The Cambridge Modern History: Planned by the Late Lord Acton - Vol. 4

By A. W. Ward; G. W. Prothero et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVII.
DESCARTES AND CARTESIANISM.

THE period of Continental history which extends from the beginning of the Thirty Years' War to the Peace of the Pyrenees is, from the point of view of intellectual progress, chiefly noteworthy for the works of Descartes and for the growing influence of the Cartesian Philosophy. Descartes was a Frenchman. Now, he travelled over the whole of Europe; he lived for twenty years in Holland; he was connected with numerous learned men of different countries; and among his pupils were a Princess Palatine and a Queen of Sweden. To some extent, therefore, he represents the whole of Europe, which, moreover, even in his lifetime displayed a fervent partisanship for or against his philosophy.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century France, where Descartes passed his days of studentship, presented, in the world of thought, a spectacle of disorder and confusion. The instruction given in the colleges was still wholly scholastic; but in the field of philosophy the yoke of authority had been cast off since the time of Ramus and the Renaissance. The philosophy of Aristotle was being rejected, and no substitute could be offered in its place except some other system likewise borrowed from the ancients, such as Neo-Platonism, Platonism, Epicureanism, or Stoicism. On the other hand, learning enlisted fewer enthusiasts than in the sixteenth century, and philology was in its decadence. The work of the Renaissance, so far as philosophy was concerned, seemed to be chiefly negative, and drew a number of thinkers towards scepticism.

And, from the religious standpoint, there was not less cause for anxiety in the prevailing condition of mind. Side by side with the development of medieval doctrine, from the fifteenth century onwards, a struggle had manifested itself between faith and reason, which was wholly adverse to the scholastic point of view. On the other hand, the Reformation had with incomparable force reawakened the craving for a personal and living way of belief and thought, as opposed to mere repetition of formulae and of comment upon them. And this movement had not been confined to the Protestants. Towards the middle of

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