Back when I read Euclid’s Elements*, I wrote (or maybe just thought) that some of these books were best read in person. Some of the Great Books (the novels, I think?) are easy to digest, while others require more grappling. In fact, it isn’t just more grappling, it’s the fact that these are big ideas that reward sitting with and discussing them. You can read The Aeneid for plot (and for Shadi Bartsch’s commentary on the uses and misuses of the epic tale as it relates to Italian history up to the 20th century), but you don’t read Meditations the same way.
Meditations on First Philosophy feels in a lot of ways like a classic philosophical text. As John Cunningham points out in the introduction, we join Descartes in “[leaving] behind the comfortable world of inherited prejudice and preconceived opinion,” starting right from our most basic, foundational beliefs. Only by jettisoning all my beliefs and rebuilding them from scratch, Descartes says, can we actually know things. He uses the example of a piece of wax (which is hard and cold at times, but soft and hot when heated, thus proving how incorrect our senses can be) to talk about how it’s only by understanding the essence of wax (and not relying on our senses) that we can say for sure that wax is what this object is. This is (and here I’m indebted to Nigel Warburton’s explanations) Cartesian rationalism.
Descartes’ main preoccupation is with epistemology: how do we know the things we know? I’ve had some astonishingly detailed dreams, he says: how can I tell when I’m dreaming and when I’m not? How do I know that I’m not always dreaming? He comes up with a handful of arguments as to why he isn’t dreaming, or how to tell when one is, but it’s his proofs of the existence of God that are the bulk of the Meditations — the trademark and ontological arguments.
(Skimming the Wikipedia page on the Ontological Argument, I notice that Kant has one of the main refutations in Critique of Pure Reason, which I think I’m due to read in the third year — I’ll have to come back to Descartes then!)
Another thing about the Great Books is that you get to read the original source material that gets referenced so much in everyday life. You can imagine my excitement when I got to the “Cogito, ergo sum” part of Meditations, and people just don’t write intellectual autobiographies like they used to any more. From this, I’m excited both for the pair of InterIntellect discussions that are coming up in the next few months (email me if you’d like a ticket) and more generally to move through the world having read Meditations. I suspect that I’ll especially enjoy the St. John’s class discussion, whenever that happens, and I’ve also picked up a Cambridge-guide-to-Descartes that came recommended.
In all, I’m sure I’ll revisit Meditations again, but this was a fulfilling first visit with Descartes.
Up next: Reflections on the Revolution in France!
*The correct way to read Elements is, I think, with pencil in hand.