The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue

The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue

The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue

The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue

Synopsis

Amid the unrest, dislocation, and uncertainty of seventeenth-century Europe, readers seeking consolation and assurance turned to philosophical and scientific books that offered ways of conquering fears and training the mind- guidance for living a good life.

The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution presents a triptych showing how three key early modern scientists, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Leibniz, envisioned their new work as useful for cultivating virtue and for pursuing a good life. Their scientific and philosophical innovations stemmed in part from their understanding of mathematics and science as cognitive and spiritual exercises that could create a truer mental and spiritual nobility. In portraying the rich contexts surrounding Descartes' geometry, Pascal's arithmetical triangle, and Leibniz's calculus, Matthew L. Jones argues that this drive for moral therapeutics guided important developments of early modern philosophy and the Scientific Revolution.

Excerpt

This then will be the true teaching of method: not so much the
seeking after truth but, rather, of living
.
Leibniz, “On the Art of Discovery”

What fields of learning should a noble and cultivated person pursue? In 1666 an anonymous author tackled the question. Many sciences were unacceptable means for cultivating oneself. Theology with its many mysteries should be left to “our superiors.” The study of the natural world was far too uncertain and contested—even the greatest minds notoriously differed about nature. Although certain, the practice of mathematics came at too high a cost, for it “pulls you away from actions and pleasures and occupies you entirely.” The author advocated a triumvirate of sciences—morality, politics, and belles-lettres—that could teach the true philosophy necessary for living well. History revealed the value of such guidance: once Rome attained refinement, every person of consideration was “attached to some philosophical sect—with the aim, not of understanding the principles and the nature of things, but of fortifying the mind through the study of wisdom.” No mere academic activity, philosophy should guide honorable people in pursuing the good life.

In portraying mathematics and the study of nature as unsuitable for a noble man, the author intimated that some contemporaries judged them appropriate for cultivating the mind and soul. Numerous early-modern philosophers, including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Leibniz, the subjects of this book, deemed knowledge and practices now considered scientific to be powerful tools for living a good and virtuous life. They developed and articulated their practices for improving the self in tandem with their mathematics and natural philosophy. Technical disciplines could perfect mind and soul; minds so refined could best extend knowledge of nature and mathematics.

Moralists, theologians, and philosophers in seventeenth-century western Europe worried that scientific disciplines could too easily divert one . . .

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