One Peculiar Nut

Steven Shapin

  • Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes by Richard A. Watson
    Godine, 375 pp, £22.00, April 2002, ISBN 1 56792 184 1

For René Descartes, the problem of keeping body and soul together took three forms. First, how did thinking stuff keep company with material stuff? Soul was active, unextended in space and immortal; body was passive, extended and, if it made up the structure of a human being, distressingly mortal. And yet humans were unique hybrids, in which rational minds volitionally moved brute matter, making them something quite different from parrots, apes and ‘earthen statues’. In 1643, the young and charming Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia asked Descartes how such a thing was possible and, while Descartes responded by performing some of his fanciest philosophical footwork, he was unable fully to satisfy her on this point, hoping that egregious flattery of both her body and her soul would substitute for substance.

Second, Descartes was greatly concerned with keeping his own body and soul together for as long as his wits could enable him to do so. In the Discourse on Method of 1637 he promised that if he could get his philosophical system right – and he let it be known that he was pretty close to doing that – then amazing things would follow in mechanics, morals and, above all, medicine. The vast prolongation of human life was a real possibility, and Descartes assured friends that he was about to crack the secret of living for several hundred years, if not for ever. ‘It should not be doubted,’ he wrote, ‘that human life could be prolonged, if we knew the appropriate art.’ He told Constantijn Huygens in 1637 that ‘I have never taken greater care in looking after myself than I am doing at the moment.’ Descartes was then in an optimistic frame of mind, once believing that he was built to last only thirty or forty years, but now seeing the prospect of living ‘a hundred years or more’ if only he could produce that ‘infallible’ system of medicine he was known to be searching for. He tried to dampen some of the wilder expectations of what he was on the verge of achieving: he said that while he could not promise ‘to render a man immortal’, he was ‘quite sure it was possible to lengthen out his lifespan to equal that of the Patriarchs’ – say, a thousand years. So when he died in 1650 one of his friends wrote that ‘he would have sworn that it would have been impossible for Descartes to die at the age of 54, as he did; and that, without an external and violent cause as that which deranged his machine in Sweden, he would have lived five hundred years, after having found the art of living several centuries.’

The third aspect of keeping Descartes’s body and soul together is much more mundane and more central to this biography: if you were going to be a philosophical author – one who was not a professor (like Roberval), not a cleric (like Mersenne), not a physician (like Harvey), not a family retainer (like Hobbes), not a court philosopher (like Galileo), and definitely not a mechanic and schoolmaster (like Beeckman) – how did you go about living that life? How did you find the material resources to keep yourself going and the cultural resources to lay claim to a recognised and valued platform in the social world permitting you authoritatively to pronounce on mind, matter and philosophical method? It was, of course, a very good thing to have independent means, but many early modern philosophers who did have such financial independence, and the accompanying social standing, spent much of their time apologising for appearing in the person of a philosophical author: it wasn’t the sort of thing a gentleman usually went in for. His family never considered the possibility that young René would spend his life writing books, and his father Joachim was alleged to have said that of his three sons René was the only one he was ashamed of – ‘a son so ridiculous as to bind himself in calfskin’. The family were upwardly mobile Poitou professionals, aspiring to the noblesse de robe, and ultimately achieving patents of minor nobility in 1668. There were doctors on both sides of the family, but, more to the point, lawyers, judges, police and finance officers, and councillors in regional parlements who enriched themselves in the customary way by selling offices and taking their cut on legal and commercial transactions.

René was the second son. That was his misfortune and modernity’s good luck, for had he been the eldest the odds on his becoming a philosopher would have been seriously reduced. His older brother, and later his younger half-brother, both did the right thing: offices were purchased for them and they added to the family’s growing collection of farms and miscellaneous real estate. René was sent off to be educated by the Society of Jesus at the Royal College in La Flèche, where tuition was free, to make sure that the Jesuit fathers could get at the best available young talent, preparing him for the law degree he ultimately took at Poitiers. But at that point he turned awkward, and his father could not have been best pleased. René didn’t want a legal or administrative career, so he lounged about for a few years in Brittany and Paris, deciding what he was going to do with himself.

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