernity gone wrong has isolated humanity and made human reason autonomous of (and dismissive toward) revelation. Descartes may not have made these errors himself, but the tendencies are there in his writings. The world he helped create also developed disrespect for human experience: if an idea could not be “proven,” then it was disreputable. The more chaotic elements of postmodern thought have been a natural counter-reaction.

Read his work critically, but not overly critically. If one wishes to abandon the modern, one cannot take for granted that one will continue to enjoy all of the good it has produced. One thing is certain: René Descartes is admirably clear, persuasive, and faithful in suggesting the direction he believes we should take.

Is Christianity reasonable?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 

 

John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.

 

D I G  D E E P E R


The Beauty of This Immense Light

THE PLACE OF GOD IN THE MEDITATIONS

Thomas Ward

The Meditations of René Descartes is probably the most widely read philosophical text in the Western world. Not only is it rich and challenging, but it’s also a work of literary brilliance. Not since Augustine’s Confessions had there been a philosophical work so personal.

Written in the first-person singular, in a nontechnical idiom (for the most part), any reader can approach the work and begin immediately to grapple with weighty problems. But its brilliance as a piece of literature is most clearly evident in the way its ideas are reinforced through its literary form. In a first-person meditation, Descartes is articulating a philosophical position that places the individual thinker—the meditator—at the logical foundations of philosophical inquiry.

Descartes reserves a prominent role for God in his philosophy, but it might seem that the pride of place is actually reserved for the individual thinker attempting to reason his way out of his solitude, with God introduced merely to ensure that the reconstruction of knowledge can proceed. Indeed, the subsequent philosophical tradition has tended to characterize Descartes’s philosophy in just this way, with him as a reluctant theist. Many echo the sentiments of his contemporary Blaise Pascal, who said, “I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God.”

Like the Confessions, however, Meditations is a God-infused book. Most readers these days overlook this fact, tending to write off the more theological aspects and to focus on the meditator’s skeptical arguments and subjective outlook. This is unfair. A proper appreciation of Descartes demands we take his theological thought seriously.

———

So, how does God enter the philosophical picture? Descartes’s fundamental philosophical goal was to discover an absolutely certain foundation of knowledge, and he thought he’d made this discovery in one three-word Latin sentence:

Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am.

(Roughly the same thought is expressed in different terms in the Meditations; this version is found in Principles of Philosophy.) The idea is that you cannot doubt your own existence, because the act of doubting presupposes that there’s something doing the doubting—the doubter.

Dissatisfied with what he’d been taught at school, Descartes set out to question everything, rejecting each belief that wasn’t certain. In the First Meditation, he walks us through a gauntlet of skeptical arguments, offering reasons for doubting our beliefs in even the most ordinary and obvious things: that there’s a physical world, that you have a body, that other people exist, that God exists, and that 2 + 2 = 4. By the close, it seems skepticism has swept everything aside, that there is nothing but “inextricable darkness.”

However, in the Second Meditation, Descartes realizes there is one thing that simply cannot be doubted: that he exists.

From this single foundation of certainty, Descartes attempts a reconstruction of all our knowledge of the world and of God. Certain at least that he is, he wonders how, if he were the only existing thing, he should have an idea of a supremely perfect, infinite Being.

He first reasons that there is no way he himself could be the source of his idea of God, that God Himself must be and must have given Descartes the idea of Himself; in his beautiful portrayal, the idea of God is “the mark of the craftsman stamped on his work.”

So, Descartes’s world has gone from one to two; first him alone in the darkness, and now him together with God. From here he reflects on God’s nature, in particular His goodness. He reasons it would be inconsistent with God’s goodness that nearly all his beliefs should be utterly false; God, he says, is not a deceiver.

If we’re sufficiently careful in our pursuit of knowledge, then, we can be assured we will reach it. With this argument, Descartes reopens the door to the external world. If we restrict ourselves to believing only those things that we can “clearly and distinctly” perceive, we will not err in our judgment.

———

Perhaps now we can see, minimally, why Pascal’s critique may not be sufficiently charitable. There definitely is a sense in which the self comes before God in Descartes’s system, but there is equally, and arguably more importantly, a sense in which God is before everything else. Let me explain.

For Descartes, the knowledge of oneself comes before the knowledge of God. I don’t mean “before” in a temporal sense, the way we might think of a child gaining self-awareness before she becomes aware of God. I do mean that in an explanation of the justification of our beliefs, knowledge of God (and of the world God has created) follows knowledge of oneself.

In the course of writing Descartes not only uses the Cogito, ergo sum argument to support his other beliefs, he also discovers some of the external conditions that make possible the activity of meditating in the first place. Most significantly, he discovers that his existence and activity must be sustained from moment to moment by God’s continual conservation. Thus, for Descartes, the existence of oneself comes after the existence of God.

We might say that Descartes set out alone to discover God but learned that God was with him in the search.

Thomas Ward is currently a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Department of Philosophy and holds an MPhil from the University of Oxford.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

Meeting Virgil: ‘There Is Another Road’ by Dante

dante-and-virgil-in-hell.jpg!LargeAs I went, ruined, rushing to that low,
there had, before my eyes, been offered one
who seemed -long silent- to be faint and dry.

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
to him I screamed my ‘miserere’: ‘Save me,
whatever – shadow or truly man – you be.’

His answer came to me: ‘No man; a man
I was in times long gone. Of Lombard stock,
my parents both by patria and Mantuan.

And I was born, though late, sub Iulio.
I lived at Rome in good Augustus’ day,
in times when all the gods were lying cheats.

I was a poet then. I sang in praise
of all the virtues of Anchises’ son. From Troy
he came ‒ proud Ilion razed in flame.

But you turn back. Why seek such grief and harm?
Why climb no higher up at lovely hill?
The cause and origin of joy shines there.’

‘So, could it be’, I answered him, (my brow,
in shy respect bent low), ‘you are that Virgil,
whose words flow wide, a river running full?

You are the light and glory of all poets.
May this serve me: my ceaseless care, the love
so great, that made me search your writings through!

You are my teacher. You, my lord and law.
From you alone I took the fine-tuned style
that has, already, brought me so much honour.

See you there? That beast! I turned because of that.
Help me ‒ your wisdom’s known ‒ escape from her.
To every pulsing vein, she brings the tremor.

Seeing my tears, he answered me: ‘There is
another road. And that, if you intend
to quit this wilderness, you’re bound to take.’

(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 61−93)

Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem


René Descartes said “The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of past centuries.”  Here, at the beginning of his quest, Dante envisions an accompanied journey with the Roman poet Virgil, to whom he says “You are my teacher.  You, my lord and law, from you alone I took the fine-tuned style that has, already, brought me so much honour.”  Let the lesson begin.

Dante was cheered by the poet’s presence, but Virgil’s message to him was corrective, not affirming: He was on the wrong road.  As Malcom Guite points out in his book The Word in the Wilderness, this is what great literature is for.  He writes:

Dante’s first encounter with Virgil is justly famous and readers of C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’ will recognize how closely his own encounter with George Macdonald, of whom Lewis could also say: ‘You are my teacher. You my lord and law’, is modelled on this passage. But all of us, probably have one particular writer of whom we could say ‘you are the one who has most found, most helped, most guided me’, For some it has been C. S. Lewis, for me it has been two very different poetic companions, one of them Dante and the other S. T. Coleridge. If you have such an author in your life, then doubtless you have fantasized about meeting them and telling them how you felt, even if they lived in another age and wrote in another language. Dante realizes that fantasy and models it for us here.

We begin today a study within a study.  This week we look to Dante’s poetry with a student’s eye.  As Malcom wrote of great literature:

It’s not an exclusive cultural acquisition, a badge of educated status, or something on which academics can hang their displays of erudition, it is there, in the words of Sidney’s Defence of poetry, ‘to delight and instruct’. First and foremost it delights, as I hope all the poetry in this anthology will do, and then it leads to truth, teaches us something worth knowing. It seems to me that both of these simple aims have been lost sight of in our age. Here is a chance to restore them.

Which great author would you choose as a journey’s companion?

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish.

 

Dig Deeper: Art, Literature & Liturgy

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.

 
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 453.

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite
Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page

Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith

 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

Art: Dante and Virgil in Hell by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

John Locke’s Argument for the Existence of God by Melissa Cain Travis

Melissa Travis
Melissa Cain Travis

John Locke (1632-1704) is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His treatise, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, discusses the limits of human knowledge in relation to a wide range of topics. In Chapter 10 of Book 4, he offers an argument for the existence of God that reminded me of the debt contemporary apologetics owes to great thinkers of the Western Tradition.

Following Descartes, Locke declares that nothing is more certain than that we ourselves exist. To doubt that we exist is to affirm that a doubter exists! Remember Decartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am”). Locke argues that from the fact of our own existence, we can demonstrate the existence of God.

This is how he proceeds:

In the next place, man knows, by an intuitive certainty, that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles….If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else.

In other words, nothing can’t produce anything–from nothing, nothing comes. All things that have come into being must be traced back to a source that has existed from eternity (if the dreaded infinite regress is to be avoided). If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is roughly the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which states: Anything that begins to exist must have a cause of its existence.

Locke goes on to explain how he believes we can deduce some of the attributes of this first cause of all being:

Next, it is evident, that what had its being and beginning from another, must also have all that which is in and belongs to its being from another too. All the powers it has must be owing to and received from the same source. This eternal source, then, of all being must also be the source and original of all power; and so this eternal Being must also be the most powerful.

He is saying that because we have some powers (abilities), our source must have powers, even greater than our own.

The final leg of his argument is what I find most interesting and relevant to the current project of apologetics. Men, he says, find themselves to be knowing, rational creatures, and from this fact we should infer that an intelligent being is our source. To materialists who would claim that there was a time in cosmic history when “no being had any knowledge,” he responds:

I reply, that then it was impossible there should ever have been any knowledge: it being as impossible that things wholly void of knowledge, and operating blindly, and without any perception, should produce a knowing being, as it is impossible that a triangle should make itself three angles bigger than two right ones. For it is as repugnant to the idea of senseless matter, that it should put into itself sense, perception, and knowledge, as it is repugnant to the idea of a triangle, that it should put into itself greater angles than two right ones.

If, nevertheless, any one should be found so senselessly arrogant, as to suppose man alone knowing and wise, but yet the product of mere ignorance and chance; and that all the rest of the universe acted only by that blind haphazard; I shall leave with him that very rational and emphatical rebuke of Tully, to be considered at his leisure: “What can be more sillily arrogant and misbecoming, than for a man to think he has a mind and understanding in him, but yet in all the universe beside there is no such thing: Or that those things, which with the utmost stretch of his reason he can scarce comprehend, should be moved and managed without any reason at all?”

(“Sillily,” as in: absurdly.) Just as it is impossible for the interior angles of a triangle to exceed a sum of 180 degrees (two right angles–yay, geometry!), so it is impossible for perception and knowledge to result from blind chance acting upon matter.

Arguments related to human reason, since Locke, have become more sophisticated, but at their root is this very idea, that it is nonsensical to propose that intelligence could ever arise from any non-intelligent source.

For further reading on related (and quite powerful) arguments, I recommend C.S. Lewis’ Miracles, Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, and Dr. Angus Menuge’s Agents Under Fire.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

.


Melissa Cain Travis serves as Assistant Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker (forthcoming, Harvest House 2018) and the Young Defenders series (Apologia Press). She is a writer for Christian Research Journal and blogs at melissatravis.com.