In The Young Descartes, Harold J. Cook tells the story of a man who did not set out to become an author or philosopher—Descartes began publishing only after the age of forty. Rather, for years he traveled throughout Europe in diplomacy and at war. He was present at the opening events of the Thirty Years' War in Central Europe and Northern Italy, and was also later involved in struggles within France. Enduring exile, scandals, and courtly intrigue, on his journeys Descartes associated with many of the most innovative free thinkers and poets of his day, as well as great noblemen, noblewomen, and charismatic religious reformers. In his personal life, he expressed love for men as well as women and was accused of libertinism by his adversaries.
These early years on the move, in touch with powerful people and great events, and his experiences with military engineering and philosophical materialism all shaped the thinker and philosopher Descartes became in exile, where he would begin to write and publish, with purpose. But though it is these writings that made ultimately made him famous, The Young Descartes shows that this story of his early life and the tumultuous times that molded him is sure to spark a reappraisal of his philosophy and legacy.
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Remains of a Hidden Life
The name Descartes is now associated with intellectual summits. For many people, the name evokes the fierce engagement of French philosophy or the rise of modern science; for others, simply the famous phrase cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." That pithy phrase both challenges credulity and asserts the real, asking us to reexamine the foundations of everything we know on the simple basis of a proof of our existence. Over the generations, then, the process of interpreting and memorializing Descartes's works has built up a legacy of mountainous proportions. For almost anyone engaged in exploring intellectual terrains, whatever the viewpoint sought, the peak named after him is seldom out of sight. Great climbers have scaled it from every possible approach, challenging one another with feats of close reading and command of the literature; for the rest of us, all kinds of guides are ready to help any amateur to the top and back by well-tended paths.
But mountaintops best serve as a place from which to look out into the distance. If we want to get a good look at the heights themselves, we must circle back lower down and look up. If we do, we notice around us that not all the trails lead toward the top. On these lower slopes the paths move through woods and meadows, more often heading around the mountain than upward to the rock and ice. In the foothills, too, it is possible to move about more freely, without need of a fixed itinerary and someone else's rented equipment. If we pause to explore these foothills, we glimpse traces of an older geology. An earlier version of this peak rested on hills and valleys that can still be identified, and in them can be found the remains of once mighty cities. It was a wilder world, where beyond the walls wolves still roamed and armies gathered, one that frequently stirred the blood. If you have the time to nose about down here, you might even begin to wonder about the mortal and life-size person after whom the mountain came to be named, and at which of the ancient inns he might have stopped for rest and conversation with friends. It would be worth looking in, for it is said that he could be a charming gentleman, on most occasions putting his sword to the side.
In fact, the living René Descartes could have walked straight out of the pages of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. Descartes took part in the action at the siege of La Rochelle, which figures prominently in the last pages of the novel, and when René introduced himself to others, he gave his name as the sieur du Perron — a title originating from an estate he inherited from his mother — while his printed portrait bore his coat of arms (see fig. 1). While he received an education suitable for the French elite, he also learned to fence well and to ride skillfully, being trained to ride the "great horse" used in battle, the destrier. By his twentieth birthday he was living in Paris, where he dressed fashionably in green taffeta with a plume in his hat and a rapier at his belt, cultivating crowds of friends; enjoying love stories, music, poetry, ancient mythology, and jokes; and for a period spending long hours at the gaming tables, apparently accumulating large winnings in the process. (In French, the words des Cartes, which is how Descartes wrote his surname, might even suggest playing cards.) Like Dumas's protagonist, D'Artagnan, he did not walk through the city followed by mobs of retainers — as did the great aristocrats of the day — but singly, employing only a valet and a few lackeys. But soon, and lasting for a decade, he would be caught up in the wars of his day, finding himself not always on the side of the victors.
Unsurprisingly, then, the real Descartes learned to use his sword skillfully. An early biographer who had known Descartes in person, Nicholas-Joseph Poisson, insisted on Descartes's long experience as a young soldier, "serving Mars before Minerva," and reporting that those who had known him had heard tales of his adventures from his own mouth; in Poisson's day, a personal memoir from his period of military service still existed. If his seventeenth-century biographers are correct, the young soldier also somehow managed to survive the later slaughter of the imperial army at Nové Zámky (in what is now southwestern Slovakia; at the time also known as Neuhausel). Another early biographer, Pierre Borel, therefore made a point of writing that Descartes was "good both at the Pen and the Pike," and that he loved "the valiant as well as the prudent and learned." That he later became known for his books places him among such other famous soldier-authors of the period as Cyrano de Bergerac. Like Cyrano, so many men in arms took an interest in the new sciences and medicine of the day that one historian has used the term "soldier-savant." We should not be surprised, then, to find Descartes writing to a friend that the pursuit of true philosophy was a work of valor, or that the struggles by which one arrives at truth are like the battles in war.
Put another way, like other young cavaliers of his era, Descartes cultivated chivalry. He well knew the genre's greatest model, Amadis of Gaul, the book so admired by Miguel de Cervantes that his own Don Quixote mocked the imitators. So popular was Amadis in the France of Descartes's youth that one of the most frequently reprinted handbooks was composed of extracts of courtly speeches from it, suitable for any occasion. In the story, Amadis was secretly fathered by the union of the beautiful Elisena and the powerful king Perion, then like Moses set on the waters to be discovered and brought up in another household. There he showed his innate virtue in ignorance of his heritage, becoming a knight errant, suffering many trials and enjoying many rewards in love before eventually being recognized as King Perion's true son and rescuing the kingdom. The sieur du Perron, too, was a virtual orphan, raised by others, spending many years traveling abroad to seek his fortune and suffering pleasures and pains in the process. As far as we know, he never saved a kingdom, but he kept the faith. Poisson tells of a moment when Descartes was returning to Paris on the Orléans road and was ambushed by a rival: not only did he defend himself well, he even disarmed his opponent; then, instead of giving the killing blow, he returned the captured sword for the sake of the eyes of the lady involved.
Like D'Artagnan, then, Descartes not only studied war but "delighted to discourse with Women," as Borel put it. A recently discovered portrait of him as a young man certainly shows him to have been handsome, and he seems to have exhibited a great deal of personal charm when he wished. He later fathered a child out of wedlock, and he loved this daughter, Francine, very much, being greatly moved by her death at the age of five. He must also have had some feeling for his daughter's mother — Helena Jans, a printer's housemaid — since when she finally married someone else, he put up a substantial dowry for her. But Descartes was best known for his conversations with women of noble rank. He had a long relationship with the young Princess Elizabeth of the Palatinate — niece of the king of England — and a shorter one with the even younger Queen Christina of Sweden. The last work he published during his lifetime, The Passions (1649), owed an enormous debt to the comments and inquiries of them both, especially Elizabeth. He listened. It is written with a view to the universal passions that move us all, including love and generosity. Descartes's first book, the Discours (1637), was originally written in French so that it could be appreciated by women, and his work came to have many supporters among the ladies who frequented the salons of Paris, who helped establish Descartes's reputation as a brilliant philosopher. Even better, the figure who pulls the strings in Dumas's novel (without ever making a personal appearance) is the Duchesse du Chevreuse (see fig. 2), a most remarkable woman, involved in many of the greatest events and conspiracies of the period, considered not only a charismatic beauty of many great love affairs but clearly possessed of a forceful mind, a powerful spirit, and a clear sense of the right and just; it was her son, Louis-Charles d'Albert, the duc de Luynes, who translated Descartes's Meditations (1641) from Latin into French, with Descartes's help. Our chevalier probably knew the brilliant duchess in person.
But he was also good with men. His letters are full of affection for his male friends, even passionate expressions of love. Some of his best friends were accused of moral libertinism, sometimes a code word for male–male love. During his exile in The Netherlands, Descartes lived for long periods with men, most important among them Étienne de Villebressieu and the abbé Claude Picot, the latter described as Descartes's agent "concerning his domestic affairs and revenues." Picot, in turn, was a good friend of the poet Jacques Vallée, sieur des Barreaux, known as an epicurean and lover of the scandalous poet Théophile de Viau. About the same age as Descartes, Barreaux had been a classmate of René's at school. Barreaux's circle of friends later included not only Descartes's friend Guez de Balzac but also Claude Emmanuel Lhuillier, known as Chapelle — one of Cyrano's intimates — who was born out of wedlock to Marie Chanut, sister of the French ambassador to Sweden in whose house Descartes died. A member of Picot's family was Paul Scarron, who also became an abbé, at age nineteen, and was reputed to be a "procureur" for Louis XIII and a client of the king's chief mistress, Marie de Hautefort (one of the few women in whom Louis took an interest). When Descartes paid a brief visit to Paris in 1647, he resided in the same urban palace (hôtel) as the family of Madame Scarron de Nandiné — whose first husband was that same Paul Scarron — better known in later life as Madame de Maintenon, mistress and then wife of King Louis XIV.
Descartes is discreet about it all. But in 1643, one of his Dutch adversaries would publish a book meant to harm him, among other things attacking Descartes for his sexual "dissolution and debauchery." That some of his closest friends, at least, engaged in both what would now be called homosexual and heterosexual relationships should come as no surprise, since such mixtures were common among the rulers of the kingdom as well as elsewhere. A generation earlier, the aggressively effeminate king Henri III had provoked a succession crisis when his assassination left no heir. In Descartes's own lifetime, Louis XIII (see fig. 3) was known to have favored many young men among his "pretties" (mignons), while the king's younger brother, Gaston d'Orléans, and a prince of the blood, the Grande Condé, were among the many male aristocrats who had intimate relations with men as well as women, often loving relationships among men of valor and martial skill. Descartes's own portrait was painted by Simon Vouet, who depicted many of the young men around Louis XIII. Probably for such people Descartes later wrote of the love and affection of an "honorable man for his friend or mistress."
Moreover, in the literature of the period not only male love but also androgyny is well represented. Perhaps the most successful work in the period of Descartes's youth was a book composed by Honoré d'Urfé, Marquis de Valromey and Comte de Châteauneuf, who died on campaign in 1625: it was titled L'Astrée, after the goddess of peace, and published in five installments between 1607 and 1628. While the name of one of its many characters, Celadon, came to be a byword for love, that love embodied a symmetrical sexuality based on the pre-Edenic and alchemical myth of a united person who had no distinct gender, the desired union re-creating the Androgyn. The famous author of fables, Jean de La Fontaine, later called the free-swinging L'Astrée the "livre d'amour par excellence." Gaston d'Orléans himself was utterly captivated by these tales of love, as were many of Descartes's friends.
Had Descartes's life taken a slightly different course, then, we might have seen him rise to be among the courtiers of the age, perhaps a kind of lesser duc de La Rochefoucauld, whose keen-sighted maxims exposed the springs of human action and self-regard for all to see. But Descartes ultimately chose to explain the physical sources of our embodied lives. And there is another difference: instead of ending his life amid the aristocratic households of France,
Descartes died elsewhere, after two decades away from his beloved Paris. Earlier in life, his potential patrons fell from power, causing him to remain in search of opportunities; and just when his name began to be widely known, he found himself on the wrong side of the king's coldhearted chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, and fled. His honors therefore came posthumously, and not for his actions or counsel but for his writings. Since he lived abroad, his compatriots came to know him mainly through his books and correspondence, thinking of him as a person apart, distant, alone.
Descartes has therefore earned a reputation not as an aristocrat but as a hermit. Depictions of him have consequently been shaped not by the genre of chivalry but of martyrology. They report that Descartes died tragically, an accidental victim of a woman's vanity. He is said to have risen in the wee hours of the night in the frigid dark of a Swedish winter to tutor the young queen, herself an early riser, thereby exhausting himself and dying of a respiratory illness. But it seems that in fact the queen met him in person only four or five times, while at the time of his death a serious fever was running through the court. After his death, rumors circulated that he had been poisoned, while another story had it that he faked his death to run off and live among the Lapps, who were then reputed to be the most powerful magicians in the world.
If not romance or martyrology, then, perhaps mystery. Mystery accumulated around him even in his lifetime. As one of his most orthodox modern biographers admits, "even though he left confusion in his wake, René Descartes always succeeded in covering his tracks." Why he traveled abroad so often certainly perplexed his friends. And then there is the secrecy. When as a young man he headed off into central Europe, he jotted down in his notebook "I go masked" (Larvatus prodeo). It was a common phrase among people of his rank, who lived daily at court by acting out their public personae. But he spent years on the road throughout central and northern Europe followed by two years in Italy, and even after he returned a second time to the Dutch Republic, he could not settle, shifting his residence from such cities as Dordrecht to Amsterdam, to Franeker, Leiden, Deventer, and Utrecht, and then even to smaller towns including Sandpoort, Endgeest, and Egmond. He dissuaded friends from Paris from coming to visit and urged his correspondent Marin Mersenne not to let people know his address, while he also used drop boxes, instructing Mersenne to contact him by sending messages to other people from whom he could collect his post. He later adopted a motto from Ovid as his own: "He who lives hidden, lives well" (Bene qui latuit, bene vixit).
The same motto is also said to have been adopted by the secretive brethren of the Rosy Cross, or Rosicrucians. Coincidentally, when signing letters, he always wrote his name as "René des Cartes," abbreviated as "R.C." The fifth of the six rules of the brotherhood instructs its members to use "C.R." or "R.C." as their mark. Coincidentally, too, the first of its rules commands them to profess no other thing than curing the sick without a fee, while others ask them to blend in with the people of whatever country they inhabit; our R.C. was interested in medicine from an early date, while one of his moral maxims was to live according to the customs of the region in which he found himself. There is good evidence to show that he spent time at Ulm with the noted German mathematician and reputed Rosicrucian Johannes Faulhaber, and Descartes's early notebook contains a sketch of a plan to publish a work dedicated to the Rosicrucians under the pen name Polybius Cosmopolitanus. After returning to Paris from the wars in Europe, he arrived in the midst of a public uproar about subversion by the Rosicrucian brotherhood, with many people fearing that he was one of its underground leaders. Reputed Rosicrucians were numbered among some of his closest Dutch friends as well. It is this line of association that a Jesuit critic later drew on in a satire that has Descartes making visits in spirit to the moon, stars, and even outer reaches of the universe after smoking strong tobacco mixed with a secret herb. Here we have an occult Descartes, far more resembling the secretive and reputedly long-lived Count Saint Germain than a straitlaced soldier or philosopher.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Part 1 Mysteries: Remains of a Hidden Life Words on Paper
In Search of a Person behind the Words
Part 2 A France of Broken Families Families
Breaking with His Father
A Political Education
Part 3 Gearing Up for War: Mathematical Inspirations Breda
Meeting Isaac Beeckman
The Holy Roman Empire
Part 4 War and Diplomacy in Europe Into Bohemia
To Hungary and Disaster
The Baltic and Return to The Netherlands
Again in France
Paris and the Rosicrucian Scare
The Valtellina and Rome
Part 5 The Struggle for France Problems with the Cardinal
The Campaign for La Rochelle
Confrontation and Departure The Meetings
Confrontation and Conversation
Becoming a Sectarian
Part 6 Not Yet Concluded Chronological Table
List of Early Correspondence and Publications
For Further Reading