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Descartes: The Life and times of a Genius Hardcover – October 31, 2006
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A devout Catholic who lived in a time of "miracles, spontaneous generation, and phoenixes rising from the ashes," not to mention the Spanish Inquisition, Descartes (1596–1650) spent most of his life trying to justify to the church a rational approach to studying the natural world. Though he did not succeed during his lifetime, Descartes laid the foundation for future tolerance of scientific and mathematical discoveries. The deceptive simplicity of his writings on age-old problems such as "I think therefore I am," mind-body dualism and his "method of doubt" contribute to his reputation as a genius; however, despite the book's subtitle, proving genius is not Grayling's main concern. Rather, this book of history illuminates the problems of an intellectual during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In the first half of the book, Grayling proposes that the young Descartes was actually a spy for the Jesuits while living in Paris. Once Descartes leaves Paris for the Netherlands, a more crucial intellectual adventure begins in the conflict between his allegiance to the church and his "Copernican, materialist and mechanistic" scientific method. Unfortunately, this tension doesn't come across with the same vividness as in earlier chapters. 26 color and 11 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Nov.)
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Grayling's profile of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is a general-interest biography that follows the life stages and travels of the flesh-and-blood Descartes (those wanting a more scholarly approach should seek out Stephen Gaukroger's Descartes, 1995). Between his birth in rural France and his death at the Swedish royal court are curious gaps of biographical knowledge that invite plausible hypothesizing. Descartes' relation to the Rosicrucians, a supposed secret society, is mulled over by science historian Amir Aczel in Descartes' Secret Notebook (2005), as it is by Grayling here, albeit briefly. More lengthily, Grayling is intrigued by Descartes' presence, on the Catholic Hapsburg side, France's enemy, at key events in the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. Grayling cautiously proposes that Descartes was a Jesuit spy. True or not, espionage enlivens what is otherwise Descartes' sedentary story of philosophical reflection, which Grayling tracks chiefly through surviving correspondence. This offers glimpses of Descartes' sociable personality, although he was prone to anger when crossed on points of intellectual pride. An informative presentation of the man behind cogito, ergo sum. Gilbert Taylor
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The French King Henri IV (1553--1610) founded the Jesuit college La Flèche in 1604 and Descartes was a student there from 1606 until 1616. One of the major ceremonies which took place when Descartes was 16 years old involved burying the heart of Henri IV in the chapel at La Flèche. Grayling attempts to fathom the significance of such events:
". . . Henri IV had been murdered by a Jesuit called Ravillac, so there is black irony in the fact that, by his own wish, the king was buried by Jesuits among the Jesuits, whom he had patronised and supported with such generosity. . . . The Jesuits, as already noted, were the advisors and encouragers of the Hapsburgs, who, like their Jesuit mentors, saw themselves as the champions of the Catholic church, and who were soon to plunge Europe into three decades of hideous war in an effort--ultimately unsuccessful--to reclaim for Catholicism all territories lost to Protestantism." (pp. 23-24).
I can appreciate the idea of the Jesuits as an intellectual elite with a faith that they could change the nature of society by using whatever weapons were readily available. The same kind of thinking dominates those who think of themselves as a universal panacea. This becomes hideous when it is viewed with the sense of monstrosity that a knowledge of intellectual history is able to produce.
Grayling considers it possible that Descartes was a spy for the Jesuits, which was highly suspect in his native France, so he spent years in an area that has become Belgium. The most prosperous Protestant area, "The seven dissenting Protestant provinces in the Union of Utrecht were Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen (without its city)." (p. 32). When Descartes traveled from Breda to join Duke Maximilian's troops for the Battle of White Mountain outside Prague, and to attend the coronation of emperor Ferdinand II in Frankfurt in September 1619, following the death of Matthias in March 1619, his circuitous route was through regions controlled by the Jesuits. With perfect timing, the battle had been revenge for the famous Defenestration of Prague on May 22, 1618, after Matthias had given Catholics the leading posts on the council of Regents, "The new regents' first act was to require that all Bohemian religious bodies should revert to the terms of their original foundation, thus at a stroke returning all Protestant churches to Catholic control, complete with their endowments and other property. The Bohemian Protestants immediately rebelled." (pp. 51-52).
Try to imagine results like:
"As these armies amassed, Frederick V arrived in Prague with his German Calvinist entourage, to whom the Bohemian Lutherans took an immediate dislike. Sweden, Venice, Denmark and the United Provinces of the Netherlands had all recognized Frederick's accession to the throne of Bohemia as a way of thumbing a nose at Ferdinand II, but they had no intention of sending troops to help him." (pp. 53-54).
Instead of trying to separate these things from the life of Descartes, Grayling sees a link with the ideas that promoted a scientific revolution. "Of course the two things cannot be separated, just as Descartes' story cannot be told without reference to both." (p. 55).
My own life and times have been interesting in ways that are all too much for those whose sanity claims that what is simple is true. Systems that are highly complex are prone to fail in unexpected ways, and Descartes was able to observe the rise and fall of human affairs in a way that suggests the wave motions studied in fluid mechanics. I took a few courses in fluid mechanics at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, and a professor there tried to interest me in the problems that he was working on, much like Descartes met Isaac Beeckman in Breda in November 1618. Descartes dedicated a treatise on harmonics to Beeckman and worked on a set of four problems in hydrostatics. Trying to figure out the problems Beeckman suggested, the modes of argument led to "the essence of Cartesian micro-mechanism in optics, cosmology, physiology, and natural philosophy generally, after being refined over the next fifteen years through practice, criticism, and deliberate metaphysical reconstruction." (p. 43, quoting Schuster, Descartes and the Scientific Revolution I.101).
Recent biographies of my favorite philosophers are considered in Appendix II. On war, "In this, Descartes and Wittgenstein followed the example of Socrates, who was a hoplite--a heavily armed infantryman--in the Athenian army at the battle of Potidiae." (p. 254). Even Immanuel Kant can be found interesting if he is considered as "an atheist in a city wracked by religious strife, in which the Pietist community from which he sprang played a leading part." (p. 254). Nietzsche gets credit for "his revolution was not effected in the sphere of philosophy and science, as with Descartes, but in the psychology of an age." (pp. 258-159). Kant, Nietzsche, and Althusser are mentioned in connection with "their descents into madness or dementia at the last, are untypical of the general run of philosophers, who tend to live long and enjoy an alert old age," (p. 262), probably as a result of finding that what is simple is true, in spite of being alert to the forms of psychotic multiplicity that outrageous thinkers deal with daily.