Part III: A Brief Introduction to Jean-Luc Marion’s Sur la théologie blanche de Descartes

With this [see Part II] background in place, we are now ready to examine what Marion means by the “white theology” of Descartes. A good place to begin is with a brief glance at the work’s table of contents, whose basic twofold structure offers a helpful way in to the question. Book One of Théologie blanche focuses on the loss of analogy, whereas Book Two is centered on the need to establish a foundation. The two books of the work are structured as correlatives; that is, once analogy has been lost, the need to establish a foundation arises. What causes the loss of analogy? To answer this question, Marion examines with great care a peculiar Cartesian doctrine that the majority of an earlier generation of scholars had always considered marginal or anomalous. For Marion, however, it is the fundamental teaching of Descartes, for apart from it none of his other teachings can be properly understood. In 1630 Descartes wrote a series of letters to Mersenne in which he puts forth this doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the created “eternal truths.” The doctrine holds that the eternal truths in the mind of God that render the world intelligible are in fact created—the truths are eternal and created, which sounds like a contradiction. Even if it is not an outright contradiction, it is certainly a departure from the traditional teaching that goes all the way back to Augustine. To claim that the eternal truths are created is undeniably an innovation, so the question becomes, Why does Descartes innovate in this way? The teaching is a departure from the prior tradition because according to the traditional understanding, especially in its classic Thomistic formulation, the divine ideas of possible creaturely essences in the mind of God are identical with God’s very essence, differing from it only in reason. Similarly, the truths of which the essences form components are “within” the mind of God only insofar as they are indistinguishable from the mind of God itself. Descartes wants to say that the eternal truths concerning creatures are just as much creatures as the creatures themselves. In Descartes’ novel teaching, the truths are therefore as radically different from God as the creature is from the Creator.

Why does Marion regard this peculiar doctrine as “the” central teaching of Descartes over all others? After all, Descartes only mentions this doctrine explicitly in a handful of letters. In his 1630 letter to Mersenne, Descartes begins a certain passage in French but then in mid‑sentence switches into Latin. So why the switch? Latin is the language of scholastic philosophy, and perhaps Descartes wanted to be precise, or it could be that he is quoting someone—but whom, as he doesn’t name the person? Marion suggests that Descartes is in fact quoting someone, and he adds that Descartes likely assumed that Mersenne would recognize the quotation, so it was unnecessary to identify its source. So who is the quoted author in question? None other than the Doctor Eximius of the Jesuit order, Francisco Suárez. Marion contends that Descartes is quoting Suárez every time the 1630 letter shifts into Latin, and that he does so precisely in order to contradict Suárez. For example, Descartes declares in Latin that the truth of the eternal truths is completely dependent on God’s knowledge of them, not the reverse—but the reverse is just what Suárez holds. Descartes says that the eternal truths are dependent on God’s knowledge of them for their truth, whereas Suárez holds that the truths are true regardless of whether God knows them or not. Descartes denounces this assertion as blasphemous, since it maintains that the eternal truths are independent of God and that he is therefore subject to them. By announcing that the eternal truths are created, Descartes re‑asserts God’s transcendence by refusing to admit the existence of any autonomous principles to which God must submit.