Printer Friendly


DESCARTES AND AUGUSTINE. By STEPHEN MENN. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 415.

Chances are that you have read Descartes's Meditations and Augustine's Confessions and De Libero Arbitrio. Chances are that you have not thought that Descartes's masterwork depends heavily on these two or any other Augustinian texts. The question of Augustinian influence on Descartes's Cogito is small potatoes compared to the thesis that Stephen Menn wishes to establish. Menn's central task is to argue that Descartes's search for clear and distinct foundational principles on which to base all scientific knowledge was decisively shaped by his discovery in Augustine of a way of acquiring wisdom contrary to the philosophical techniques of scholastic Aristotelianism. This way is essentially contemplative: its practitioner turns inward, away from the welter of images provided by the senses. If this exercise is conducted properly, its result is the disclosure of a realm of truth known with more certainty than anything one can claim to know about the corporeal world.

Menn claims that Augustine provided not merely a method but also much of the metaphysical content of Descartes's thought. In order to understand the story, we must go back to Plotinus, whose writings in turn exerted an influence on Augustine. On Menn's account, Plotinus redeployed Platonic elements to combat Stoic materialism. Plotinus accepted the distinction between a world perceived by the senses and a supremely rational and intelligible realm, a realm of Nous. Rejecting the Aristotelian conception of the human soul as equally seat of reason and animator of body, Plotinus depicted human souls as essentially rational but accidentally and unnaturally embodied. Human souls are "fallen," having forgotten their affiliation with Nous. This forgetfulness is reversible: by turning inward, the soul can come to understand its true nature as "offspring and image" of Nous. In order to explain how souls fell, Plotinus offers a theodicy whose elements include the claims that (1) matter is refractory and disorderly, yet (2) a world containing both perfect things and imperfect things (like matter) is better than a world containing only perfect things, (3) souls become embodied in an attempt to impart rational order to matter, and (4) embodiment gives rise to the temptation to devote more attention to the body than the soul.

Augustine's youthful attraction to Manichean materialism was based on his inabilities to conceive of God as incorporeal and to see how evil could exist if it were not the result of some powerful material force opposed to God. Menn claims that Augustine became acquainted with relevant portions of Plotinus's doctrines, and that by reworking them, Augustine was able to overthrow Manicheanism and embrace Christian spiritualism. These Platonistic sources are alleged to inspire much of the following important material presented in De Libero Arbitrio. (1) The hierarchy of ontological superiority, reason > the inner sense > the five senses > sensible bodies, is founded on the ability each higher faculty has to judge the functional adequacy of the faculties or entities lower than it. (2) The principle that establishes this hierarchy presupposes the existence of a standard of judgment, immutable Truth, superior to reason because the performance of reason is judged according to it. God is this Truth or is above it: in either case, human reason, by reflecting solely on its own inconstancy and liability to error, discovers that by which it is judged, Wisdom or God conceived as Nous. (3) God neither does nor suffers evil. Evil is rather a by-product of God's creating things that are inferior (necessarily) to God. All created things are good, contrary to Manichean doctrine. Having been created ex nihilo, all material things are inherently mutable. (4) Moral evil or sin always involves choosing a lesser good over a greater good. Sin is a voluntary act of the soul that, in its embodied state, is subject to cognitive and volitional infirmities, especially ignorance and moral weakness. (5) Because it is necessary for one's living rightly, free will is an indispensable good. Because it enables one to sin, it is an "intermediate" good. (6) God could (and did) create beings who are free and who God foresaw would never sin (the persevering angels). God also created us, beings who he foresaw would freely sin. We have no legitimate complaint to lodge against God, since the wish that we have been created without sinning is really the wish that some superior beings have been created in our stead. And a world populated with superior and inferior good beings is better than a world containing the superior beings alone.

You can begin to get a feel for the structure of Menn's interpretation of Descartes by juxtaposing the foregoing material to this synopsis of the Meditations. They "argue first that we cannot know bodies unless we first know God and the soul (Meditation 1), then that we can know God and the soul independently of any knowledge of bodies (Meditations 2 and 3), and finally that we can derive a knowledge of bodies from this pure knowledge of God and the soul (Meditations 4-6)" (209).

According to Menn, in Meditation 1 Descartes saddles up those skeptical war-horses, Past Error, Dreams, and Deceiving God, for a campaign directed at showing that our propensities to form beliefs about the natures of things, even when based on clear and distinct perceptions, are insufficient to ground theoretical knowledge. If our belief-forming propensities have come about by chance or mindless deterministic processes, then although our beliefs might have practical or survival value, we have no assurance that the propensities are adequate to disclose the true, theoretical natures of things. The propensities must have the right pedigree: "Descartes' goal is to prove that we cannot have scientific knowledge unless we are ... creatures of an omnipotent and beneficent God ..." (234). Of course any attempt to establish this pedigree by empirical means is doomed.

In Meditation 2 exercise of the inward-turning, contemplative discipline isolates the Cartesian ego as nothing more than a thinking being, whose intellectual, Nous-like, operations are essential and most clearly known to it. On Menn's interpretation, the wax example in Meditation 2 is designed to show, not only that the mind knows itself better than what it knows about bodies, but also that if contemplation leaves any doubt about the nature of the rational soul, that doubt will infect all claims to human knowledge (261).

Menn regards Meditation 3 as "the most distinctively Augustinian portion" of the Meditations (262). Descartes's elaborate argument for the existence of God as only adequate causal explanation of Descartes's idea of God is to be understood as "an extended commentary" (267) on a passage from Confessions 7.17.23.

Meditation 4, according to Menn, transmutes the elements of the Plotinian-Augustinian theodicy of sin into a theodicy of cognitive error. (1) God as Nous is the standard of intellectual perfection, by which human intellectual judgment, when erroneous, is found wanting. (2) Because perfect God is no deceiver, our judgmental errors cannot be imputed to God as cause. (3) Although our having been created out of nothing is sufficient to explain our ignorance, it does not account for our tendency for error. Like Augustinian evil, error is a privation, an act of judgment made in ignorance. (4) All acts of judgment issue from our will; we are thus responsible for them, including the erroneous ones. (5) God could have made us immune to error, for example, by impressing indelibly on our memories the rule that we should only judge what we clearly and distinctly perceive. (6) God did in fact create beings free from error--the angels--but, says Descartes, "it is somehow a greater perfection in the entirety of things that some parts are not immune from error, and others are, than if they were all completely alike. And I have no right to complain that God wanted me to play a role in the world that is not the foremost and most perfect of all" (320).

Certain Cartesian doctrines can be made to resemble Augustinian themes. Does it follow that Descartes was consciously inspired by Augustine? Both of them seek to escape atheism, materialism, and empiricism. That desire curtails one's philosophical options. It should not be surprising to find two philosophers independently exercising similar options. It is not reassuring to be told that Descartes omits all reference to Augustinian influences in his works in order to encourage his readers to discover the truth for themselves rather than accepting it on authority (67). But what if Menn's interpretation is mistaken? We would still have a book well worth reading for its textual insights. But caveat lector, the average page is packed with 550 words. Given infirm eyesight, this made it somewhat difficult for Mann to take the measure of Menn.


University of Vermont
COPYRIGHT 2000 Cornell University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Philosophical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2000

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters