The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter by Stephen Nadler: Descartes goes Dutch

An admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, but one which gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.

The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter
Stephen Nadler
Princeton University Press, 254pp, £19.95

In 1616, a young French nobleman named René Descartes, deeply dissatisfied with the methods offered to him by his teachers, determined to abandon further academic study. Although he had proved himself a brilliant student, he would now seek truth not in books but in the world and in himself.

His first steps into the world were as a soldier serving in the modern bureaucratic armies of the Thirty Years War. On the night of 10 November 1619, while stationed outside Neuburg an der Donau, Descartes climbed into a large stove to keep himself warm. The experience of that night is perhaps best understood as a mystical experience in which he was granted a vision of certainty. This vision was, paradoxically, a method of doubt. By doubting all the evidence of his senses, the only certainty that remained was the reality of his thinking self. And it was on the basis of this reality that he would elaborate a method with which to investigate all of knowledge.

Descartes continued his search for truth; he took a long trip to Italy, before he made the decision that, his method perfected, he would settle down to work through the entire range of human inquiry, from mathematics to biology. He chose not to live in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe, as he thought his time would have been devoured by friends and relatives. Instead, he went to the Low Countries, where he could pursue his research uninterrupted by social intrusion.

Steven Nadler’s new book examines Descartes’s life in the Netherlands by tracing the history of the portrait of Descartes by Frans Hals. The painting has become our received image of the philosopher, decorating the frontispiece of countless editions of his work. The method of Nadler’s book is new historicist: attention to a fragment of the historical record – in this case, a painting – reveals a web of connections that freshly illuminate a period and an author. Nadler paints a compelling picture of Descartes’s life in the village of Egmond, northern Holland, and makes it clear that Descartes’s life was not as isolated as he represented it. He had a small circle of friends who met in the nearby town of Haarlem – educated men alive to the most modern intellectual debates. At the centre of Nadler’s story is Descartes’s closest friend in this period, the priest Augustijn Bloemaert. It is he who commissions Hals’s portrait when Descartes is to leave the Netherlands for the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, where he later dies of cold.

Nadler’s book contains fascinating information but the parts never become a whole. The exposition of Descartes’s philosophy is competent but unconnected either to the general history of the multi-faith Netherlands or to the explosion of portraiture of which Hals’s painting is one example.

Descartes’s epiphany in his stove is one of the founding moments of modern western subjectivity but it poses a host of problems that Nadler never considers. The emphasis on the individual self might seem to align Descartes more closely with Protestant than Catholic thought but as the record seems to attest – and Nadler would appear to confirm – Descartes remained a faithful son of the Roman Church. The Netherlands in the 17th century was characterised by complicated relations between Catholics and Protestants, having a dominant Calvinist faith but a tolerated Catholic Church. Nadler sketches these relations well but doesn’t interrogate Descartes’s beliefs. Even more strangely, he does not investigate the conflict between portraiture’s embodiment of a self and the completely disembodied Cartesian self.

The oddness of Descartes’s philosophy is perhaps best brought out by contrasting it with another experience of enlightenment. When, 2,000 years earlier, the young Nepalese prince Siddhartha, better known as the Buddha, used the shade of a Bodhi tree, as Descartes used the heat of his oven, to reflect on the ultimate nature of knowledge and existence, one of the first certainties to dissolve was the self, which for Descartes remained immune from all doubt.

Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision. Reading it one has the sensation of reading preparatory notes for a book yet to be written.

A portrait of Descartes, after Hals's lost painting. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge