Archive | October, 2017

Descartes and Vitoria

I’ve long been a fan of interpretations of Descartes that lay at least as much stress on the continuity as on the discontinuity of his thought with Scholastic Aristoteleanism. (This is no doubt due in large part to the influence of Paul Hoffman, my first Descartes teacher: see here and here.)

I’ve just come across yet another point in which Descartes appears indebted to his Scholastic predecessors. In 1530, over a century before Descartes published his Meditations, Francisco de Vitoria of the University of Salamanca, best known for his defense of native American rights against the Spanish conquistadors, delivered a lecture On Homicide in which the following passage appears:

God could not create a habit which would incline toward what is false. … And by this reasoning, first principles also, even though they are self-evident, can be in a certain way proven. For what if someone were to say that he was forced to assent to this principle: “Every whole is greater than its part,” but would also say that he was afraid perhaps that he was deceived, just as a man sometimes is forced to believe something on the authority of men, in whom the man must have faith and yet it could happen that he be deceived? What, I say, if someone were to speak like this about first principles – could he not be induced by some reasoning to assent to them? Indeed, I think that if someone were to admit to me that God cannot lie nor deceive, he would also concede that it is necessary that a rational creature be created by God with this necessary inclination to consent to these principles, and would evidently be convinced that such principles are true. For if they are false, and God is forcing the human intellect to consent to them, it is plainly evident that God is deceiving men and consequently lying. Similarly, if God were to create any habit inclining toward what is false, He would rightly be accused of lying and deception. (Francisco de Vitoria, Relection on Homicide, trans. John P. Doyle [Marquette, 1997], p. 65.)

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