By Gordon Hull
We’ve known for a while, thanks to work by scholars such as Stephen Menn, that Descartes was in many ways a deeply religious and conservative thinker, one who took great care to try to align his work with Church doctrine, and who engaged scholastic thought with a good deal more precision than his dismissive comments suggest. One need only compare his assertions about the epistemic veracity of “ideas” as opposed to linguistic expression, to see the point. Indeed, as Tad Schmalz documents in detail, Descartes and his followers’ problem – and why he ended up on the banned books list – wasn’t any of the things that you might initially think, like the cogito, but the inability of his followers to explain the Eucharist (this shows up as early as Arnauld’s replies; in a way, the failure was inevitable, since the official explanatory apparatus of the Eucharist, as a product of the 1300s, presupposed Aristotelian physics, which Descartes rejected). Foucault’s lectures On the Government of the Living deepen that picture and apply it to the world we live in today.
In his Descartes and Augustine, Menn makes the case that Descartes is fundamentally an Augustinian thinker in many ways. The cogito (Descartes never says “cogito ergo sum” in his own voice, by the way, so really we are talking about the res cogitans) appears to be lifted straight from Augustine. Via Menn, then, here is the Augustine. I apologize for the length, but if you’re not familiar with it, the passage is worth it (for the TLDNR crowd, I’ve boldfaced the parts that get the point across most succinctly: