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.

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

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.