Why the philosopher René Descartes was doing so well in the Netherlands ★★★★ ☆


Statue of Olivier Heiligers

It is impossible to find out exactly what went wrong. It is certain that one day René Descartes entered Anna Maria van Schurman’s room and ‘caught’ her reading the Bible in Hebrew. The then 32-year-old Anna was considered a kind of world wonder, the virginum eruditarum decus, ‘jewel of the learned virgins’. Especially for her, a cubicle was placed in the lecture hall at Utrecht University so that she could attend the lectures unseen (by the male students). She was probably the first woman in Europe to receive such an academic education.

Schurman had taught himself Hebrew to be able to read the Bible in the original language, but Descartes complained that it was a waste of time. He had also learned Hebrew for the same reason and had not found anything of value in the Bible. It was their last contact. Shortly after, Anna wrote in her diary that she had removed this ‘evil man’ from her heart, we read in Descartes – The Dutch years

Anyone expecting to find a section on Descartes and the Bible next time (and whether he really learned Hebrew or just bluffed) will be disappointed. The author Hans Dijkhuis warns already in the introduction that Descartes’ philosophy is’ summarized ‘in his book. Dijkhuis is exclusively concerned with the ups and downs of the philosopher during his stay in the Netherlands. At the same time, the twelve years are a crucial period in Descartes’ intellectual life. All the books he himself published were written during his stay in the republic. The ‘French period’, until 1637, was only a prelude; after his departure to Sweden in 1649 he had four months left to live. René Descartes felt at home here. Here he found the peace to work. Basically, he is a Dutch philosopher.

Between Alkmaar and Haarlem

Descartes – His Dutch year is the portrait of a man who constantly navigated between looking for a place where he could work quietly and maintaining contact with friends and business partners who were indispensable, especially in times of need. Dijkhuis goes into detail about where Descartes lived for a shorter or longer period of time. (It was especially in the area between Alkmaar and Haarlem.) He always wanted to be with one or two good friends.

Influential friends, preferably. Life in the republic was based on a system of service and service in return. Descartes’ most important friend was Anthonis Studler van Zurck, a descendant of a merchant family who, thanks to the purchase of a piece of land, was allowed to call himself ‘Mons lord’, and who in those years borrowed Descartes huge sums of money. so that the philosopher could live like a nobleman … In return for his financial support, Descartes asked his admirer Constantijn Huygens (secretary to stadtholder Frederik Hendrik and ‘lord of Zuylichem’) if Anthonis could not get a hunting license. Back then, it was a coveted document; the actual proof that you belonged to the nobility. It took a while, but Anthonis got his permission. And René’s money.

Hate campaigns and admirers

These influential connections also came in handy when theologians in Leiden or Utrecht attacked his philosophy. (We do not read what it was about.) Descartes would inevitably panic, but thanks to his connections, such campaigns could be stifled in the bud. Characteristic is that he after that still damaged the honor in his honor gentleman who, in spite of all his enormous merits, was treated like a stranger. But Descartes never applied for citizenship. He always considered himself a subject of the French king.

René Descartes (engraving from approx. 1850).  Picture Getty

René Descartes (engraving from approx. 1850).Picture Getty

In 1648, his French admirers made sure that the scholar received a princely annuity if he settled in France. It was a lot of money. Descartes went. But Paris was a huge disappointment. Life (as he wanted to live it) was expensive; the city was depressing and at court people were just staring at him. Shortly after his arrival, a civil war (fronde) erupted and oh yes: the treasury was empty. He returned to the republic and praised ‘a quiet and secluded life and the wealth of a moderate fortune’.

Five months later, a letter arrived from the Swedish queen Christina. She admired his work and wanted to talk to him. The nobleman in him could not refuse. One of Descartes’ admirers arranged for Frans Hals to paint a portrait of him at the last minute. Then he was gone.

Hans Dijkhuis: Descartes – His Dutch years. Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep; 519 pages; € 39.99.

null Statue Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep

Statue Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep

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