Thursday, April 26, 2018

Harold J. Cook's "The Young Descartes"

Harold J. Cook is John F. Nickoll Professor of History at Brown University. He is author of several books on the early modern period, including Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age and Trials of an Ordinary Doctor: Joannes Groenevelt in Seventeenth-Century London. His recent work has focused mainly on the global entanglements of science and medicine, politics, and economies.

Cook applied the “Page 99 Test” and the Page 69 Test to his new book, The Young Descartes: Nobility, Rumor, and War, and reported the following:
Some years ago, this site's editor kindly invited me to take what was then the page 69 test, which I thought worked well for uncovering a quick understanding of the argument of my book. It is now the page 99 test. So when invited this time, I compared the two pages of my The Young Descartes, and found that in this case page 69 spoke more clearly than page 99.

Against the common mythology of Descartes as a loner, the book shows instead that he could have stepped from the pages of The Three Musketeers. I have no brief against the position that the writings of Descartes were fundamental in helping to lay down the foundations of modern philosophy, and possibly of modern science. In fact, I admire many of his works. But I have come to see his views not as rising above his world but as emerging from it. He was good with the sword, trained in military engineering, and a lover of both men and women, passionately engaged with life. When he wrote his chief works, however, he did so not in France but in the Dutch Republic. The reason was, I think, that he had become an exile. His early life explains why that might have been so, thereby illuminating the kind of people and problems that shaped his understanding.

But to get back to particulars: If we turn to page 99 of the book, we find passages about what might have been the motivations taking Descartes to the coronation of the Emperor in Frankfurt, and from there further into Germany in the opening stages of the 30 Years War. It is a page that probably would not make sense without having read the pages beforehand that set it up.

Page 69, however, introduces the event of 1617 that caused Descartes (then age 21) to give up hope of patronage from among the great nobles of France: the assassination of Queen Marie de Medici’s favorite at the behest of her son, who thereby became King Louis XIII. The coup caused the former queen to flee Paris. So did Descartes.

There is also a passing reference on the page to Marie de Rohan, later the duchesse du Chevreuse, one of the most intriguing and powerful women of the day. Her son would later translate Descartes’s Meditations from Latin into French, with the author’s help. I would like to think that the philosopher knew her, too.

So I have to conclude that in this case the page 69 test works better than the page 99 test.
Learn more about The Young Descartes at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue