Descartes The Life and Times of a Genius
By A. C. GRAYLING
Walker & Company Copyright © 2005 A. C. Grayling
All right reserved.
Chapter One Who Was Descartes?
"The fumes which rise from the bottom of a swamp produce frogs, ants, leeches, and vegetation ... Cut a groove into a brick, fill it with crushed basil, and put another brick on top to seal the groove. Within a few days the vegetable matter will have turned into scorpions." So claimed a seventeenth-century savant called Jean-Baptiste Van Helmont. But although Van Helmont lived in the seventeenth century, he belonged far more to its past than its future, for he was one of those whose understanding of the world relied on ideas developed centuries before his own time. The ideas in question belonged to an intellectual tradition that encouraged belief in miracles, spontaneous generation, and phoenixes rising from ashes. In this tradition it was an unquestionable fact that the sun and stars go round a stationary earth, with God's heaven above and hell-fire at the earth's centre. Yet even as Van Helmont premised these notions in his writings, a new world of ideas was coming into existence around him. One of the chief of those bringing about this change was René Descartes.
The world-view containing most of the elements on which Van Helmont relied, and which Descartes helped to demolish, had taken its start in late antiquity and gathered embellishments as it grew older. Closely associated with the Christian church, it adopted, adapted andassimilated the legacy of classical and, especially, Aristotelian thought, forming itself during the Middle Ages into the elaborate structure of Scholasticism, which was still dominant when the seventeenth century began. So firm was its grip that when the Jesuits formalised their educational policies in their Ratio Studiorum of 1586 they could simply state, "In logic, natural philosophy, ethics and metaphysics, Aristotle's doctrine is to be followed."
This reflected the instruction issued two decades earlier by Francisco Borgia, head of the Jesuit order, in a memorandum stipulating that "[no one must] defend or teach anything opposed, detracting, or unfavourable to the faith, either in philosophy or theology. Let no one defend anything against the axioms received by the philosophers, such as: there are only four causes, there are only four elements, there are only three principles of natural things, fire is hot and dry, air is humid and hot. Let no one defend such propositions as that natural agents act at a distance without a medium, contrary to the most common opinion of the philosophers and theologians ... This is not just an admonition, but a teaching that we impose."
But as Van Helmont and thinkers like him spun their theories from the comfort of their armchairs, reaching deep into Scholasticism's resources for their inspiration and the premises of their reasoning, the revolution in process around them was sweeping those very resources aside, in the same breath therefore challenging the official teaching of the church on matters of faith and philosophy alike. The two key documents of that revolution-documents that shaped Western thought for at least three hundred years afterwards-were the Discours sur la methode de bien conduire la raison et chercher la verité dans les sciences, published in 1637, and the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, published in 1687. The first was by Descartes, the second by Isaac Newton.
Descartes' Discourse on Method-to give this book its standard English title-was an important instrument in providing impulse and direction to the new enquiries, today called the "natural sciences," by which mankind ultimately gained greater understanding and control of nature. Part of the contribution made by Descartes' Discourse was to restore human reason to a status which allowed it to address questions until then regarded by religious orthodoxy as dangerous. In this respect Descartes is to the modern world what Thales, the so-called "Father of Philosophy," was to the ancient world. The comparison is an illuminating one. Thales asked questions about the nature and origins of the world, and formulated answers that relied solely on reason and observation, making no appeal to supernatural explanations-to gods, legends, myths, or ancient scriptures. He assumed that the world is a place that makes sense, and that the human mind is capable of understanding it. His example unleashed a brilliant epoch of free thought in classical antiquity, which gave birth to the Western tradition.
What Thales achieved for the human mind in ancient times, Descartes contributed to achieving for the human mind at the beginning of the modern age. He is therefore sometimes aptly described as the "Father of Modern Philosophy" to mark the comparison. He played a key role in helping to rescue enquiry about sublunary things from the stifling and long-frozen grip of religious authority. He did it not by rejecting that authority, for by his own testimony he was a devout Catholic all his life, but by separating things of heaven from things of earth, so that scientific reason could investigate the latter without anxieties over orthodoxy. This left the things of heaven untouched and unthreatened-so Descartes thought and hoped-by what scientific enquiry discovered.
But Descartes had a seminal impact well beyond his ideas about method. His Discourse included three essays, one of them about optics, in which the law of refraction was first published (it had been independently discovered by the Dutchman Willebrord Snell fifteen years earlier), another on meteorological phenomena, including the first satisfactory explanation of rainbows, and the third on geometry, in which Descartes presented to the world the foundations of analytic geometry, thereby contributing to the crucial growth of mathematical understanding which, in turn, helped the later progress of the seventeenth-century's scientific revolution.
Thus history remembers René Descartes because he made permanently important contributions both to mathematics and philosophy, thereby counting as one of the major figures in the epoch that gave birth to modern times. He was aware that his achievements in these respects were significant: he had neither reason nor desire to underestimate them. But he also thought of himself as a physicist and a medical scientist, and devoted just as much of his intellectual energy to these spheres of enquiry. One of his abiding hopes was that use of the method of enquiry he had announced in the Discourse, and which he believed offered a key to all knowledge, would unlock the secrets of health and long life. Later, in response to the promptings of two royal admirers, he ventured into ethics and moral psychology too. But it is his mathematical and earlier philosophical legacy for which his name now endures, placing him in a pantheon which includes Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Galileo Galilei, William Harvey, Blaise Pascal, Pierre de Fermat, and other philosophical and scientific luminaries of the first half of the seventeenth century.
Descartes was born in Touraine, France, in 1596, and after living most of his adult life in the United Provinces of the free Netherlands, died in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1650. His life therefore falls, chronologically and geographically, within the scope of that vast and momentous complex of events which the history books inadequately call "the Counter-Reformation" and the "Thirty Years War." In these events he was, in ways to be discussed, not just a spectator but a participant. The legacy of these events still blights the world, in more and less indirect ways; but Descartes' intellectual work transcended them.
Given that Descartes' fame is so richly merited, it is odd now to think that it suffered a temporary eclipse among some of the philosophes of his own country in the eighteenth century, when Voltaire and others regarded him as outmoded by Newton and Locke. Philosophical fame, it is true to say, is to some extent the function of fashion, as exemplified by the fact that Descartes' two greatest philosophical contemporaries, Bacon and Hobbes, have retained less than their due in the university curricula which are chiefly responsible for sustaining philosophical reputations. When I was an undergraduate, courses in the history of modern philosophy were typically labelled "From Bacon and Descartes to Kant"; now Bacon has gone from the syllabus, to become undeservedly a footnote in the history and the philosophy of science. Likewise, Hobbes appears to retain interest only for political theorists, whereas his views in metaphysics and epistemology are effectively the inspiration for Locke's philosophy, to such an extent that the latter was even charged with plagiarism. Descartes, by contrast, stands so firmly in the curriculum that he is often the first philosopher studied in detail by undergraduates, and his celebrated Meditations on First Philosophy is a classic both as an introductory text and as a focus of scholarly discussion.
The fate of Descartes' major philosophical contemporaries reflects another curious fact about posthumous reputations. Although genuine merit often survives the neglect and calumny of its own time, contemporary renown is equally as often taken by posterity to be a reason to praise also, while contemporary attacks on a reputation can unjustly block the applause posterity ought to give. This latter is also part of what happened to Bacon and Hobbes, the first because of a bribery scandal late in his life, the second because he was an atheist, and atheism was once regarded with flesh-crawling horror: for what depths of depravity, what murders and dalliances with evil, could an atheist not stoop to? Descartes' high standing with many of his contemporaries, by contrast, continued unabated with his successors, ensuring (despite Voltaire) a continuous reputation ever since.
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Although Descartes has been lucky with the judgement of time, he has had mixed fortunes as regards his biographers. The work on which all subsequent biography has principally depended is the too-often-unreliable but suggestive early account by Adrien Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Descartes, published in two volumes in 1691. It makes use of much lost material, which we know Baillet does not always accurately employ or even quote, because we have occasional independent checks and can see that he trimmed and shaped his sources to give a slant-frequently a too-positive one-of his own. But it is the fullest of the early sources, and is indispensable.
Baillet's account, however, was not the earliest. Just three years after Descartes' death Daniel Lipstorp, a German savant, gave a brief biographical sketch in his Specimina, using extremely valuable firsthand material collected from among Descartes' Dutch acquaintances. The other contemporary biographer was Pierre Borel, who in his Vitae Renati Cartesii summi philosophi Compendium (the first edition of 1653 is lost; we have the second edition, published in 1656) gives a certain amount of information-perhaps more than is accurate-about Descartes' military career. Since much of Borel's information came from Descartes' friend Etienne de Villebressieu, scientist and engineer to the King of France, it is nonetheless a useful source.
In 1910 Charles Adam, one of the editors of Descartes' collected works, published his Descartes: sa vie, son oeuvre. He improved upon Baillet and the other early sources because of his intimate knowledge of Descartes' writings, especially the letters, and he had of course the advantage of longer hindsight, and of the nuggets of information embedded in several intervening centuries of gossip and legend.
Since Adam's book a few minor biographies have appeared, mainly French and almost all tendentious, but only one really significant one: Stephen Gaukroger's comprehensive and scholarly account, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (1995). Gaukroger devotes more space to surveys and assessments of Descartes' work-all of it, including a great deal of uncompromising mathematics-than to purely biographical matters, about which he is commendably circumspect given the uneven reliability of the sources. Consequently, his book is a biography for specialists, and he would himself, I am sure, agree that it makes heavily technical demands on its readers. To date there has not been a satisfactory non-specialist biography devoted to the general reader: a gap that the following pages, with due modesty, aspire to fill.
I have learned and profited from almost all the forerunners in the field, and came especially to appreciate the work of Adam and Gaukroger, together with an achievement worth praising again: the edition of Descartes' works translated into English and edited by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothof and Dugald Murdoch. My debts in the history of science and the general history of the first half of the seventeenth century are paid in the bibliography, but I should mention here an old classic which was thrilling and illuminating to re-read, and which gave me many clues to follow in pursuing an hypothesis about Descartes' early career. This is C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War, first published in 1938 as the clouds regathered over the legacy of that earlier epic struggle.
In light of the animadversions cast above (and in the endnotes) upon some of Descartes' less disciplined biographers, I feel a certain hesitancy in turning now to advance an hypothesis I formulated while researching Descartes' life. It is necessary to mention it here, right at the outset, because it applies to much that is puzzling and hidden in the first half of Descartes' adult life, approximately the dozen or so years between the completion of his formal education and the early part of his sojourn in the United Provinces (the free part of the Netherlands). As the sequel will report, at the outset of this period Descartes joined the armies first of Prince William of Nassau and then Duke Maximilian of Bavaria, taking part in some capacity in the opening events of the Thirty Years War and, while doing so and afterwards, travelling very widely in central, eastern and southern Europe. The details of Descartes' military service and travels are extremely scanty; he himself did not speak or write about them, except in the vaguest and most passing terms. In this, together with the manner of life he subsequently chose, lie the seeds of a mystery.
The year 1628 was pregnant with significance for politics and war in Europe. In that year Descartes, after a private audience with the notorious Cardinal Berulle-then one of the leading figures in French politics-decided to go into permanent, and apparently self-imposed, exile in the United Provinces, moving frequently from one address to another and for a long time keeping his whereabouts secret. The standard explanation of this is that he desired privacy and seclusion for his philosophical work, and chose the United Provinces because he found the climate, both meteorological and social, congenial for it. Some add or substitute the idea that he wished to keep hidden from his family, which disapproved of his choice of career.
My suggestion is rather different. It is that Descartes was a spy. More circumstantially put, my suggestion is that he was in some way engaged in intelligence activities or secret work during the period of his military service and travels. Because of this, I further suggest, Cardinal Berulle warned him that he was no longer welcome in France. The thought is by no means far-fetched and, if correct, goes a long way to explain some of the many curiosities and inexplicabilities of Descartes' life and doings.
The case for this tentative hypothesis rests on evidence that emerges as the story unfolds. But a background point to it is as follows: many intellectuals and clerics at this period engaged in intelligence activity because they were well fitted for the task by their command of languages, especially of the universal language Latin, and the fact that they corresponded widely and travelled more than any other class apart from aristocrats and merchants (but these latter did not have nearly as good access to political circles as scholars and clerics did). Some well-known examples support the thesis. Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in Deptford in 1593 because, it is thought on good grounds, he was engaged in espionage of some kind. The celebrated Huygens family engaged in intelligence for the British and the House of Orange throughout the seventeenth century. Peter Paul Rubens was an agent for the Habsburg interest in the Spanish Netherlands. Other examples could be cited, but the point is sufficiently made by these.
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