Author: Steven Nadler

Publisher: Princeton University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-15730-6

This sensitive and informed portrayal of the leading incisive and groundbreaking philosopher of the 17th century, René Descartes, provides a smooth conduit into the life and thinking of a doyen of his times. The sound rationality of his approach and his desire to explore the new and challenging in thought and faith, rather than adhering to the dictates of the authorities, has an innate appeal. For a young person, Descartes is extremely appealing, ranging from his wanderlust, which saw him travelling the length and breadth of Europe, through to his desire for close and supportive friendship with those who were most meaningful to him, above all the priest Father Augustijn Bloemaert.

Descartes’s opposition to aspects of the established church and state no doubt should also go a long way to entrenching a positive approach towards him among the young. His rejection of what man perceives through the senses in favor of the overpowering superiority of reason should serve as a wake-up call to any reader heralding from the contemporary ‘instant gratification’ society who comes upon his work for the first time. The contentious nature of Descartes’s writings led to them being listed on the Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books for eons, which, no doubt, should also appeal to the young, who have long tended to be attracted to subversive and outlawed works. For undergraduate students and relative newcomers to the field of philosophy, Steven Nadler’s writing is bound to prove riveting reading—there are just so many points of common interest and approach with the modern-day thinker (keeping in mind that he, in fact, abandoned academic studies in a keen desire to investigate the world for himself).

In the portrait of Descartes by Frans Hals that appears on the front cover of this exploratory work, despite his starched collar, the philosopher looks less concerned with being genteel than he is with making a conscious effort to be intensely aware of what is going on around him, and interrogative of it. Instead of “think” in the stock phrase that is associated with his outlook on life and raison d’être, “I think, therefore I am,” one might, perhaps, just as easily insert “am intellectually aware.” In short, Descartes had a deep concern with both the mental and the physical, a concern that Nadler reveals in relation to his progression throughout life, on both the intellectual and the material plane.

In The Philosopher, The Priest, and The Painter: A Portrait of Descartes, Nadler, the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, uses Frans Hals’s portrait of Descartes as a fitting centerpiece and starting point from which to launch an examination of the philosopher’s life against the political and cultural backdrop of Europe, and specifically the Low Countries, during the Dutch Golden Age.

Above all, the humaneness of Descartes, which is remarkable for any academic, and especially for any philosopher, is what stands out in this text. Nadler’s many excerpts from Descartes’ letters and other writings also help to bring this work alive. The work is well illustrated with full-color plates and multiple half-tones throughout. In the comprehensive index, particular care is taken with the detailed entries on the priest Augustijn Bloemaert, on René Descartes and his numerous works, and on Frans Hals and the multiple references to his various paintings. In order to find a comparable introductory reader to Descartes, one would have to go extremely far. The Philosopher, The Priest, and The Painter: A Portrait of Descartes should serve to enlighten many a newcomer regarding the origins of modern philosophy, and encourage them to inquire much more deeply about said philosopher in future.

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