The Life and times of a Genius
By A.C. Grayling
(Walker & Company, Hardcover, 9780802715012, 368pp.)
Publication Date: October 31, 2006
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Scientist, mathematician, traveler, soldier--and spy--Rene Descartes was one of the founders of the modern world. His life coincided with an extraordinary time in history: the first half of the miraculous seventeenth century, replete with genius in the arts and sciences, and wracked by civil and international conflicts across Europe. But at his birth in 1596 the world was still dominated by medieval beliefs in phenomena such as miracles and spontaneous generation. It was Descartes who identified the intellectual tools his peers needed to free themselves from the grip of religious authority and in doing so he founded modern philosophy.
In this new biography, A. C. Grayling tells the story of Descartes' life, and places it in his tumultuous times--with the unexpected result that an entirely new aspect of the story comes to light.
A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. Among his recent books are a biography of William Hazlitt, The Meaning of Things, and The Reason of Things. He writes a regular column for The Times of London.
Praise for DESCARTES:
"In Descartes, A.C. Grayling…deftly conjures up the political and religious conflicts of Bohemia and France, Spain and Holland, and brings to life those distant characters and events that began to shape modern Europe…He makes a convincing case that Descartes had a minor role as some kind of intelligence agent in the affairs of the day." - Simon Blackburn, New York Times Book Review
"As Newton was to physics, so Descartes was to philosophy, moving it from superstition and religion to science and reason. They are the founding fathers of the modern world. Grayling's life of Descartes is set firmly in the age of the Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years War, which are evoked in a lively, almost novelistic style of which Descartes would certainly have approved. This propels the narrative forward and illuminates the philosophy for a lay readership."--The Times (London)
"Grayling's account of the man and the thinker, which aims 'to engage in conversation with non-specialists,' navigates a careful path between the colourfully anecdotal and the challengingly scholarly, and succeeds admirably in producing an elegant, subtle and historically informed portrait of one of the found fathers of modernity… excellent intellectual biography."--Sunday Times (London)
"Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)," said Rene Descartes in the mid 17th Century - the most famous philosophical sentence ever uttered… As Grayling vividly conveys, in a era of deference to religious authority, this was revolutionary'--Mail on Sunday (4 stars) "Grayling's profile of René Descartes (1596-1650) is a general-interest biography that follows the life stages and travels of the flesh-and-blood Descartes (those wanting a more scholarly approach should seek out Stephen Gaukroger's Descartes, 1995). Between his birth in rural France and his death at the Swedish royal court are curious gaps of biographical knowledge that invite plausible hypothesizing. Descartes' relation to the Rosicrucians, a supposed secret society, is mulled over by science historian Amir Aczel in Descartes' Secret Notebook (2005), as Grayling does here, albeit briefly. More lengthily, Grayling is intrigued by Descartes' presence, on the Catholic Hapsburg side, France's enemy, at key events in the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. Grayling cautiously proposes that Descartes was a Jesuit spy. True or not, espionage enlivens what is otherwise Descartes' sedentary story of philosophical reflection, which Grayling tracks chiefly through surviving correspondence. These offer glimpses of Descartes' sociable personality, although he was prone to anger when crossed on points of intellectual pride. An informative presentation of the man behind cogito, ergo sum." --Gilbert Taylor, Booklist