Paul S MacDonald. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 40, Issue 4. October 2002.
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 conducted a meticulous study of Baillet’s unique access to these documents and witnesses, and his scrupulous probity in reporting
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.” 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.
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 Hradcany Castle was an architectural labyrinth with its “Wonder-rooms” constructed of mirrors and false walls, alchemists’ laboratories, archives of hermetic manuscripts, elaborate astronomical equipment, mechanical automata, and dreadful dungeons. During the ten days after the battle in which the Catholic armies looted the city, the young Descartes might have had an opportunity to discover at first hand this unique assemblage-after that date the collection was dispersed throughout Europe.
It is my contention that what he witnessed there had a profound influence on his thinking, especially his hypothesis about the machine-like nature of animal and human bodies; his utter rejection of the “false sciences,” such as alchemy and astrology; and his lifelong interest in contrived optical illusions. In the summer of 1997 the Prague City Council sponsored several exhibitions that allowed visitors to examine for the first time in almost 400 years a substantial portion of the original Rudolfine collections in their original locations; these exhibits are the background for some of my speculations. The present inquiry focuses on the claim, which has achieved the status of Prague “legend,” that the young cavalier Descartes was present at the battle. This legend originates with his first biographer, Borel who, as Rodis-Lewis comments, “sends him to the maximum number of battles and sieges,” and was endorsed by Baillet in his great work La Vie de M. Descartes in 1691. Most writers on Czech history simply repeat this legend, without any further corroboration-for example, Peter Demetz, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Frances Yates-though others such as Angelo Ripellino and R. J. Evans do not feel that such second-hand testimony merits attention. Even the most recent Czech National Encyclopedia (1995) recounts the illustrious Descartes’s involvement in words straight from Baillet’s biography. Although it is generally agreed that Baillet sometimes allows his imagination and enthusiasm for his subject to carry him away, it is hard to believe that he invented such an episode out of whole cloth. Given the bald fact that Descartes himself never referred either to Prague or the crucial battle, making a case for his presence or absence must rely on the persuasive force of indirect evidence. In her most recent book, Rodis-Lewis goes to great lengths to show that he could not have been in that place, at that time. Gaukroger says that “it is quite possible that he was no longer a serving soldier [in July 1620] and the circumstantial evidence indicates that he was probably not present at the Battle of the White Mountain outside Prague.” But this statement is misleading about the relation of circumstantial evidence to probability; there is no direct evidence that he was at the battle, and the indirect evidence shows nothing about the probability of his not being somewhere, rather it shows a high probability that he was some place whose details match all the available oblique references.
In order to properly assess the probability that he was in Prague in mid-November 1620, let us briefly review the salient events in his life before that date. Descartes received his degree from the Jesuit College of La Fleche in June 1615, went to study law at Poitiers and was awarded his license to practice in 1616 (the ceremony was held on November 10, a highly symbolic date). By late 1618 he was in Holland where, on November 10, he met Isaac Beeckman, with whom he studied mathematics off and on during the next two years. In March 1619 he wrote to Beeckman that he was about to depart on his travels; after leaving Amsterdam he hoped to visit Gdansk, Poland, the part of Hungary near Austria, and Bohemia (AT X.159). One month later he was still in Holland, but again informed Beeckman about his plans, though he was uncertain where his route might take him: “The preparations for war have not yet led to my being summoned to Germany, but I suspect that many men will be called to arms, though there will be no outright fighting. If that should happen, I shall travel about in Denmark, Poland and Hungary, till [reaching] Germany, until such time as I can find a safer route, one not occupied by marauding soldiers, or until I have definitely heard that war is likely to be waged” (AT X.162). Seven months later military events had overtaken the young chevalier’s travel plans: “At that time I was in Germany, where I had been called by the wars that are not yet ended there. While I was returning to the army from the coronation of the Emperor, the onset of winter detained me in quarters…” He made this statement according to his recollection seventeen years later in the Discourse (AT VI.11; CSM I.116). The coronation ceremonies took place in Frankfurt from July 20 to September 9 (AT XII.47), after which he began moving in a more or less eastward direction, i.e., in an effort to rejoin the forces of Prince Maximilian.
On November 10, 1619, he fell asleep in those “winter quarters” and experienced two (or three) extraordinary dreams, about which much ingenious speculation has been expended. The location of this house was most likely in the principality of Neuburg, near Ingolstadt, on the northern border of Bavaria, and not in the town of Ulm, the site which has entered the standard history books. The confusion between the sites of Ulm and Neuburg may have been occasioned by Baillet himself who corrects his earlier reference to Ulm in an abridgement of his biography published the next year, where he clearly situates the stove-heated room in Neuburg. An important recent discovery clinches the case: an antiquarian collector discovered an edition of Pierre Charron’s Traite de la sagesse, dedicated in Latin “to the most learned dear friend, and little brother, Rene Cartesio, Father Jean B. Molitor S. J., end of year 1619.” Father Molitor was resident at the newly established Jesuit retreat in Neuburg, which Descartes obviously visited exactly during the winter he claimed his dreams occurred. In his “Private Thoughts,”
Descartes recorded this signal event in the Olympica section with these words: “X. Novembris 1619, cum plenus forem Enthusiasmo, et mirabilis scientiae fundamenta reperirem,” that is, “filled with a strong enthusiasm, I discovered the foundations of a marvelous science” (AT X.179). After this date he probably began some of his geometrical experiments (or observations) which immediately follow the Olympica section. Another entry, written in the margin of the former, appears to refer to the same date, but the next year. “XI. Novembris 1620, coepi intelligere fundamentum inventi mirabilis,” that is, “I began to understand the foundation of a marvelous invention (or discovery).” Another entry shortly after the previous two enigmatic entries refers to either one conjoint promise or to two separate promises: “Before the end of November, I shall head for Loreto. I intend to go there on foot from Venice, if this is feasible and is the custom. If not, I will make the pilgrimage with all the devotion that anyone could normally be expected to show.” This is immediately adjacent to the next few lines: “At all events, I will complete my treatise before Easter, and if I can find publishers, and I am satisfied with what I manage to produce, I shall publish it. This is the promise I have made today, 23 February [or September] 1620” (AT X.218; CSM 1.5).
There has been much discussion ever since the first publication of Leibniz’s transcript of the “Private Thoughts” in the Foucher-Careil edition (1859) about whether February or September 1620 is the correct reading of the second promise. Even if the vow to visit Loreto, and not just the completion of his treatise, were dated as late as September 1620, and hence only six weeks before the great battle, there is no reason to think that Descartes might not have changed his mind. In any case, the issue of the entry’s date and the issue of whether or not he ever made it to Loreto do not directly pertain to the principal claim advanced here– that he could have been on the outskirts of Prague in early November 1620. It is almost certain, however, that Descartes was indeed in Ulm in July 1620, perhaps drawn to that place to observe the treaty signed between the Catholic League and the Protestant Union. According to Daniel Lipstorp’s unique recollection of these events (first published in 1653), Descartes visited the mathematician Johann Faulhaber at his home in Ulm, where the older scholar quizzed the young man on his knowledge of geometry and showed him his “collection of instruments, models and other new inventions that would fill a room in a museum.” (AT X.252-3). William Shea draws our attention to an entry in the “Private Thoughts” (AT X.241-2) where Descartes describes several instruments for making drawings that he probably observed in Faulhaber’s house. Shea also mentions an associate of the astronomer Kepler, a minor figure named Simbert Wehe, who had a book printed in Ulm in 1619, which refers to a young scholar named Castra or Castrae, yet another variant on the name “des Cartes.” Even more significant because of its precise date of February 1, 1620 is a letter from another Kepler crony, Johann
Hebenstreit, to Kepler himself, asking whether the astronomer had received a letter entrusted to “a certain Cartelius [sic], a man of genuine learning and singular urbanity. I do not wish to burden my friends with ungrateful and shameless vagrants, but Cartelius seems of a different sort and really worthy of your help.” The fact that Hebenstreit had given “Cartelius” a letter for Kepler, then in Linz, and that he was concerned lest Kepler might feel burdened with a vagrant, that is, a visitor, seems to indicate that Descartes intended to visit Kepler.
It seems that one can confidently place Descartes in Bavaria in the spring and summer of 1620, but after that time his movements are open to conjecture. The only indication of any date before his reappearance in Denmark at the end of 1621 is the puzzling entry in the “Private Thoughts” already mentioned above. In the margin of the register next to the date of the dream entry, “in a more recent ink, but surely in the same hand as the author,” this line appears: “11 November 1620, I began to understand the foundation of a marvelous discovery (or invention).” It is important to bear in mind that Descartes wrote his “Private Thoughts” in this parchment register in two directions: from the front and from the back, leaving blank pages in the middle. When Leibniz made his personal copy from the original in Paris in 1676, sometime before Baillet examined the manuscript, he simply transcribed it straight through. Thus, one cannot infer from the order of entries any strict chronological order in the sequence of events. In fact, it is not unusual for commonplace books to be disarranged in this fashion and for errors to creep in when an interpreter’s order is imposed upon the original. As with the vow to visit Loreto, there has been much scholarly discussion of the significant difference between the two dates, November 10, 1619 and November 11, 1620. Gouhier has examined every possible interpretation of the context, formulation, and connotation of these two entries; although the Olympian dreams are the only obvious candidate for the former, there are numerous conjectures about the discovery mentioned in the latter.
Rodis-Lewis has also examined these two dates and built an argument about the basic purport of the second date that needs to be challenged here. Rodis-Lewis dismisses the thesis that Descartes might have been in Prague in November 1620 by noting that his attendance at the Battle of White Mountain, “did not prevent Descartes from making a new and admirable discovery on the anniversary of his dreams.” She also claims that he “first proposed to continue to travel, going to Italy after the hot season to celebrate piously the anniversary of the 1619 dreams.” She shows great surprise that, “we might even think that the days of violence that followed the battle of 8 November would have made altogether impossible a serene scientific meditation capable of eliciting an important discovery.” But her confident assertions state the issues back to front, imputing some sort of design or intention behind this dated entry. There is nothing in the second entry from the “Private Thoughts” to show that Descartes set out to find a solitary, quiet spot in order to make a scientific study. Surely the more plausible interpretation
is that he found himself in some place where he made a marvelous discovery, and that by chance this was the same date as his previous discovery. That is why he made the second entry adjacent to the first entry, not to emphasize the similarity of the discovery, but to underline the striking coincidence in the dates. Of course, one can only wonder at the number of significant events in Descartes’s life which occurred on November 10: his license at law, his first meeting with Beeckman, the dream episode, the battle’s aftermath, and (later) his encounter with Sieur de Chandoux. Thus, there are two separate events, recorded in two adjacent entries; they are partially discriminated by subtly different formulations. The first says, “mirabilis scientiae fundamenta reperirem,” placing the emphasis on “find out” or “discover” the foundations (plural) of a “marvelous science.” The second says, “coepi intelligere fundamentum inventi mirabilis,” placing the emphasis on “understand” the foundation (singular) of “a marvelous discovery (or invention).” There is a profound difference between, on the one hand, discovering or even inventing a new science, one that does not already exist, and on the other hand, beginning to understand a discovery or invention, which may after all not be one’s own.
My preference for an appropriate interpretation of the second entry is that after the victory of the Catholic forces on November 8, Descartes entered the city of Prague. By November 11, he might have made his way to the Castle where he discovered the extraordinary wonder-rooms, alchemical apparati, ornate gardens, startling automata, and other marvels assembled by the Emperor Rudolf before his death in 1612. Within weeks of the Protestant forces’ defeat, large convoys of wagons carried most of this booty out of the city, to be dispersed across the Continent and never seen as an integral collection again. The final irony is that during the last five months of his life, at the court of Queen Christina in Stockholm, he would have seen more treasures from Prague, removed in late August 1648 by the Swedish army corps which then occupied the Czech capital; perhaps Descartes recognized some of these rare and unusual Rudolfine artifacts. After the conclusion of the Westphalian peace treaties, the Queen prevailed on her reluctant French philosopher to compose an elegant pageant, “The Birth of Peace,” first staged in Stockholm on December 19, 1649. Within two months the philosopher had succumbed to the frigid cold and dawn tutorials demanded by the Queen.
Despite the lack of explicit references to Prague in the “Private Thoughts,” there are traces from passages in later texts to this marvelous city, fraught with internal divisions, and threatened by external dangers. In an undated register entry under the heading “Experimenta,” written entirely in French unlike all the other entries in Latin, this observation is recorded.
In a garden we can produce shadows to represent certain shapes, such as trees; or we can trim a hedge so that from a certain perspective it represents a given shape. Again, in a room we can arrange for the rays of the sun to pass through various openings so as to represent different numbers and figures; or we can make it seem as if there are tongues of flame, or chariots of fire, or other shapes in the air. This is all done by mirrors which focus the sun’s rays at various points. Again, we can arrange things so that when the sun is shining into a room, it always seems to come from the same direction, or seems to go from west
to east. This is all done by parabolic reflectors; the sun’s rays must fall on a concave mirror on the roof, and the mirror’s focal point must be in line with a small hole, on the other side of which is another concave mirror with the same focal distance, which is also aligned on the hole. This causes the sun’s rays to be cast in parallel lines inside the room. (AT X.216; CSM I.3)
This meticulous account strikes me as a first-hand description of an actual site. There is hardly any need to point out Descartes’s persistent interest in optical illusions, an interest that appears throughout several later works. What is unusual about this passage is its attention to contrived illusions that are generated by elaborate optical apparati. Without stretching the point too far, there is a very good candidate for the original exemplum of this careful description in one of the wonder-rooms in Prague Castle. On the north side of the Royal Palace, overlooking the Deer Moat, is the Powder Tower; built in the late fifteenth century and used in the sixteenth century as the gun and bell foundry, it was converted into alchemists’ workshops under Rudolf’s direction. During the citywide exhibitions in the summer of 1997, some of the rooms in the Powder Tower were restored to their 1612 state. One of these rooms comprised an elaborate optical apparatus whose mirrors and lenses, positioned on the walls, ceiling, and floor, created unnatural movements of sunlight and shadows. And further, almost thirty years later, after taking up residence at Queen Christina’s court in Stockholm, he composed the unfinished dialogue, The Search After Truth; although there is some dispute about this, November or December 1649 seems the most likely date for its composition. As mentioned above, a substantial portion of the remainder of Rudolf’s marvelous collection had been removed from Prague the previous year and was now housed in Queen Christina’s palace. Given the philosopher’s actual setting when he wrote the dialogue, the following exchange between Epistemon (the learned scholar) and Eudoxus (Descartes’s spokesman) seems highly significant for our hypothesis about traces of Magical Prague in Descartes’s later writings.
Epistemon: I should like you to go on to clarify for me some special difficulties which I find in every science, and chiefly those concerning human contrivances, apparitions, illusions, and in short all the marvelous effects attributed to magic …
Eudoxus. After causing you to wonder at the most powerful machines, the most unusual automatons, the most impressive illusions, and the most subtle tricks that human ingenuity can devise, I shall reveal to you the secrets behind them, which are so simple and straightforward that you will no longer have reason to wonder at anything made by the hands of men. (AT X. 504-5; CSM II. 404-5)
From his “Private Thoughts,” his early letters to Beeckman, and Beeckman’s own journal one can discover Descartes’s particular, even obsessive interests at that time. These interests included, among others: the Rosicrucian manifestoes;
astronomical experiments, especially those of Kepler and Brahe; guides to the art of memory, such as the works of Lull, Bruno, and Schenkel; ornate and topiary gardens; automata, especially complex full-scale machines; and “wonder-rooms,” such as the one above, with elaborate optical effects. There was one place in Europe at that time where he could have satisfied his immense curiosity about all these things, one place where they were all collected together and displayed: the City of Prague. My contention here is that there are important traces, though they are sometimes subtle and oblique, to his first-hand experiences of such “experiments” after the Battle of White Mountain, during the ten days before Prince Maximilan’s troops removed them.
First, as Frances Yates has so eloquently demonstrated, the Rosicrucian “fantasy” or story, which spread through Central Europe between 1615-20, was inextricably linked with the Winter King and Queen, first at their court in Heidelberg and then in Prague. The three genuine Rosicrucian tracts, the Fama, the Confessio, and The Chemical Wedding, were printed at or near the Palatinate and were probably written by senior members of the court circle. Descartes himself contemplated such an esoteric tract, the so-called “Mathematical Thesaurus of Polybius the Cosmopolitan,” mentioned without further explanation in the “Private Thoughts” (AT X.214; CSM I.2). Second, Kepler and Brahe (died 1601) had separately established their astronomical headquarters in one of the Prague palaces during the reign of Rudolf II, who died in 1612. Third, Prague was one of the centers for the study of the art of memory, and both Bruno and his disciple Schenkel had lived there. Fourth, although ornate gardens could be found at several royal palaces, one of the best known was the South Gardens (Jizni Zahrady) below the Hradcany Gates, which overlooked the steps down to the Little Quarter (Mala Strana). The gardens were laid out in 1562 and an elaborate circular pavilion was built for the Emperor Matthias in 1617. It is in fact the site of the defenestration of the three Catholic nobles in 1618, who by good fortune survived the steep fall by landing in a large manure pile. In front of the magnificent Belvedere building is an ornate geometrical garden in the center of which is the Singing Fountain. Built in 1568, it still survives and produces various musical sounds when the water passes through hidden pipes and bronze bowls. Perhaps Descartes had this garden in mind when he wrote in the Treatise on Man (circa 1630-2): “You may have observed in the grottos and fountains in the royal gardens that the mere force with which the water is driven as it emerges from its source is sufficient to move various machines, and even to make them play certain instruments or utter certain words…” (AT XI. 130; CSM I. 100). Fifth, one of the single greatest collections of automata at that time had been assembled by Rudolf II; although it is not possible to match specific descriptions of such ma
chines in Descartes’s texts and letters with items in Rudolf’s inventory, Prague Castle was still one of the best places to observe them.
And finally, given his tendency to sometimes use real examples to illustrate his imaginary experiments, perhaps one should pay more attention to Descartes’s hypothesis about an artificial human, or perhaps more accurately, a human-beast conceived as the artifice of a great craftsman. In the Treatise on Man he says, “I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us. [He also] places inside it all the parts required to make it walk, eat, breathe, and indeed to imitate all those of our functions which can be imagined to proceed from matter and to depend solely on the disposition of our organs” (emphasis added). Shortly after this he defines the animal spirits as “a certain very fine wind, or rather a very lively and pure flame” (AT XI.120, 129; CSM 1. 99, 100). This passage occurs in the context of his remarks about royal gardens, automata, and clockwork machines. In the Meditations he clearly identifies this concept of soul before rejecting it in favor of the mind as a thinking thing: the soul, he says, “is something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which permeated my more solid parts”; and on the next page, it is “a wind, fire, air or breath” (AT VII. 26, 27; CSM II. 17, 18). He often refers to the heart as a source of fire: again in the Treatise on Man (AT XI.202, CSM I.108), in the Description of the Human Body (AT XI.226; CSM I.316), and in the letter to Vorstius, June 1643 (AT III.687; CSM III.225). Richard Carter has examined these organic-mechanical images in some detail, underlining the novelty and peculiarity of Descartes’s hypothesis, explicitly with regard to the template of an automaton made of earth or clay. In Part Five of the Discourse, Descartes recapitulates some of the principal theses of the Treatise on Man, which he had withheld from publication when he learned about Galileo’s condemnation.
I supposed too that in the beginning God did not place in this body any rational soul or any other thing to serve as a vegetative or sensitive soul, but rather that he kindled in its heart one of those fires without light [like] that of the fire which heats hay when it is stored before it is dry, or which causes new wine to seethe when it is left to ferment from the crushed grapes. And when I looked to see what functions would occur in such a body, I found precisely those which may occur in us without our thinking of them, and hence without any contribution from our soul …. Those functions are just the ones in which animals without reason may be said to resemble us. (AT VI.46; CSM I.134; and again AT VI.54; CSM I.138)
Now there is an exemplar for Descartes’s beast-human, fabricated from earth, with the breath of life, a fire in its heart, and which imitates the movements of a human being-the Golem. In Prague legend, Rabbi Loew, with the help of two associates, created the Golem in about 1580 in order to provide a guardian or sentinel for the Jewish Quarter. The Golem was made out of earth or clay, received the breath of life from the Cabbalist Rabbi, and was doused with water and
fire from his associates in order to incorporate the other basic elements. The earliest version of this legend is the Nifluot Maharal the Miracles of the Maharal Rabbi Loew, composed in the early 1600s, which tells the story of the oppression experienced by the Prague Jews. The Emperor Rudolf held Rabbi Loew in high esteem and assured him that the court would not permit any further blood libels against his people, i.e., that a crime committed by a single Jew would not implicate the whole Jewish populace. But the Rabbi had an implacable and dangerous enemy in the Catholic Priest Thaddeus who was reputed to be a powerful sorcerer. When the Rabbi called upon the Lord in a dream to give him advice, the Lord told him to create a Golem out of clay to destroy the enemies of Israel. He confided this instruction to two learned friends trained in the mystical Cabbala; they purified themselves for seven days in preparation for the ritual. One winter day in 1580, the three magicians made their way to the city of Moldau; and “there, on the clay bank of the river, they molded the figure of a man three ells in length. They fashioned for him hands and feet and a head, and drew his features in clear relief.” The second rabbi circled the figure seven times from right to left, and the Golem began to glow like fire; the third rabbi circled the figure seven times from left to right, at which steam issued from the Golem; all three chanted Cabalistic spells. Then Rabbi Loew circled the Golem seven times, and all three chanted in unison the line from Genesis, chapter 2, verse 7, “and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul”at which the Golem came to life.
It is not credible to assert that the Golem was the model Descartes had in mind when he described the human body as an automaton. However, there are definitely striking similarities between the two images: a statue made of earth, whose material parts imitate organic functions, whose heart is like a fire, and whose vital spirits are infused through a fine wind or breath. Moshe Idel and Byron Sherwin have made the connection between the concept of the Golem and the earliest scientific efforts to imagine the living body as an organic machine. The fact that Descartes may have been aware of this Czech legend is hardly conclusive in itself, but in conjunction with the many other hints and clues discussed above, all of which find their historical and geographical epicenter in this Central European city, it becomes more and more difficult to resist Baillet’s assertion that Descartes did indeed visit the marvelous city of Prague.
Descartes’s experiences there had a complex and multi-faceted influence on his thinking about many different issues in natural science. One might say that his attitude toward automata, optical devices, and occult practices crystalized around these “observations,” that his previously only partly formed ideas, both positive and negative, were made concrete during the period between November 1619 and November 1620. The most pervasive fashion in which these nascent ideas reached some form of full expression can be seen in three (or more) thematic
concerns that wind in and out of his texts and letters from this date. First is the undeniable importance that he attached to the very notion of the human (and animal) body as an automaton or organic machine. He returned to the study of the body-machine again and again, laying great stress on the significance that this mechanistic understanding of the material dimension of human being had for an insightful, intuitive understanding of the union of mind and body. Second, it is the incentive for his persistent lifelong fascination with both the nature and function of the visual apparatus and of light itself, an account of which often drew pertinent lessons from the ways in which optical illusions deceived our senses. His account of the process of human vision, in the Essay on “Optics” and The World, or Treatise on Light, was closely tied to his philosophical arguments about sensory perception in the Discourse and the Meditations. Third, it would be difficult to overstate his negative and derisory attitude toward the “false sciences” such as alchemy, astrology, and cabalism, “marvels” exhibited in such abundance in Prague. Recalling the earliest stage of his own education in the Discourse, he comments on the false sciences: “I thought that I already knew their worth well enough not to be liable to be deceived by the promises of an alchemist or the predictions of an astrologer, the tricks of a magician or the frauds and boasts of those who profess to know more than they do” (ATVI.9; CSM I.115). In addition to his exceptional achievements in formulating algebraic geometry, the mechanical model of the organic body, and various elementary physical laws, Descartes was almost alone in this period in his total dismissal of the pseudo-sciences.
The Chandoux Affair, Winter 1628
Richard Popkin once described Descartes’s meeting with the mysterious Chandoux as a pivotal event in the young philosopher’s development, “a microcosm of the plight of the whole learned world.” Aside from Baillet’s detailed synopsis of this lecture to a small audience, only one letter from Descartes and one from Mersenne testify to the facts in the matter. Although Gaukroger, Rodis-Lewis, and others repeat Baillet’s account, they do not attach much weight to it, claiming that since the biographer’s story is uncorroborated there is no other way to confirm the information. Moreover, this episode is usually treated as an incursion of skeptical doubt at an early date in his life; for example, Gaukroger reprises Popkin’s remarks and then comments that he can find nothing in letters or texts from the late 1620s “to indicate any interest in scepticism on Descartes’s part at this time.” However, as we shall attempt to show here, this encounter had little or nothing to do with systematic doubt or a robust rebuttal of skepticism. Nevertheless, as these same scholars point out, this event marks a watershed for Descartes’s philosophical development, since shortly after this episode he abandons work on the Rules.
The manuscript of the Rules ends at Rule XVIII, with several others planned for its completion; there have been many, many speculations about why the author became dissatisfied both with the subject matter and the approach or method. In the Discourse, he refers to a dramatic event “nine years after” his marvelous discovery (November 1619) and “exactly eight years earlier” (this part was completed perhaps in late 1636) which made him change direction.
Sometime about the middle of November 1628, at the home of the papal nuncio, a number of learned men, including Cardinal Berulle, Marin Mersenne, Cardinal Barberin, de Villebressieu, and perhaps Gabriel Naude, gathered to hear a lecture by the itinerant savant Chandoux on “the new philosophy.” Baillet reported that “Chandoux gave a great speech to refute the way philosophy is usually taught in the schools; he even set forth a fairly ordinary system of philosophy that he claimed to establish and which he wanted to appear as new”; Baillet suggested that his views were a mixture of Aristotle, Bacon, Mersenne, Gassendi, and Hobbes. Everyone except Descartes was favourably impressed by what Baillet described as a sustained and clever attack on neo-Aristotelian Scholastic philosophy using skeptical tropes in the demolition of its prime tenets. It seems that Descartes fell into a brown funk and could not be roused to give his opinion for some time. But eventually, to everyone’s astonishment, the young cavalier held forth at some length on the utter lack of grounds and abundant sophistry in the peroration which they had just heard. He showed that Chandoux wanted to accept probability as the standard of truth, that opposite conclusions were at least as probable, and that every skeptical trope could be countered with another, turning every truth into a falsehood. Descartes commented that this was the same thing as School Philosophy disguised in new terms and unless the principles of a true and reliable method were established there was little point for further scientific inquiries. Cardinal Berulle was very impressed with this impromptu speech and persuaded Descartes to organise and publish his arguments on this matter-these were the seeds that bore fruit in The World, or Treatise on Light and later in the Discourse.
It is unfortunate that due to a lack of primary, corroborative testimony, this decisive episode is given scant attention by most Descartes scholars. However, Popkin and Gaukroger have argued that this encounter was one of the incentives for Descartes’s lifelong search for a certain foundation and method for scientific knowledge. Thus, this episode synopsizes two aspects of Descartes’s turning away from the old world and turning toward the new world. First, his response highlights some sort of philosophical disgust that anyone adroit enough with rhetorical tropes could turn any statement on its head, and hence inspired in him an irritable repugnance toward this sophistic approach. And second, it signals Descartes’s abandonment of the mathematical research he had already undertaken as being irremediably undermined by its lack of proper metaphysical foundations. Descartes’s reaction to Chandoux’s speech can be summed up in a few words: this is utter rubbish and you’ve all been taken in.
Despite the presence of such luminaries at this salon, there is a startling lack of testimony for this event or to the person of Chandoux. Thorough searches of the
indices of the letters and papers of Gabriel Naude, Cardinal Bagni, Cardinal Barberin, Cardinal Berulle (who reported directly to Richelieu), and Richelieu himself reveal not a single mention of the mysterious Chandoux. There is one memoir from Mersenne, written perhaps in response to Descartes’s letter to Villebrissieu (AT I. 213; CSM III. 32) about Chandoux’s execution for forgery in August 1631. Mersenne’s aide-memoire dates the event to approximately November 15, 1628 and is probably one of the sources of Baillet’s account. Descartes’s letter to his good friend (also present in the salon) mentions the same names and remarks that Chandoux’s speech provoked him into a defense of “the art of right reasoning,” but provides no further details. The only other source indicated by Baillet in his marginal notes is the manuscript dossier from Clerselier; this alone provides in paraphrase the only record of what Chandoux actually said. J. R. Partington briefly mentioned Chandoux in his survey of minor characters in the seventeenth-century development of chemistry and provided a reference to Lynn Thorndike’s history of experimental science. Thorndike gave a brief synopsis of the 1628 affair and then commented, “Chandoux seems to have preached better than he practiced, since within three years he was hanged for counterfeiting; but perhaps his philosophy was counterfeit too.” Thorndike made a reference to Mersenne’s letter and to the entry for Chandoux in the mid-eighteenth-century Nouvelle Biographie Generate, which is worth quoting in full:
Chandoux, French physician and chemist, died in 1631. He was one of the free spirits who appeared in large numbers during the beginning of the 17th century and who declared themselves adversaries of Scholasticism. Ardent in the search for a new philosophy, the eloquence with which they developed their ideas told in favor of their principles. His reputation grew much larger [for] Cardinal de Bagni. Chandoux almost completed a book on chemistry and its application to the decomposition of metals. France then was distressed by a number of criminals who profited from the royal troubles, [and] who defrauded by various means in the making and title of money. Louis XIII, in order to suppress the abuse, established in the Paris arsenal a special chamber of justice; Chandoux was tried, found guilty of the alteration and falsification of metals; and, despite his eloquence and numerous protectors, hung at the gallows.
One can only wonder whom these “numerous protectors” were, whether they had been clients of Chandoux’s alchemical expertise, or whether they figured among those who attended Cardinal Bagni’s reception three years earlier. No trace has survived of “the nearly completed book on chemistry and its application to the decomposition of metals.” But the best clue is the statement that he was “one of the free spirits,” the erudite libertines, like Gabriel Naude and Guy Patin, who caused such annoyance through their various outrages in the French capital. In any case, the Sieur de Chandoux was only known by his patronym, and has until now not been identified. He seems to have preferred to be known only under this name, an impostor who skillfully mimicked the person of a skeptic or anti-Scholastic, who disguised Scholastic philosophy in new terms, and who was executed for counterfeiting or defacing the currency, at that time a capital offense. These characteristics are all that is really known about him, but together they give us a picture, like a photo-fit, not of a skeptic or a reformer or an anti– Scholastic, but of a cynic. Diogenes “the dog” and his followers often used nicknames, pretended to be members of a school or inner circle only to mock their hosts, and sometimes took as their motto, DEFACE THE CURRENCY Perhaps Chandoux may have delighted in the only barely concealed pun on his name, chien-doux, “nice dog”; but he certainly had made something of a career from defacing the currency and defrauding the public.
R. B. Branham has argued that “defacing the currency” was what the cynics were all about: overturning religious, political, and ethical beliefs; subverting the status quo; and mocking everyone’s pretensions to superior knowledge. One of the legends attached to Diogenes himself was that he (or his father) had been exiled from Sinope for defacing and counterfeiting the currency. Branham’s notes refer to archaeological discoveries of Sinopean coins from Diogenes’ era which have been mutilated with a chisel stamp and which bear the name of Diogenes’ father, Hicesias. When Descartes epitomized Chandoux’s speech he said that this “charlatan” had turned the true into the false, had replaced probability with improbability and certainty with uncertainty, and had overturned their confidence in the right use of reason. It is my contention then that Chandoux was a cynic, an infiltrator, who disguised himself as a philosopher in order to confuse and disenchant those who attended the Cardinal’s educational evening.
The mysterious Sieur de Chandoux has a well-recognized place in Descartes’s biography; he stands as an enigma or cipher at that juncture in Descartes’s development where one project is abandoned in favor of another project. But we can now help in removing Chandoux’s mask and exposing his disguise; he did have another name, and that was Nicolas de Villiers. An undated, but definitely early seventeenth-century, factum in the Bibliotheque Nationale reports this deed or claim in the courts:
Finding [about] Nicolas de Villiers, Sieur de Chandoux, and Robert le Toul, Sieur de Vassy, royal councilor, bailiff and provost of Avallon in Bourgongne, prisoners in the palace concierge, defendants and incidental applicants for absolution and restoration [of goods], and so forth, against the royal procurator general. [Note] The defendants had been implicated in an information against Father Dies and falsely accused of dogmatism and magic.
The deed and memoirs are preceded by ‘summary of the lawsuit shown between Nicolas de Villiers, Sieur de Chandoux, and Robert le Toul, Sieur de Vassy.’
It seems that on at least one previous occasion Chandoux had been charged with “dogmatism and magic” (though what exactly constitutes the criminal offense of dogmatism remains unknown) but had been exonerated; he and his equally shadowy colleague Robert le Toul were suing for replevin of goods seized through distraint. On the presumption that this factum precedes the salon evening at the home of the papal nuncio, by late 1628 Chandoux had improved his game enough to fool all but one of his auditors. Although Descartes never again directly refers to Chandoux, traces of his cynical provocation and the distaste it caused him surface again and again. In two letters to Mersenne in April and May 1630, Descartes refers to a nasty book (almost certainly La Mothe de Vayer’s Dialogues) which he thought should be replied to immediately, since it was “very dangerous” and “very false.” He devised an ingenious scheme (never executed) in which the book might be published, without the author’s knowledge, interleaved with anonymous refutations (AT I. 144-5, 148-9; CSM III. 22-4). La Mothe de Vayer was an erudite libertine, but not so erudite that Popkin could not call him “an insipid Montaigne,” who concealed his impiety, ridicule, and atheism beneath a cloak of pseudo-skepticism. In several letters to Mersenne and Huygens in 1637, Descartes sometimes refers to his fulfilling the promise to publish his researches as “paying off a debt.” At the end of May 1637, alluding to his receipt of the French King’s license to publish the Discourse, Descartes appeals to Huygens’ good faith in these efforts, knowing that the Dutchman would not be willing to “pass off bad money for good” (AT I. 638; CSM III. 60), an unequivocal phrase drawing an analogy between false or insincere arguments and counterfeit money.
In Part Three of the Discourse, when he recounts many of the decisions he made as a young man after his marvelous discoveries in November 1620, Descartes affirms his allegiance to a provisional moral code whose maxims reveal an obedient, conservative attitude toward religious and political authority (AT VI.23-8; CSM I. 122-5). He reprises these same maxims in one of his Letters to Elizabeth in August 1645 (AT IV.265-6; CSM III.257-8) and again in the Preface to the French edition of the Principles (AT IXB.13; CSM I.185-6). On several occasions he was concerned that the method of systematic doubt not spill over into hyperbolic or exaggerated doubt, as he explicitly indicates near the close of the Sixth Meditation (AT VII.89; CSM II.61) and again in response to Father Bourdin’s misdirected objections (AT VII.460; CSM II.308). In the Seventh Objections, the implacable Father Bourdin attempts to turn Descartes himself into some kind of cynic or libertine; Descartes’s increasingly angry responses are similar to those that he made thirteen years earlier in his riposte to Chandoux’s overly clever pseudo-arguments. Descartes responds to Bourdin’s goading by rejecting the skeptical technique of equal-weighted claims (isosthenia) (AT VII.465; CSM II.313), just as he had rejected Chandoux’s recourse to this technique. He twice likens
excessive skepticism to some sort of mental infection (AT VII.481, 512; CSM II.324, 349); in the Letter to Father Dinet, he says that the skeptical disease can only be cured by refutation (AT VII.574; CSM II.387). Contrary to Bourdin’s feeble efforts to contend with the skeptical assault, he asks with some frustration just exactly what it is that the worthy father would suggest. “We should not suppose that sceptical philosophy is extinct. It is vigorously alive today, and almost all those who regard themselves as more intellectually gifted than others, and find nothing to satisfy them in philosophy as it is ordinarily practised, take refuge in scepticism because they cannot see any alternative with greater claims to truth” (AT VII.5489; CSM II.374). He could have had someone like Chandoux in mind, someone who thought himself “more intellectually gifted than others,” and managed to persuade the gullible that this self-assessment was true.
He would have had no tolerance whatsoever for the libertines, either the trendy or the erudite variety, those “strong spirits” whom Baillet refers to immediately before recounting the Chandoux affair. Descartes and Mersenne would have been familiar with the Jesuit Francois Garasse’s 1623 work La Doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits de ce temps, an unwieldy, overstuffed polemic directed at what the author thought were the underlying atheist tendencies behind the libertines and “strong spirits.” In 1624 he followed this with an Apologie pour son livre contre atheistes et libertines, and in 1615 his final exhaustive statement, La Somme Theologique. In each of these works what Garasse lacked in scholarly expertise he more than made up for in zeal, roundly condemning every fashion in which skeptical and libertine thinkers fell away from the Catholic faith. One of Garasse’s former pupils at Poitiers was Guez de Balzac, who adopted much of his Jesuit teacher’s angry arguments against the libertines and false-thinkers who so plagued French literary society at that time. Sylvain Matton has offered clear textual evidence to show that one of the principal targets of Garasse and Balzac in the 1620s was the persistent, irritable presence of revitalized cynicism. The gist of Garasse’s Doctrine curieuse, in her words, is that “Diogenes was nothing but a hypochondriac, a madman, a dolt, and an idiot, a buffoon, an ill-mannered and self-conceited fool, and an atheist to boot.” Matton quotes from Balzac’s rant against the nasty cynics, where he remarks on some of the ways in which they behave. Their attitude “is to violate laws and customs; it is to be without shame or honesty; it is to recognize neither family nor friends; it is to be always yapping or biting,” and so forth. Strong words indeed, perhaps stronger than Descartes might have voiced, but certainly ones he would have agreed with. Guez de Balzac was one of Descartes’s favorite writers, someone he admired, not just for his superb literary style, but also for his sound philosophical judgment. In an open letter written in 1628, Descartes defends Balzac in very decided terms: “everything that he undertakes to say is explained with such sound arguments and is illustrated with such fine examples…. [He] generally uses arguments that are so clear that they easily gain credence among the common people, and for all that they are so certain and so true that the better
the mind of the reader the more sure they are to convince” (AT I.10). Sometime later that same year, confronted with Chandoux’s cynical mockery and pretense, Descartes might have been forcefully reminded of just what separated genuine skepticism from its paltry imitation.
It is crucial to our attempted reconstruction of this lost episode, as well as to the general picture of philosophical debates in this period, that one carefully discriminate between the skeptical and the cynical approach to serious questions. It will further our comprehension of the cynical approach to first characterize some of the essential features of the skeptical attitude. These are the argumentative and substantive strategies the skeptics employ: (a) in opposition to a given dogmatic claim to assert an equal-weighted claim contrary to the former; (b) to withhold or suspend judgement about those questions that cannot be known for certain; (c) to seek quietude or tranquility from the cognitive disquiet or disturbance generated by attempts to resolve questions that are basically uncertain; (d) to disallow or prevent doubts raised by metaphysical questions from infecting or spilling over into practical issues, especially moral concerns. In contrast, the cynics’ strategies and purposes can be typified in these ways: (e) to pretend that what is true is false and that what is false is true, i.e., to turn the truth into the semblance of truth; (f) to disguise oneself as a dogmatist or skeptic or fideist (and so forth) in order to expose their position to ridicule and contempt; (g) to encourage, or at least not disallow doubts raised by metaphysical questions from infecting or spilling over into practical issues, especially to undermine moral and religious authority; (h) to seek out and provoke disquiet and agitation attendant on the cognitive disturbance generated by attempts to resolve questions that are basically uncertain. The cynic thus has an enlightened false consciousness, assiduously maintaining a superior and detached attitude, that is, detached from and indifferent to whether the dogmatist or the skeptic is correct. Whereas the skeptic genuinely cares that the dogmatist is wrong, and vice versa, the cynic does not care at all who is right and who is wrong. The cynic is also superior in that he secretly despises and laughs at both the skeptic and the dogmatist for being fools of an equal stature. Where Descartes took seriously the challenge posed by skeptical assaults on the certainty of scientific knowledge, he reacted with vigorous repugnance to the cynics’ pretense and ridicule.
The Evil Demon Of Loudun, 1632-34
Ever since his death there has been some dispute about the exact site of Descartes’s birth; whether it was Chattelerault, 20 kilometers north of Poitiers, or La Haye in Touraine, just to the north of Poitou. In either case, he spent most of his early childhood, as well as his school holidays, in Chatellerault with his maternal grandparents. After leaving the College of La Fleche, he returned to Poitiers where, as we have seen, he received his license in law in November 1616, dedicated to his maternal uncle Rene Brochard, chief judge of Poitiers until 1621. In November 1618, Beeckman referred to his young friend as Rene le Poitevin, and in Paris in
1623-5 he was sometimes known as the young man from Poitiers. In a letter to Mersenne of May 1637 (AT I.376), he mentions that he had recently received his letters of privilege for nobility; in the next letter of June 14 (AT I.379), he comments that he learned in Leyden of Beeckman’s death after “a long trip of six weeks”-more than enough time to visit Chatellerault. It was common practice at that time for a noble to attend the place of his privilegement, in this case his family demesne near Poitiers. In any case, after moving house from Poitiers, Descartes either visited there or exchanged letters about family business on a number of occasions.
During the summer of 1637, the scandalous stories and exposes about the possessions and exorcisms in Loudun had circulated throughout France, Holland, and the Low Countries. Now, the town of Loudun is located about thirty kilometers from Chatellerault, and about forty kilometers from Poitiers. The final stages of Urbain Grandier’s trial were conducted before the presidial of the town of Poitiers, where Descartes’s uncle, Rene Brochard, though retired from the magistracy, still served in an advisory role until his death in 1648. With a strong motive to visit Poitiers, an area completely embroiled in the possession scandals, and an uncle closely connected with the trial itself, how likely is it that Descartes would have heard nothing? This straightforward connection between simple geographical and biographical facts has not been mentioned in any account of Descartes’s life.
Another chain of events may help to explain how Descartes became aware of the Loudun affair. In 1636, the eccentric philosopher-alchemist Kenelm Digby went to Loudun where he took part in an extended seance with some of the town’s principal figures. What transpired during this conference with the spirits is not known, though his manuscript account of this episode is extant. In October 1637, the ever-curious Digby, on the recommendation of Claude Mydorge, sent Thomas Hobbes a copy of Descartes’s Discourse; it was the essay on “Optics” which provoked Hobbes to work on the “Latin Optical Manuscript.” In early 1641, Digby went to great lengths to obtain a private interview with Descartes at his retreat in Egmont, Holland, some time before the publication of Descartes’s Meditations, according to the memoir of des Maizeaux (AT XI. 670); an eight-day visit to Descartes’s retreat is confirmed by the most recent editors (AT III.90). According to des Maizeaux’s recollection, Digby wanted to persuade Descartes to visit England, questioned him about the construction of the human body, its application for the prolongation of life, and other “useful and agreeable knowledge.” Given Descartes’s intense interest at that time in possible sources of cognitive and perceptual deception, my conjecture is that something about the events in Loudun,
possibly transmitted by Digby in this interview, may have confirmed Descartes in his hypothesis of the malin genie. Three years later, in 1644, after the publication of his own Hermetic-Cartesian work, Two Treatises: of Bodies and of Man’s Soul, Digby again met Descartes, this time in Paris. Did Digby recognize the French philosopher’s employment of the fiction of an evil demon who systematically deceived the meditator at every point? The simple answer is that we do not know. However, the significance of Digby’s first visit to Descartes and the opportunity which he may have had to communicate his thoughts about demonic possession has never been mentioned in connection with the development of his philosophical thought.
It is hardly necessary to recount the events in this famous case of witchcraft and possession, but a brief sketch may serve to highlight the theological and philosophical significance of the exorcisms. Within a short time after his appointment as parish priest, Urbain Grandier had won the support and patronage of several powerful Catholic families, but had also antagonized other equally powerful Protestant families. It is almost certain that he seduced the daughter of one of these notables, publicly humiliated others, and having escaped charges of indecency and assault two or three times, showed an unwise smugness and lack of contrition. Robert Rapley has shown that Grandier was probably employed by the Duke of Armagnac to report on Protestant activities and to vigorously defend the Duke’s claim to retain his walled citadel in Loudun, directly against King Louis’s and Richelieu’s orders to have the walls torn down. The weight of documentary evidence shows that powerful forces were allied to bring down Grandier at any cost. His enemies’ best opportunity came when the Ursuline Convent nuns began to report disturbances and nightly visitations. The Baron de Laubardemont and the Bishop of Poitiers began a protracted investigation over the next two years to discover the truth of the nuns’ accusations, especially the most strident of these from the Mother Superior, that Father Grandier was a witch who had inflicted them with demons. Lurid stories of the nuns’ behavior spread through France, placards and pamphlets appeared everywhere, and during the spring of 1634 thousands of onlookers attended the public exorcisms.
Marin Mersenne, who was in regular contact with Descartes at that time, was certainly well informed about the progress of events. He had received a copy of a detailed report from Ismael Boulliaud to Pierre Gassendi; and in June 1634, he received an excited letter from the physician Christophe de Villiers (not the same de Villiers, Sieur de Chandoux), who posed an intellectual question after making an astute observation:
I am greatly amazed that so many members of the religious orders are found among the demon-possessed. It is said in this land that a priest [Grandier] is responsible, as if a man had the ability through magic to turn souls over to the devil. If indeed such things have occurred, then why do these magicians not have more people possessed in the same way? I certainly do not believe that God has granted these people such abilities, or else all the world would be in the demon’s power.”
Descartes addressed the same question when the meditator has to contend with the supreme doubt he has himself raised: could not an all-powerful demon have affected the entire world with doubt?
The Loudun church, the magistrates’ court, and the marketplace became the arena for a struggle for supremacy between Catholic and Protestant forces, and the focus of this struggle became centered on a theological doctrine: did the exorcist priest have the power to compel the demon to tell the truth? The Catholics claimed that he did and the Protestants that he did not; the Catholics proposed several criteria for demonic possession and the Protestants keenly examined the nuns’ responses to catch them out. The Catholic priests and their lay supporters were trapped several times when the Mother Superior, speaking through the persona of Asmodeus, clumsily accused one of the cabal behind the prosecution, made serious factual errors or contradicted her own previous testimony. But the twofold question remained: was the woman really possessed by the devil’s agent, and if so, could the devil be compelled to tell the truth? At the end of a terrible ordeal lasting three months Father Grandier was charged, convicted, and executed, but the judicial reports, medical examinations, trial proceedings, and declamatory pamphlets continued to be published into the early 1640s. In fact, other manifestations of demonic possession made sporadic appearances in Loudun until 1638 and it was not until 1640 that the principal nun wrote her memoirs.
Several connections can be drawn between the Loudun affair and the articulation of Descartes’s philosophical arguments after the Discourse. It would have been almost impossible for any person, even a semi-recluse like Descartes, to have heard nothing about this celebrated scandal, perhaps the most famous case of possession in early seventeenth-century Europe. In addition, the fact that the evil demon argument does not occur in the Discourse (1637) proves nothing about Descartes’s knowledge (or ignorance) of the events. Perhaps it was only further reflection on specific documents or the report of Digby’s seance that provoked Descartes to attempt to solve the puzzle posed by the exorcists and their superiors. The process-verbal had exposed a serious difficulty for the prosecutor: how to demonstrate the presence of a malign spirit in the witness when the assumption was that such a spirit would always deceive. Was there any way to expose the demon based entirely on declarations of subjective experience? Were there any “internal marks” whereby an expression of judgment could be deemed to be false? Twenty years ago, Richard Popkin suggested that the possessed of Loudun may have been the source for Descartes’s evil demon argument, and remarked that, “a more extensive examination of the issues discussed in the learned world as a resuit of the Loudun trial may throw some light on the source and significance at the time of Descartes’s great contribution to sceptical argumentation”–but Popkin’s provocative suggestion has thus-far never been taken up.
It is this third episode that has the most far-reaching consequences for the development of Descartes’s mature philosophical arguments. In addition to the evil demon fiction employed to capture the notion of a persistent and systematic deception, elements in the Loudun affair provide an important case-study of a profound disturbance in the je or ego which speaks and the je or ego which thinks. This disturbance is epitomized in the nun’s response “je est un autre” (“I is an other”) to the question “Who are you?” This strange declaration dislocates the subject from the speaker through the agency of a putative demonic power. On this view, the demon is supposed to be distinct from the living person, already known to the self and to others, and yet it is identified as the ego. In other words, it is not some other person (say, Marthe) who is this demon (Asmodeus), but je (Jeanne) who is this demon. The demon is only able to speak through me by making myself an other for myself In this diremption between the ego and the person there lies, on the one hand, the abyss of psychosis, the radical psychic splitting exhibited in madness. On the other hand, there lies disclosed for the first time the clearing or opening which makes possible the Cartesian grounding of truth and certainty entirely within the “objective” reality of cognition. “Je est un autre” is a nonsense statement which could not be understood in terms of Scholastic, neo-Aristotelian psychology except as an instance of demonic possession.
On the Scholastic view, since the soul (anima) was the ruling part of the specific form which the person’s material body assumed, the soul was inextricably linked with its owner’s body. Thus, if the nun’s soul had been usurped by another soul, that other soul’s body must also be present, even if it was the invisible, intangible “body” of a demon. Since Descartes conceded that the mind and body were separate and separable substances, each of which could exist independently of the other, it was conceivable that the nun’s ego was still present somewhere, and that another “ego” was now also present, but without taking its place. There was no need to posit an invisible, intangible demonic “body,” since the mind, unlike the soul, did not require the person’s body to give it a specific intelligible form. Having rejected the notion of an informed material particular, the Cartesian account of mind as a thinking thing faced a new problem; how to discriminate within the realm of thoughts (cogitata) true from false judgments, including judgments made about the nature of one’s own ego. The criteria of clarity and distinctness cannot be invoked for externally observable, behavioral, or material manifestations due to the problems of sense illusions and cognitive delusions; rather, the criteria of truth and falsity have their application in terms of the “objective” reality of ideas and their proper cognitive mode. The rational insights directed at the “objects” of one’s thoughts are accessible only through an “inner” sense, a point of view which is ruled out in principle for any neutral observer, and that includes the exorcist priest in cases of alleged possession.
On the double assumption that a demon was indeed present and that an exorcist could compel a demon to tell the truth, anything the demon said, through the nun’s voice, was taken to be true. The principal ground of an accusation against a sorcerer, such as Father Grandier, was the declaration of his guilt by the possessed person, a declaration which had to be confirmed at least once under the compulsion procedure invoked by the exorcist priest. This is another way to express the theological paradox at the heart of the Loudun affair: if the priest has the power to compel the demon to speak the truth, then the demon’s accusation of a sorcerer’s guilt must be true; but if the priest does not have this power then the demon’s accusation does not have to be true (though, of course, it might be true anyway). Now since there was no agreement on whether a Catholic priest had this power, either of the two claims in the consequents followed. Some of the exorcists apparently thought that, if they could show that everything the demon said was true, or at least did not entail anything false, then they had shown that they had the power to compel the truth-but this is a fallacious argument, i.e., affirming the consequent. Some of the critics of the exorcists’ power argued that, since the priest could not compel the demon to tell the truth, all of the demon’s claims were false, insofar as the devil is the “father of lies”-but this also is a fallacious argument, i.e., denying the antecedent. The clash between Catholic and Protestant political forces around the town of Loudun in the 1630s exacted a price through the death of an innocent priest. But his execution could only have followed from a confirmation of his guilt in the case of the Ursuline nuns’ alleged possession by demons. Although the Catholic Church had established criteria that gave “probable cause” for the investigation of specific allegations, it was still the task of the exorcist to determine whether a demon or malign influence was actually present in the particular case. But no matter how they attacked the issue, the trial transcripts reveal profound conceptual problems, fallacious arguments, and question-begging tactics.
For each of the three episodes, we have tendered a hypothesis about Descartes’s personal experiences which depends to a large degree on where he was, whom he was with, and what he knew at a certain date. In each case, there is a fact of the matter to be discovered; in each case, the proof of our contention relies on the preponderance of circumstantial evidence pointing in one direction rather than another. Other scholars of Descartes’s life and work have either “Withheld judgment,” as the ancient skeptics advised, or have not hesitated to draw the inference that he was not where his earliest biographer Baillet claimed that he was. Perhaps the more prudent attitude is to remain content with the non-committal citation of these events as possibilities in the formation of Descartes’s beliefs. But further information, brought forth above, seems to counter-balance the standard interpretation and provide greater weight for the contrary interpretation. Thus a healthy skepticism should incline one to give some credence to the hypothesis that makes the best sense of all the available information, and not remain indecisive due to the fact that we do not have complete knowledge about these events.
In the first episode, it is Descartes’s reactions to his experiences in the city of Prague which are significant in terms of his expression of a new universal science in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind. The various pseudo-sciences such as alchemy, astrology, and mnemonics, as well as complex automata, optical illusions, the Rosicrucian manifestoes, and so forth, were important features of the intellectual landscape of this period. But what makes Descartes’s reaction so unusual is his utter rejection of pseudo-scientific explanation, his refusal to countenance occult powers behind the appearances. Instead he focuses his exceptional talents on a rigorous and complete natural scientific model, according to which one can deduce the causal forces at work in such devices as complex automata and animal bodies. The soul-terms he employs in this context-a wind, a fire, or a very subtle matter-are precisely the operative powers that drive the marvels he observed. It is the mind alone, the thinking thing, which resists all efforts to be accommodated in this mechanical scheme and thus must have the status of a separate substance.
In the second episode, Descartes encounters someone who gives equal weight to both the dogmatic and the anti-dogmatic view about the connections between appearance and reality, who turns every assertion into a denial, every truth into a falsity, and so forth. But this is not an actual version of skepticism, rather it is a mockery of the skeptics’ method of doubt, and reveals Chandoux’s real character as a disguised cynic or erudite libertine. This hypothesis is further supported by our identification of Nicolas de Villiers as the Sieur de Chandoux, and the close connection between counterfeit coinage and cynical subversion. The third part of this paper has attempted to show that the pre-Cartesian notions of soul and body, the epistemic criteria for judgments, and the confusion of external with internal “marks” of evidence were incapable of making sense of anomalous phenomena such as demonic possession. It was through Descartes’s complete overthrow of these traditional notions, and his solution to the supreme test case of an evil demon, that “a new way of ideas” would permit an understanding of the manner in which one can be an other for oneself, and an understanding of the manner in which certainty can be grounded within the “objective” structures of consciousness.