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

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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood