GEM: Amsterdam, therefore I am

And yet, as ambitious and single-minded as Descartes was in the pursuit of his philosophical projects, he was not the aloof, solitary, and misanthropic genius that his contemporary critics and some later commentators have made him out to be. Far from shutting himself off from human contact in order to carry out his researches in rural isolation, Descartes had a broad and diverse circle of personal and professional acquaintances – French and Dutch; Catholic and Protestant; philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, diplomats, and theologians.

Nadler_DescartesWith those words Steven Nadler concludes his latest book, The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter. A portrait of Descartes. In this book, Nadler makes use of a painted portrait of Descartes (painted by Frans Hals or not – that is the question the book starts with) to shed some light on Descartes’s life in the Netherlands. By sketching out the different people and places that Nadler regards as conditions of possibility for the painted portrait of Descartes, Nadler gives us insight in who Descartes was and how Descartes conceived of himself. Especially interesting (I think) are the sections Nadler wrote about Golden Age cities Haarlem and Amsterdam, as relatively tolerant societies. Descartes considered for a long time Amsterdam the place where life was at its best. In a letter to a friend who was thinking about a quiet retreat in the countryside, he explains why he prefers the bigger city:

By contrast, in this great city where I am, there is no one, except myself, who is not engaged in commerce. Everyone is so consumed with the pursuit of his own profit that I could live my whole life without ever being seen by anyone. I go out walking every day among the confusion of a great many people, with as much liberty and quiet as you can find in your alleys; and I look at the people I see here not otherwise than as the trees found in your forests, or as the animals that pass through. Even the noise of their disturbances does not interrupt my reveries any more than would the sound of a small stream.