The Young Descartes: Nobility, Rumor and War by Harold J Cook

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Unfamiliar with the writings of Harold J Cook before I picked up The Young Descartes I had no preconceptions about what I would soon read. Cook’s mountain metaphor captured my attention as it explains the strategies for determining the events in the life of the young Descartes. Much remains unresearched and, in Cook’s view, we need to nose around in the foothills where newly discovered information of little value in isolation when placed alongside other evidence could lead to conclusions that supplement our current knowledge. In other words, since direct evidence of Descartes activities is difficult to find, the advancement of knowledge will have to rely on indirect evidence.

Cook notes that Descartes moved in a world that made judgments according to lineage, title, and office. Descartes’ family had those attributes and Descartes later gained an inheritance from his mother which gave him a title in his own right. His father had risen in government ranks and knew most of the leaders of France. Most of the young Descartes’ family identified with their father’s Brittany, Rene by contrast saw his mother’s Poitou as the province he called home. His mother’s family were among a dissatisfied group that called for a stronger and reformed monarchy, resulting in a distinct coldness in the relationship between Descartes and his father, which in turn was exacerbated by his father’s close identification with Cardinal Richelieu.

Cook makes a strong case for Descartes in his late teens “busying himself with rounds of visiting and socializing, and perhaps swordplay, looking for the main chance to attach himself to one of the groups around the great persons of the day” (52). As Cook points out, Descartes’s later work on the passions revealed his knowledge of the distinction to be drawn between authentic feeling and calculation. Society in France in the early seventeenth century could have a dangerous face. Most survived by serving a master. In this Descartes stood alone. He was particularly vulnerable because he had no powerful figure at his back.

However, Cook reveals the close friendship between Claude Mydorge, a royal judge who rose high in the king’s service. Mydorge is important to posterity, however, not so much for his administrative skills as for his ability to stimulate “a serious early interest in mathematics in his young companion” (57). A friendship developed also with Guez de Balzac, a lesser noble just as Descartes was, but a “helpful intermediary to the greats” (58).

Cook’s thesis holds up well in depicting who the young Descartes was by means of what he might have been. We have been slowly gathering evidence and expect to find Cook continuing to build a man of substance from pretty thin material. In 1618 or thereabouts Descartes lived among his friends, some of whom were libertines, spending days consulting with Mydorge and seeking patrons among the powerful. But, according to Cook, an account by the French biographer Baillet suggests that Descartes may have come close to Concini, a Marshal of France and second in power only to the queen. “It would not be the relationship of a lifetime for Descartes, but in politics, even a few months can be transformative” (67). It seems he took note of his friends’ warnings and stayed clear of Concini but continued seeking patronage of great nobles who were close to Marie de Medici and the young Louis. When Louis staged a coup to get rid of Concini, Descartes left France in haste.

It is excellent fun to follow the young Descartes through the intrigues of the French court in the time of Marie de Medici and her son Louis XIII.  The ministrations of Cook’s pen open up an intellectually intriguing world. More to the point Cook delivers a world that was treacherous and dangerous, a world characterised by murder and treachery. It is a vicious world as Cook’s description of the execution of the young comte  de Chalais shows all too clearly. Cardinal Richelieu’s brutality in his insatiable grasping for power and the rivalries between the Catholics and the Protestants are all here.

A new chapter examines the life of the young Descartes studying engineering with the Dutch. By the beginning of the seventeenth century war making had become a complex applied science (81). It relied on “the application of the latest technological devices and mathematical methods related to complex machines…to solve physical problems (81). Descartes’s encounter with engineering would have a profound effect on his thinking, for it was in consideration of a military puzzle, that he drew the conclusion that he should begin his own philosophy from his own first principles. It was as an engineer and mathematician that he met one of the most influential men in his life Isaac Beeckman, whom Descartes credited with a new way of thinking.

To note that Descartes left France following the young king’s coup is to realise how well and how quickly he could sniff out danger and take himself out of reach of his enemies. Clearly he travelled widely but for what purposes and to what locations are still not clear. Cook quotes Descartes’s own words to sum up his activities in the period between 1620 and 1625. Writing in his Discours Descartes is circumspect: travelling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situation which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as [to] derive profit from it” (Cook, 117 – 18). Cook is in no doubt that Descartes was a peripatetic traveller in the 1620s, possibly, or even most likely, in the employ of someone as yet unidentified. By 1630 Descartes based his activities in Paris, but little is known beyond this.

Cook shows very clearly how frustrating it must have been to pin Descartes down. He remarks, “But perhaps Baillet’s comment about how Descartes turned away from abstract contemplations to ‘the study of man’ meant that he was inevitably becoming involved with the factional positioning within France after all” (156)? He is not convinced. However, Cook is in agreement that Descartes by 1629 was an accomplished diplomat and soldier, an excellent mathematician and experimentalist, known to some of the great French aristocrats, and well known to both royal and papal officials (170). Cook shows that Descartes’s reasons for departing to the Netherlands and remaining there for twenty years are by no means confirmed.

The reasons for Descartes shifting to the Netherlands are at best speculative. Cook’s approach is authoritative but also laced with common sense. As the conjectures mount, Cook calls a halt. “Let us unpack the moment of his leaving” (190), he says. Cook comes to the conclusion that France was a most uncertain place, whereas in the Netherlands, ‘no poisoner of reputation or life awaited him” (194). Peace and quiet and personal safety allowed the young man to continue his studies. Descartes had investigated the foothills of Cook’s metaphor and was now ready to tackle the mountain itself. The final chapter is a masterly exposition of the life of the young Descartes. It is left to some other scholar to continue the journey.  Intriguing, to say the least.

The Young Descartes


By Harold J. Cook

University of Chicago Press

ISBN: 978-0-226-46296-7

$64.00; 288pp

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