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Descartes: The Lost Episodes
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.4 (2002) 437-460

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The Lost Episodes

Paul S. MacDonald

THE LIVES OF GREAT FIGURES in the history of ideas exert a perennial fascination for those who find their ideas exciting. This fascination is even more evident in cases where enough is known to sketch the figure's outline or silhouette, but not quite enough to fill in the details. One approaches the life of Lucretius, for example, compressed in a single paragraph, with a sense of forever knowing too little; and leaves a thousand-page biography of Russell with a sense (perhaps) of knowing too much. What is known about Descartes's life story falls somewhere between these two extremes—enough to whet the appetite, but not enough to satisfy it. An underlying curiosity focuses on those long gaps and peculiar hiatuses between his infrequent early letters; a curiosity aggravated by his penchant for leaving so many things unsaid. Several conferences and symposia in 1996 commemorated the 400th anniversary of Descartes's birth; in addition to discussion of his philosophical doctrines and heritage, several respected scholars have taken the opportunity to reevaluate his philosophical contributions in the context of his life story.

The starting point for any historical investigation of Descartes's life is the first full-scale biography by Adrien Baillet (Paris, 1691), who had access to a great deal of original manuscripts through Descartes's associate Clerselier, which have long since vanished. Gregor Sebba 1 conducted a meticulous study of Baillet's unique access to these documents and witnesses, and his scrupulous probity in reporting [End Page 437] to his employers. Sebba's work establishes quite clearly Baillet's basic reliability as the chronicler of Descartes's life. After fifty years of outstanding research in Descartes's life and thought, G. Rodis-Lewis retains a positive assessment of Baillet's basic probity. In her words, he is "a conscientious historian, who often enough shows a critical mind," though she does caution that readers should be vigilant, "without mistaking his positive contribution." 2 My current research is devoted to expanding our understanding of three crucial episodes in Descartes's life, two of which were mentioned by Baillet, but without corroborative support. Each of these episodes was an important "learning experience" (as one says today) and had a profound impact on the next stage in Descartes's philosophical enterprise. On a number of salient points this paper will bring in recently uncovered support, in one form or another, for what until now has been dismissed as little more than the subject of wishful thinking.

1. Observations in Marvelous Prague, November 1620

Almost every biographer of Descartes until 1900 has concurred with his first biographer, Pierre Borel (writing only three years after the philosopher's death), who placed him at the Battle of White Mountain, November 8, 1620, in the armies of the Catholic League. Since the publication of Charles Adam's biography, which completed the landmark twelve-volume edition of Descartes's works (1896-1910), questions have been raised about the legitimacy of this claim. In considering the evidence pertinent to the issue of Descartes's presence in Prague it will be helpful to review the historical context. The Catholic League had been organized against the Protestant Union when the Czech Estates dethroned the Emperor Ferdinand and offered the crown of Bohemia to Prince Friedrich, the Calvinist Palatinate Elector, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of King James of England. In 1616 the Winter King and Queen moved their court to Prague, the Bohemian capital, which at that time still attested to the pervasive influence of Emperor Rudolf II, who had died in 1612. Under Rudolf, Prague had become the cultural center for a wide variety of heterodox thinkers, protected and encouraged by the Emperor's own personal interests. Lured by the court's great wealth and Rudolf's insatiable curiosity, alchemists, astrologers, hermeticists, and magicians descended on Prague. Among other, perhaps less-welcome visitors, were some celebrities: John Dee and Edward Kelly, Giordano Bruno, Michael Mayer, Tycho Brahe, and Johann Kepler. The...