Descartes: the life and times of a genius

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Walker & Co., 2005 - Biography & Autobiography - 303 pages
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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. A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. Among his recent books are a biography of William Hazlitt, The Meaning of Things, and The Reason of Things. He writes a regular column for The Times of London.

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. 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 Descartes, A.C. Grayling . . . deftly conjures up the political and religious conflicts of Bohemia and France, Spain and Holland, and brings to life those distant characters and events that began to shape modern Europe . . . He makes a convincing case that Descartes had a minor role as some kind of intelligence agent in the affairs of the day.”—Simon Blackburn, New York Times Book Review

“As Newton was to physics, so Descartes was to philosophy, moving it from superstition and religion to science and reason. They are the founding fathers of the modern world. Grayling's life of Descartes is set firmly in the age of the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War, which are evoked in a lively, almost novelistic style of which Descartes would certainly have approved. This propels the narrative forward and illuminates the philosophy for a lay readership.”—The Times (London)
 
“Grayling's account of the man and the thinker, which aims ‘to engage in conversation with non-specialists,’ navigates a careful path between the colourfully anecdotal and the challengingly scholarly, and succeeds admirably in producing an elegant, subtle and historically informed portrait of one of the found fathers of modernity . . . excellent intellectual biography.”—Sunday Times (London)
             
“‘Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am),’ said Rene Descartes in the mid 17th Century—the most famous philosophical sentence ever uttered . . . As Grayling vividly conveys, in a era of deference to religious authority, this was revolutionary.”—Mail on Sunday

“Grayling’s profile of René Descartes (1596–1650) is a general-interest biography that follows the life stages and travels of the flesh-and-blood Descartes (those wanting a more scholarly approach should seek out Stephen Gaukroger’s Descartes, 1995). Between his birth in rural France and his death at the Swedish royal court are curious gaps of biographical knowledge that invite plausible hypothesizing. Descartes’ relation to the Rosicrucians, a supposed secret society, is mulled over by science historian Amir Aczel in Descartes’ Secret Notebook (2005), as Grayling does here, albeit briefly. More lengthily, Grayling is intrigued by Descartes’ presence, on the Catholic Hapsburg side, France’s enemy, at key events in the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. Grayling cautiously proposes that Descartes was a Jesuit spy. True or not, espionage enlivens what is otherwise Descartes’ sedentary story of philosophical reflection, which Grayling tracks chiefly through surviving correspondence. These offer glimpses of Descartes’ sociable personality, although he was prone to anger when crossed on points of intellectual pride. An informative presentation of the man behind cogito, ergo sum.”—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“Popular critic Grayling provides an accessible and engaging biography of modernity's founding thinker, René Descartes (1596-1650). Paying equal attention to and balancing his descriptions of Descartes's development of a Western foundational concept in philosophy, his experiments in both mathematics and biological sciences, and the sociopolitical world of Western Europe during his lifetime, Grayling makes Descartes both human and admirable. While Descartes certainly had his moral lapses and engaged in behavior accepted in the 17th century but eschewed in our own era vivisectionist experiments, for instance he is also shown here as a doting father, a sometimes generous friend, and, most of all, a man who positively delighted in engaging anyone's creative intelligence. Why another biography of Descartes? Simply because this one humanizes science and philosophical thinking as well as a 17th-century man, giving lay readers a clear view of disciplines often shrouded in mystery. It would also serve as a good foundational biography for undergraduates in any of the humanities.”—Francisca Goldsmith, Library Journal

“A devout Catholic who lived in a time of ‘miracles, spontaneous generation, and phoenixes rising from the ashes,’ not to mention the Spanish Inquisition, Descartes (1596–1650) spent most of his life trying to justify to the church a rational approach to studying the natural world. Though he did not succeed during his lifetime, Descartes laid the foundation for future tolerance of scientific and mathematical discoveries. The deceptive simplicity of his writings on age-old problems such as ‘I think therefore I am,’ mind-body dualism and his ‘method of doubt’ contribute to his reputation as a genius; however, despite the book's subtitle, proving genius is not Grayling's main concern. Rather, this book of history illuminates the problems of an intellectual during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In the first half of the book, Grayling proposes that the young Descartes was actually a spy for the Jesuits while living in Paris. Once Descartes leaves Paris for the Netherlands, a more crucial intellectual adventure begins in the conflict between his allegiance to the church and his ‘Copernican, materialist and mechanistic’ scientific method. Unfortunately, this tension doesn't come across with the same vividness as in earlier chapters.”—Publishers Weekly

“The work of the French rationalist is best understood within the politics of the 17th century, as cogently presented here for the non-philosopher. Born in 1596, Descartes reached adulthood at the start of the Thirty Years' War, the bloody European conflict rooted in religious clashes between Protestants and Catholics. Born Catholic and educated in the Jesuit tradition, Descartes spent some time seeking a suitable career—perhaps as lawyer, perhaps as engineer. As the latter, he traveled throughout Europe as a military consultant, although Grayling suggests provocatively that Descartes may have served as a spy. The discovery of clandestine activities, the author argues, may explain why Descartes absconded to the Netherlands (tolerant and out-of-the-way) in 1628 and began his purely intellectual investigations. Yet, in the charged atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation, to be a man of science was no small risk. A decade earlier, Galileo had been excommunicated for publishing evidence supporting the Copernican model of the solar system. Descartes, mindful of these difficulties and a devout Catholic, sought to separate matters of faith from matters of reason. For the scientific revolution to continue, he needed to wipe the slate clean and start over, and thus he conceived his Method of Doubt. Much of his life in the Netherlands was taken up with the careful and measured working out of his ideas on mathematics, logic, optics, physics, medicine and many other areas of rational inquiry. He also slept ten hours a day, lingering in bed until noon, and had an affinity for cross-eyed women. After the publication of his work, Descartes was arrogant to a fault in defending his ideas. Perhaps too vain in later years, his commission to personally tutor the Queen of Sweden led to his death from pneumonia one Scandinavian winter. I think, therefore I am is only the beginning of the story.”—Kirkus Reviews

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Review: Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius

User Review  - Graham - Goodreads

Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). I've wanted to know more about Descartes for a few years after an interesting conversation with a colleague who was studying philosophy at the time. This ... Read full review

Review: Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius

User Review  - Sue King - Goodreads

Fascinating biography in the context of history. The philosophy of Descartes in this book is somewhat difficult to follow, although I don't think it is the author's fault. The beginnings of "modern ... Read full review

Contents

Who Was Descartes?
1
The Awakening
11
A Night of Dreams
41
Copyright

13 other sections not shown

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About the author (2005)

A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. Among his recent books are a biography of William Hazlitt, The Meaning of Things, and The Reason of Things. He writes a regular column for The Times of London.