Although today the literary genre of meditation is often supposed to be religious in origin, the term appears soon to have become the designation of a literary form in the late 14thcentury secular context. As the written stimulus to a form of prayer, the term developed to indicate a more consciously reflective form of private spiritual activity than contemplation, and it then found conspicuous favor both as a speculative philosophical form, as in Descartes and later in Edmund Husserl, and as pre-Romantic and Romantic expressions of intimate personal feelings, as in Rousseau, who did not use the term to denote a genre, and Alphonse de Lamartine, who used the word in the title of his famous 1820 collection of poetry, Meditations poetiques.
Only subsequently was the word used of the work of stoic devotional reflections composed in solitude by the Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius (121–80 CE) during his military campaigns in the second century CE. His reflections, now known as the Meditations, are fragmentary jottings, often practical in tone, and possibly intended for the guidance of Aurelius’ son, Commodus. They were highly prized, notably by John Stuart Mill and Ernest Renan, for the way in which they subordinate stoicism to a love of humanity; but, in spite of the considerations they contain about God, matter, cause, practical reason or conscience, and the governance of the universe, they do not add up to a coherent universal philosophy. The aim of life for Marcus Aurelius was not so much happiness as tranquillity, to be found by living in accordance with nature, understood as human nature. Human beings are social, and conformity to their nature means that they should cultivate what Christians came to regard as the “cardinal” virtues—wisdom, justice, fortitude, and prudence. It is probably on account of their moral content that the reflections came later to be called the Meditations.
Before Descartes, the meditation had become a genre in works of devotion.
Meditations on the Passion are among the English works of the early 14th-century English hermit Richard Rolle. In the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, 16thcentury founder of the Jesuit order, the prayerful considerations of mysteries taken from the life of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospel narratives, were known first as contemplations and then, no doubt to distinguish this form of prayer from less discursive types of mental activity directed toward the cultivation of religious devotion, they came to be known as meditations. That term was certainly in use in the Jesuit order shortly after its bull of foundation, dated 1540, and the verb “to meditate” occurs in the Spiritual Exerdses themselves, of which a primitive form must have existed in writing by the later 1520s.
Meditations, often in written form, very quickly became part of the devotional heritage of Western Christendom, contrasting with the Church’s official liturgical prayer, which was the chanting of the divine office, as well as with the contemplation described in the writings of some of the mystics. Discursive devotional meditations were published in huge quantities, and came to form the staple of interior prayer cultivated within the active orders of the Church, distinguished from the contemplative orders committed to the chanting of the divine office. In post-Renaissance Europe the first significant use of the term “meditation” to denote a literary genre was by Descartes. He had conceived the project of writing what he called a “universal science” to elevate human nature to the highest perfection of which it was capable. Using the modish description “method,” at that date replacing the term “art of,” Descartes prefaced a small part of his planned undertaking with the important six-part Discours de la méthode (1937; Discourse on Method). He at first planned a philosophical system which he compared to a tree, with metaphysics as the roots, general physics and the physics of the animal and human kingdoms as the trunk, and mechanics, medicine, and ethics as the fruit. The metaphysics, already sketched in the fourth part of the Discourse, was elaborated in the six Latin meditations of 1641 demonstrating the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, the Meditationes de prima philosophia in qua dei existentia et animae immortalitas demonstratur (1641; Meditations on the first philosophy [metaphysics] in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated). These, although supposed to have a practical bearing on the way life should be led, and intended finally to lead to an ethic, are overwhelmingly speculative rather than moral. They are increasingly concerned with the union in human beings of spiritual and bodily functions. Descartes’ friend and correspondent, Marin Mersenne, communicated Descartes’ meditations to other learned minds for comment, and Descartes’ replies to the objections to his arguments prompted further objections, and further responses. The debate, which also concerned such religious topics as the action of grace in the soul and the nature of religious faith, became increasingly technical and recondite.
As a poetic genre, the meditation established itself with Lamartine’s 1820 Méditations poétiques, the first major western European verse collection with the word “meditation” in the title. The 113-page octavo containing 24 odes and elegies was an immediate and huge success. Later works to use the term were in prose, like Guillaume Apollinaire’s Méditations esthétiques (1913; Aesthetic Meditations) and José Ortega y Gasset’s Meditaciones del Quijote (1914; Meditations on Quixote), and were critical or philosophical.
Lamartine’s volume struck a reverberating chord among a generation of educated young French people. It drew on the feelings exploited by Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand, and Byron, emphasizing the grandeur and solitude of the individual, and parading in a reaction against the materialism of the Industrial Revolution the most intimate and inarticulate experience of the emotionally suppressed and bewildered. The imagery is always precise, the feelings nostalgic, vague, and associated with natural grandeur and personal sadness. The verse, in spite of its apparently nonchalant attitude to poetic technique, is in fact very careful, cultivating a musical fluidity, and giving the impression of nobility, loftiness, and a grandeur of spirit incompatible with anything petty, vulgar, or ungeneralized. In Lamartine, the meditation became the vehicle for the intense lyricism required by his immediate juniors.
Poetry, devotion, and philosophy have, then, all laid claim to the meditation as a subgenre, and the meditation did indeed become a form indigenous in all three realms. It has now, for some decades, been falling out of fashion as a serious literary form in all of them. Perhaps the most important 20th-century work with the term in the title, Husserl’s Méditations cartésiennes (1931; Cartesian Meditations), takes up Descartes’ usage of the word, using it in a deliberately archaic sense, and as a form in which to attack him.
According to Husserl, Descartes’ error was to situate the self in the “real world,” whereas for Husserl the analysis of the self required a “phenomenological” reduction which excluded everything except mental intentionality. With Husserl the word “meditation” acquires an ironic sense.
A great deal of the writing about meditative literature is devoted to poetry. The following items are a selection on prose.
Brumm, Ursula, “The Art of Puritan Meditation in New England,” in Studies in New England Puritanism, edited by Winfried Herget, Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1983
Lang, Berel, “Descartes and the Art of Meditation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 21, no.1 (1988):19–37
Nash, Jerry C., “The Christian-Humanist Meditation on Man: Denisot, Montaigne, Rabelais, Ronsard, Sceve,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 54, no. 2 (1992.):353–71
Radcliffe, David Hill, Meditations and Literary History, 1600–1750: Generic Mixture and Generic Change (dissertation on Donne, Walton, Cowley, Defoe), Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1987
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