Magazine article The Spectator

'The Young Descartes: Nobility, Rumour and War', by Harold J. Cook - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Young Descartes: Nobility, Rumour and War', by Harold J. Cook - Review

Article excerpt

Descartes is most generally known these days for being the guy who was sure he existed because he was thinking. But before he devoted himself to metaphysical meditations, he had spent a decade as a soldier-scholar travelling the hotspots of Europe. How might a greater understanding of this period affect our view of the great man? This is a fascinating if dry kind of pre-intellectual biography, which hopes to hint at how the philosophy grew out of the action.

René Descartes was born to a family of minor nobility in 1596, and educated by Jesuits. He studied some mathematics in Paris and then acquired a degree in law, after which he 'set out to study the art of war'. Over the next decade, he popped up in areas of conflict all over Europe as a 'gentleman volunteer', inveigling himself into useful aristocratic networks. At length, he also began to acquire a reputation as a natural philosopher with his mathematics and optics. He always had to tread carefully in order to avoid being denounced as a Rosicrucian or libertine. (At the time, the latter meant basically 'free thinker', though the libertines also had rather relaxed attitudes to sex.)

It's hard to say whether Descartes was soldiering in the front line at any particular engagement or hanging back, observing and advising. Either way, Harold J. Cook wants to connect the experience as a 'soldier savant' to the philosophical work. Perhaps Descartes' early inspiration in mathematics, it is suggested, came from developments in military engineering: compasses designed to help plan the storming of fortifications, and so on. (Mathematics here was quite important: as Cook relates, one such attack was repulsed because the engineers had got their sums wrong and the ladders built to scale the walls were too short.) Descartes certainly used such tools, and devised new mathematical methods with them, but he also studied -- and extended -- pure mathematics too. (Remember Cartesian co-ordinates.)

The text is a veritable concordance of grammatical forms for speculation. 'It is possible to imagine the following scenario,' the author writes; or 'Let us suppose that', or 'perhaps', or 'he must have', or 'he would have had time to'. Much of the book takes the form of adjudication between sources, which has moments of detective-novel satisfaction. Descartes' first biographer, Adrien Baillet, claimed that his hero was involved in the siege of La Rochelle in 1627, which subsequent scholars have doubted. …

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