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Descartes and Pelagianism

27 July 2013


Both in his time, and still now, the name of Descartes has been linked with Pelagianism. Upon close investigation, however, the allegations of Pelagianism and the evidence for them offer very slim pickings. Whether Descartes was a Pelagian is a theological question; the argument here will be that a consideration of Descartes’s claims cited as Pelagian nonetheless promises a better philosophical understanding of his views on the will and other, related matters.

After an introduction to Pelagianism (sec.1), the most prominent source nowadays for its connection with Descartes is seen to be Arnauld, the master critic of the period, who as a Jansenist was especially sensitive to any sign of Pelagianism (sec.2). Historically, however, the more important source was the Dutch theologian Revius, whose allegation of it against Descartes ignited a long and widespread controversy (sec.3). Just as Pelagianism might be seen as a “topos in which the Dutch anti-Cartesian literature was concentrated,”[i] so a topos for the Pelagian controversy itself might be the biblical text alluded to by Descartes in the fourth Meditation, according to which man is created in the image and likeness of God, most so, according to Descartes, with respect to the will (sec.4). Another way to frame the issue, of particular philosophical interest, then, is the infinity of the Cartesian will, explored more recently by Grimaldi (sec.5). Another recent publication, by Scribano, sets out its origins in a way that shows how complex the Dutch debate really was both in terms of partisanship and philosophical relevance (sec.6). The issues raised by the connection of Descartes to Pelagianism tend to be orthogonal, breeding confusion; so, at the end below, a brief catalogue of the theological views relevant to Descartes’s claims will be given, based on the results of this investigation (sec.7).

[i] Scribano, Maria Emanuele, Da Descartes a Spinoza : Percorsi della teologia razionale nel Seicento (Franco Angeli: Milan, 1988) p. 16.


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