Descartes Among the Ancients

Descartes and Hobbes

If facts in the history of philosophy were established democratically, such that what everyone says is true determined the truth, few “facts” would be established so fully, so absolutely, so incontrovertibly as these: 1) Descartes’ novel skepticism and “dualism” midwifed modernity, and 2) Thomas Hobbes was one of those supremely rare characters whose mental acuity matched his capacity to disgust. As I hope to show, however, this second claim—which is indeed true—can help us see the falsity of the first.

Although Hobbes’ unique gifting for offending his contemporaries is demonstrated ubiquitously in his own works and those of his peers, it is evident to an especially high degree in his first objection to Descartes’ Meditations (as an aside, a friend of mine, also a graduate student, remarked that it had never occurred to him that Descartes and Hobbes would have written to one another or published criticisms of one another for circulation—why don’t we read such interchanges as undergraduates?).

So why did Hobbes engage with Descartes? After the publication of Descartes’ Meditations, various contemporaries, representing a variety of intellectual traditions, were invited to reply with objections, questions, and reservations, to which Descartes responded in turn. Hobbes’ first objection, dripping with acid, and Descartes’ response, however, give us later readers a window into how Descartes intended his Meditations to be read and, perhaps even more importantly, the key to understanding its relationship to the past.

Hobbes opens his objection by refusing to object. In fact, concerning the first meditation, he writes, “I acknowledge the correctness of this meditation” (AT VII.171). Hobbes agrees that “there is no criterion enabling us to distinguish our dreams from the waking state and from veridical sensations.” There is, he continues, nothing at all which vouchsafes the veracity of our sense perceptions, such that, “if we follow our senses, without exercising our reason in any way, we shall be justified in doubting whether anything exists.”

Nevertheless, though in agreement with Descartes, Hobbes cannot help but jab at him:

“But since Plato and other ancient philosophers discussed this uncertainty in the objects of the senses, and since the difficulty of distinguishing the waking state from dreams is commonly pointed out, I am sorry that the author, who is so outstanding in the field of original speculations, should be publishing this ancient material.”

Far from novel, Cartesian skepticism is old, reheated, warmed-over, banal. It is the oldest thing in the world (or, at any rate, one of them). Of course, Descartes’ skeptical first meditation borrows its arguments from the ancient Skeptics and Academics. As readers of St. Augustine and Descartes will know, St. Augustine takes up and seeks to refute essentially identical arguments in Book 15 of De Trinitate (Descartes borrowed not just the Academics’ arguments but also Augustine’s solution, with a twist: cogito ergo sum in Descartes’ parlance, and “I know that I am alive” in Augustine’s).

Descartes knew that his skeptical arguments were ancient, writing that he was “reluctant to reheat and serve this precooked material” to Mersenne in his Second Set of Replies. So why did he write what he wrote? Why repeat what has already been said?

Meditating on the Meditations

In answer to this question, Descartes gives three reasons, only one of which matters to us for the moment. He writes, “I wanted to prepare my readers’ minds for the study of the things which are related to the intellect, and to help them to distinguish these from corporeal things; and such arguments seem to be wholly necessary for the purpose” (AT VII.172).

This is crucial; it reminds us that Descartes’ Meditations were genuinely intended as meditations. They were written for the express purpose of helping others to reflect upon fundamental reality so as to arrive at genuine, certain metaphysical knowledge. In his Second Set of Replies, Descartes writes that he hopes his readers will spend “several months, or at least weeks [reading the first meditation]…before going on to the rest of the book…The nature of the method is such that scrutinizing it just once is not enough” (AT VII.131). The meditations are not comprised of discrete arguments to be assessed rapidly; they are a “method,” a training program for the mind, a means of unlearning false assumptions derived from the world of the senses.

Descartes and Augustine

This idea that we must unlearn our dependence upon fickle material realities is far from “modern”; it is, instead, a renewed articulation of an ancient (particularly Christian) Neoplatonic truism. To the question, “why not retrain our minds in some other way or toward some other end, by some other set of arguments?” Descartes gives a thoroughly traditional answer: “Many people had previously said that in order to understand metaphysical matters the mind must be drawn away from the senses; but no one, so far as I know, had shown how this could be done” (AT VII.131).

Again, in this respect, Descartes is simply following his forebears, and St. Augustine in particular. Indeed, in his response to Descartes’ Meditations, Antoine Arnauld, the distinguished French Catholic philosopher and theologian famed for his knowledge of patristics, remarked, “Our distinguished author has laid down for his entire philosophy exactly the same principle as that laid down by St. Augustine.” It is not difficult to see why an man of Arnauld’s caliber would think to connect Descartes to St. Augustine. Consider the second sentence of St. Augustine’s De Trinitate: Augustine writes against the class of men who refuse to begin their inquiries with faith and who therefore “endeavor to transfer to things incorporeal and spiritual the ideas they have formed, whether through experience of the bodily senses, or by natural human wit and diligent quickness, or by the aid of art, from things corporeal; so as to seek to measure and conceive of the former by the latter.”

Or consider Augustine’s explanation in Book 10 of how those who falsely conceive of the mind as material came to their conclusions:

“And because these things are corporeal which [the mind] loved externally through the carnal senses; and because it has become entangled with them by a kind of daily familiarity, and yet cannot carry those corporeal things themselves with itself internally as it were into the region of incorporeal nature; therefore it combines certain images of them, and thrusts them thus made from itself into itself.”

The root of man’s inability to clearly understand the nature of his mind—particularly its immateriality—is owed to his entanglement with corporeal things; we confuse immaterial and material and so cannot understand reality clearly.

Now consider afresh the words of Descartes:

“All our ideas of what belongs to the mind have up till now been very confused and mixed up with the ideas of things that can be perceived by the senses. This is the first and most important reason for our inability to understand with sufficient clarity the customary assertions about the soul and God.”

AT VII.131

To sum up: Descartes’ skeptical method is ancient, and Descartes knew it; he deployed it not to call into question all human knowledge of external realities (since, of course, he utilizes a version of the ontological argument to prove God’s existence and thus recover knowledge of external realities) but rather to initiate his readers into a mode of thinking which is capable of clearly distinguishing the corporeal and incorporeal, so that the readers “cannot be shaken by these metaphysical doubts” (AT VII.172). Descartes’ first and second meditations exist to inaugurate a process of mental purgation; they are designed to free us from enthrallment to material realities and to the confusions and uncertainties that arise from this confused mental state.

Clearly distinguishing between corporeal and incorporeal is a necessary first step to attaining metaphysical (demonstrative) certainty. This is an ancient and medieval commonplace, one which Descartes assumed his readers would know. His contemporaries did, but we don’t. No wonder Descartes is lauded as the harbinger of the modern—did those who lauded him ever really understand the pre-modern?

Onsi A. Kamel is a PhD student in religion at Princeton University and the Senior Editor of Ad Fontes. He lives with his wife and two children in Chicago.


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