Theology and the Cartesian Doctrine of Freedom

978-1-58731-858-0
New Books
Cloth $40
336 pages, 6" x 9", preface, introduction, notes, bibliography, index, pub date: September 2016

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Theology and the Cartesian Doctrine of Freedom

Gilson, √Čtienne

Theology and the Cartesian Doctrine of Freedom, now for the first time available in English, was Étienne Gilson’s doctoral thesis and part of a larger project to show the medieval roots of Descartes at a time when the very existence of medieval philosophy was often ignored. Young Descartes was sent to La Flèche, one of the Jesuits schools that offered a complete philosophical program, and Descartes would have had the same philosophical training as a Jesuit. There is some controversy about the exact dates of Descartes’s stay at La Flèche and consequently about his philosophy instructor. By Gilson’s calculations François Véron taught Descartes for three years. Véron eventually left the Jesuits to be free to engage in extraordinarily aggressive anti-Calvinist polemics. If anything, Véron’s overbearing manner may have contributed to Descartes antipathy toward Scholastic philosophy. (Whatever Descartes’s objections to its philosophy curriculum, later in life he recommended la Flèche as the best school in France.)

Descartes's great intellectual mission in life was not his mathematics but his physics, which was understood as a part of philosophy. We see him navigate the shoals of heated theological and religious strife in his attempt to articulate the metaphysical foundation (and in particular a philosophical vision of God) for his physics or theory of nature. As a layman, he always pleaded ignorance in technically theological matters. He presented himself as a loyal Catholic, quite sincerely in the portrait Gilson paints.

Descartes certainly did not avoid controversial philosophical positions. For example, he held that God has created eternal truths rather than the latter being eternal participations in God’s essence, which seems to put in doubt the necessity of these truths. Descartes took sides in the great seventeenth-century debate between Thomists and Molinists on human freedom. Gilson presents a Descartes influenced personally and intellectually by the Augustinianism of the founder of the French Oratory, Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, who encouraged Descartes in his intellectual quest to renovate European intellectual life. De Bérulle and his disciple, the theologian Guillaume Gibieuf, rather than Thomism and Scotism would have influenced Descartes. Still, we also meet a Descartes determined to have his Principles of Philosophy adopted as the textbook for the schools run by the Jesuits who had educated him. Indeed, Descartes is somewhat opportunistic in reinventing his theory of freedom to bring it closer to the Molinist doctrine held by the Jesuits. Alas, the Jesuits had their own textbooks.

This is not Gilson’s last work on the development of Descartes’ thinking, but the book already shows the engaging, vivid historian of thought who would become world famous. As Gilson guides us through Descartes’ voluminous correspondence, the feelers he sends out through his friend Marin Mersenne, his attempts to make peace with the Jesuits, we feel we have lived in seventeenth-century French intellectual circles.

Étienne Gilson (1884–1978) was the foremost medievalist of the twentieth century. He taught at several French universities and was a member of the Academie Française. He organized and directed the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies in Toronto. A philosopher and historian of ideas, Gilson is perhaps best remembered for his exploration of the concept of Christian philosophy.

James Colbert is emeritus professor of philosophy at Fitchburg State University. He did graduate work in Italy and Spain and has translated works in philosophy and history of ideas from French, Italian, and Spanish. Colbert is a native and resident of Boston.