A Response on Descartes

John Emerson has responded on his website to an entry on Descartes and doing history (see “Descartes without the boring parts”). That post and his earlier post on the Discourse are worth reading. I have since come across a passage in Huxley’s essay on the Discourse that summarizes nicely, and I think quite accurately, Descartes’ religious attitude. (I add some footnotes on matters of fact & interpretation.)
Descartes lived and died a good Catholic, and prided himself upon having demonstrated the existence of God and of the soul of man. As a reward for his exertions, his old friends the Jesuits put his works upon the “Index”, and called him an Atheist (↓1); while the Protestant divines of Holland declared him to be both a Jesuit and an Atheist (↓2). His books narrowly escaped being burned by the hangman; the fate of Vanini (↓3) was dangled before is eyes; and the misfortunes of Galileo so alarmed him (↓4), that he well-nigh renounced the pursuits by which the world has so greatly benefited, and was driven into subterfuges and evasions that were not worthy of him (5).
“Very cowardly”, you might say; and so it was. But you must make allowance for the fact that, in the seventeenth century, not only did heresy mean possible burning, or imprisonment, but the very suspicion of it destroyed a man’s peace, and rendered the calm pursuit of truth difficult or impossible. I fancy that Descartes was a man to care more about being worried and disturbed, than about being burned outright; and, like many other men, sacrificed for the same of peace and quietness, what he would have stubbornly maintained against downright violence. However this may be, let those who are sure they would have done better throw stones at him. I have no feelings but those of gratitude and reverence for the man who did what he did, when he did; and a sort of shame that any one should repine against taking a fair share of such treatment as the world thought good enough for him.
Addendum 7 May 2005: for more on the quarrel of Utrecht and on condemnations of Descartes’ works, see “Descartes rehabilitated”.
(↑1) Descartes’ works were put on the Index of prohibited books (Index librorum prohibitorum in 1663. It is thought that the Jesuit philosopher and mathematician Honoré Fabri (1607–1688) had a role. Fabri seems to have gotten into difficulties himself in 1647 for “concessions” to Cartesianism in his teaching in Lyon and in 1670 for attacks on the Jansenists; he was briefly imprisoned in the 1660s for espousing heliocentrism. His own work against the Jansenists was placed on the Index. (See the entry on Fabri at Scholasticon.) I don’t know of any Jesuit text in which Descartes is called an atheist. The placing of his works on the Index was probably owing primarily to his explanation of the Eucharist in a late letter to Arnauld. There Descartes proposes a theory that, while it preserves the Real Presence of Christ, amounts to a rejection of transubstantiation. Various Cartesian theses had already been condemned by the theologians at Louvain, including the identification of matter with extended substance.
Source: Gereformeerde Theologen
Studentenvereniging “Voetius”
(↑2) Huxley is probably thinking of the controversy between Descartes and Gisbertus Voetius in 1642–1643. Voetius recruited Martinus Schoock, professor at Groningen, to write against Descartes. In his Admiranda methodus novae philosophiae Renati Des-Cartes, Schoock attacks both the philosophy and the person, comparing Descartes to Vanini.
(↑3) Giulio Cesare Vanini (1585–1619), after renouncing Catholicism in 1612, then returning to it in 1613, published two heterodox works, the Amphitheatrum aeternae providentiae divino-magicum (1615), and De admirandis naturae reginae deaeque mortalium arcanis (1616). Although he had a gift for attracting powerful patrons, he was executed in Toulouse in 1619.
(4) After the condemnation of Galileo, Descartes in a letter to Mersenne writes that “if [the movement of the Earth] is false, all the foundations of my philosophy are false too”. Still, he says, “I would not for anything in the world have any discourse come from me, in which the least word could be found of which the Church would disapprove” (to Mersenne, end of November 1633; AT 1:271). Three months later he wants to know whether the authority of the Congregation of Cardinals in charge of censorship “was sufficient to make it [the condemnation of Copernicanism] an article of faith” (to Mersenne, Feb 1634; AT 1:281). In August he has obtained a copy of the condemnation (to Mersenne, 14 Aug 1634; AT 1:306). It is clear that for philosophical reasons, the condemnation did distress him; on the other hand, he indicates always his intention not to contradict any article of faith.
(5) Huxley may have had in mind Descartes’ treatment of the motion of the Earth in the Principles. Descartes finds in favor of the system of Tycho Brahe (in which the Sun revolves around the Earth and the remaining planets, other than the Moon, around the Sun); nevertheless, it follows from the vortex theory that the Earth, though at rest within its own ciel, revolves with its ciel around the Sun. It’s worth noting that Gassendi, after refuting anti-Copernican arguments, leaves it open to his readers to hold true the system of Tycho. These are indeed subterfuges of a sort that I would guess commonly occur under regimes that, though they will brook no active, public opposition, are content with merely nominal agreement. The issue is first of all one of authority, not truth. Philosophers like Descartes and Gassendi would have regarded their acts as prudent; it would not have entered their minds that anyone would regard them as cowardly. (An interesting question: certainly it would have been brave to oppose the Church in those areas where opposition met with sanctions; but was it cowardly not to oppose the Church? ‘Cowardly’ and ‘brave’ are certainly contraries; but I’m not sure they are contradictories.)
Some references
On Voetius:
Gereformeerde Theologen Studentenvereniging “Voetius”. Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), wie was hij? (in Dutch).
Voetius, Gisbert” In: Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon. The original is in v. 12, col. 1549–1554 (published 1997).
On Vanini:
Galileo Project. “Vanini, Giulio”.
Emile Namer. La vie et l’oeuvre de J.-C. Vanini. Vrin, 2000. · 2711641120
On Tycho’s system:
Galileo Project. “Tycho Brahe (1546–1601)”. Includes a reproduction of an engraving of Tycho’s system.
Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza (Florence). “Tycho Brahe’s system”. Also lnglabita.png. Includes an animation of Tycho’s system.
On Gassendi:
Gassendi”. Catholic Encyclopedia (1911).
Olivier Bloch. La philosophie de Gassendi. La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971. (See especially pp. 327–329.)

LinkMay 4, 2005 in History of Philosophy · History of Science