This chapter shows how Descartes depicts the feeling of thought reaching maturity in epistemological bitterness. Descartes’ Fourth Meditation, which grapples with the question of error and which some classify as Descartes’ theodicy, struggles with the elegy as the form its narrator seems to desire but cannot openly avow in confronting the limits of what thought can do. Instead, Descartes casts the problem of thought’s limits in the language of praeteritio: the complaint it wishes to make cannot be named, pursued, or cast as a loss worthy of grief except when framed as a thing that cannot be considered. Invoking the form of the elegy in these repeated negations, Descartes frames a coming-to-terms with limitations as a refusal of mourning and an embrace of a kind of casual, and surprisingly somewhat sweet, bitterness, made possible by the will. Central to this chapter’s claim is unpacking the ends of thought—and what it feels like not to be able to master knowledge with the only tool available to it.
Keywords: Descartes, elegy, thinking, theodicy, bitterness, praeteritio, epistemology, poetry, error, loss