Descartes: The Life and times of a Genius
A. C. Grayling
Scientist, mathematician, traveler, soldier―and spy―Rene Descartes was one of the founders of the modern world. His life coincided with an extraordinary time in history: the first half of the miraculous seventeenth century, replete with genius in the arts and sciences, and wracked by civil and international conflicts across Europe. But at his birth in 1596 the world was still dominated by medieval beliefs in phenomena such as miracles and spontaneous generation. It was Descartes who identified the intellectual tools his peers needed to free themselves from the grip of religious authority and in doing so he founded modern philosophy.
In this new biography, A. C. Grayling tells the story of Descartes' life, and places it in his tumultuous times―with the unexpected result that an entirely new aspect of the story comes to light.
world's tearing itself away from the old world. Of course this parturition took much bloody and painful struggle over a far longer period, starting with Luther's nailed theses in 1517 and ending only with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648; but when looked at through the lens of the history of thought, the 1620s take on a pivotal significance. In that decade one saw the last major effort of the old world to repress the new; and in it some of the most significant founding ideas of the new
it proved again. After eight days of illness, on 7 September 1640, Francine died. She was aged just five. A few months later, in a letter to Alphonse Pollot, Descartes wrote that he was not the kind of philosopher who thinks that men should not cry, and added that he knew what he was speaking about, because he had just lost two of the people who had been dearest to him.7 Baillet said that Francine's death was "the greatest sorrow that Descartes ever experienced in his life,"8 and one can well
agreement."28 In sharp contrast to Descartes' bitter view of the mathematicians who attacked him was his reaction to those whose attitude was favourable. Girard Desargue and Florimond Debeaune liked his book, praised it, and in return bathed in his smiles. He told Mersenne that he thoroughly liked Desargue's "good mind" and the "curiosity and clarity of his language."29 Desargue helped Mersenne urge the granting of the privilege for the book, and on reading the essay on Optics immediately
living at Egmond-Binnen] but also in the books that I consult, that I cannot read those which occur in Your Highness's letters without feeling an extraordinary joy."4 In a book about their relationship, Leon Petit claims that Descartes and Elizabeth were in love with one another.5 Genevieve Rodis-Lewis is inclined to agree, though in her opinion it was not a sexual passion. Sexual passions and a considerable amount of associated turmoil were no strangers to the Palatinate household in the
claimed that Descartes regarded his friendship with Clerselier as one of the greatest pieces of good fortune he had ever had, and that he "revealed to him the most intimate secrets of his life."19 Whether or not this latter is true, Descartes certainly welcomed the new friendships, and they both indeed proved of immense importance. Paris, Blois, and friends constituted the pleasure part of Descartes' visit; but they were not enough to make him think of remaining in France permanently. In a