" It was at the same time of an adventurous and prompt nature to fold up itself "
Discussion with Genevieve Rodis-Lewis, by François Ewald
Literary magazine n° 342
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis devoted her life to Descartes. Its work on metaphysics, morals, anthropology, marked contemporary knowledge. In its biography, undoubtedly final (" Descartes ", éd.Calmann-Lévy), it only did not correct the errors of its precursors, but did not seek to include/understand the character of the Descartes man.
Q - Why a new biography of Descartes ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - There is a great biography of Descartes, which completion date of the XVIIe century, very invaluable. It was recently reprinted : that of Adrien Baillet (" Life of Mr Descartes ", Ed.La Round Table). He saved texts which, since, were mislaid. For example, the very important account of the dreams, of which one knows nothing without his biography. But Baillet had a defect : on the many points on which it had an uncertainty or an ignorance, it invented. Thus it made a certain error count : on the nobility of the family of Descartes it was deceived by the great nephews ; it confused the grandfather who was a doctor with another Pierre Descartes who had released Poitiers besieged by the Protestants. It affirmed that, junior by a great family, Descartes were intended for the army, which is false. It was mistaken on the dates in the schooling (it gives : Easter 1604 to 1612), which has a certain importance because the name depends on it on its professor of philosophy. Since the biography of Baillet, there was at least another of it : that which Adam published with volume XII of the large edition of Descartes that it carried out with Tannery at the beginning of the century. It was not reprinted at the time of the supplemented republication of the 11 volumes of works of the Sixties. Unfortunately Adam reproduced, in the major part of the work, and for the dates of the studies of Descartes to the college of the Arrow in particular, the errors of Baillet, even if it rectified some in the appendices of them.
Q- How can one manage to rectify these errors today ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Let us take the example of the schooling of Descartes. Descartes had a bad health. For this reason, one did not send it to the college when it was eight years old. One kept it at the house where somebody learned how to him to read and to write. Then a relative of the family (on the maternal side), the Charlet Father, was named with the college of the Jesuits of the Arrow. The boy grew. One thus wondered whether one could send to it. The Charlet Father obtained a particular mode to him which contributed much to support its intellectual development : there could remain the morning in its bed, with reading and meditating.
It is not of no importance to know if that occurs when Descartes is eleven years old or eight. Baillet knew, always by the family, until one had waited the end of the winter and the Lent for sending to it. Adam, when it gives up finally the dates of Baillet knowing that the Charlet Father had arrived at the Arrow in 1606, did not make check that it arrived there only in October. If Descartes entered there at the end of the winter and the carème, it can be only at Easter 1607. What makes it leave in 1615, it made then a year of right in Poitiers, which corresponds to the wish of his/her father who wanted that his/her children are parliamentary (it was necessary, indeed, three successive generations so that a family can acquire letters of knighthood). Here are as many elements as I could rectify : I made check in the files of the Jesuits the arrival of the Charlet Father to the Arrow in October 1606 - it still preached in Paris at the time of the Lent. Here are of small chronological details which have, inter alia consequences, to determine the name of the professor of philosophy (E Christmas, to which Descartes writes personally to send the "Discourse on Method to him ").
Q - Was your ambition only to rectify errors ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - I especially wanted to show the complexity of the character of Descartes, sometimes hard, violent but with qualities that Baillet indicated without showing them. Baillet speaks about its aptitude for the reconciliation, whose one has several examples. I add to it a certain oecumenism which had never been noticed. An alternative between a letter autograph in Huygens and the version published at the XVIIe century by Clerselier makes it possible to note it. It spoke about the Protestants while saying : " I hope that the religion will do all to us to be found as friends ; Clerselier had corrected : " the return to our religion ". Descartes had sometimes bad character, but it had many friendly truths.
Q - Descartes initially chose a military career.
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Indeed, it had chosen to be a soldier. It was not a paternal will. A little more than one year after having made its right, it could leave at 22 years for Breda where much French engaged under the weapons of Maurice de Nassau. It was very quickly disappointed. It was enthusiastic which all the more lent to disappointment. It spoke about the vulgarity and the ignorance of his comrades in arms. There remained there end of 1617 or beginning 1618 until spring 1619. Then it left for Germany where the Thirty year old prepared war ; it wanted to take part in battles, but did not want to live among désoeuvrées troops. The battles started only next spring. It went to see the crowning of the Emperor in Frankfurt. Then it found in Neubourg on the Danube a place where it could work in loneliness. Many editors of the " Discourse on Method ", reading at the beginning of the second part which it withdrew in a " district ", think that they are the " winter quarters " of the soldiers. There but it could not have been in loneliness and have worked quietly. Did it engage in spring ? It had to approach certain battles. It gives small picturesque details : the soldier who believes himself wounded whereas it is its belt which obstructs it, or it saw somebody whose armour was touched by a ball and who was not wounded. It thus saw battles. But did it really engage in the army of Bavaria ? I do not know anything of it ; because as of this moment, it found its " way " : the explanation of nature, according to a mathematical model. But he is not yet a metaphysician.
He thus spent this winter to Germany and y lived the dreams of November 1619. When did it return to France ? It is known only that it returned by Strasbourg : two later letters refer one to the cock of the clock, the other with the tower of the cathedral.
Q - Why does it engage in the army ? Why this military passion ? You say yourself that, young person, it was rather weak and spent his mornings to the bed.
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Initially, it had found a rather good health at the exit of the college. As for the desire to be a soldier, in the " Speech ", there is this allusion : " I was not insensitive with glory ". However when, at the end of its life, he wrote for the Christine queen of Sweden a Ballet for the birth of peace - it was the end of the Thirty year old war -, the Volunteers, to the second entry, say that, if their chief has as an injury the Victoire, theirs is its following : Glory. And, little before this mention " glory " in the " Discourse on Method ", which says Descartes of the teaching of the history explains this aspiration : it reproaches him for privileging the high facts, which leads the young people " to fall into extravagances from the paladins from our novels and to conceive intentions which pass their forces ". They are there only allusions so that it had believed to be its vocation. That confirms its character active, adventurous, enthusiastic, demanding and prompt to be disappointed, to be folded up. What one finds in the glance that gives him Franz Hals in the famous portrait which it made of him : interrogative, projected ahead and being wary, folded up at the same time on itself. There is always this double movement at Descartes : to advance while remaining careful.
Q - The Thirty year old is War presents in the work of Descartes ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Only by the Ballet which he wrote for the Christine queen of Sweden. Withdrawn in the Netherlands in a place which, in spite of the war, remained perfectly calm, it found there greatest peace compared to the external events.
Q - It was voluntarily disengaged ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - As of the moment when it was dedicated to science.
Q- What wants to say exactly " deserted " which is the word that Descartes for saying uses that it is withdrawn ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It is a term which one usually employed in connection with the saints, of the hermits who withdrew themselves to meditate in loneliness. For Descartes, essence was to preserve its loneliness, which was possible even in a city very populated like Amsterdam, bus, says it, each one there is so occupied with its profit that one leaves you quiet. When it undertook to establish a metaphysics whose base would be God, it had been withdrawn in France in the countryside. But the French courtesy makes that the " small neighbors ", like he says, came to disturb it. It is what led it to go to settle in the Netherlands where it always could do what it wanted.
Q - Did French civility prevent it from working ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - This same civility that it finds when it returns to France for a few months : it returned three times, in 1644, 1647 and 1648. (When the Sling bursts in 1648, it set out again at once). It will say in connection with its last stays that far too many people came to see it, like a curiosity ; (according to its own terms : " like an elephant or a panther ").
Q - What means the word " meditation " ? Does it act of the resumption of techniques or spiritual traditions ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It made its studies in a college of Jesuits, where there were retirements, which marked it. But it is a transposition, since it thinks that the reflexion on the dogmas and the mysteries raises of a particular vocation that it does not have. The Cartesian reflexion remains rational. Descartes establishes ontological, substantial separation between two types of be or of radically different substances, the thought, therefore the heart and in addition the bodies. Admittedly at the end of its life, it will meditate on the irrational fact of the union between the heart and the body ; but their distinction makes that rationally one can be sure that when the body dies, or is sick, the heart does not die with the body. Can one là-même affirm his immortality ? He corrected the title of the second edition of the " Meditations " where his/her friend Mersenne had subtitled " immortality ". Because their persistence after death depends on God. And it adds : " Since it now revealed to us that that will not arrive, there us should not remain any doubt any more ". It is the distinction between what it looks like rational and what concerns the faith. Because Descartes was sincerely believing ; I even suppose that it passed from science to metaphysics after having heard the account of died of that which it had chosen for chief, Maurice de Nassau : whereas one asked him in what it believed, this last had answered : " I believe that two and two are four ", formula which takes again textually Dom Juan de Molière. It was as the password of the atheists and I believe that Descartes, from there, whereas he was a scientist, saw that it had (it repeats it on several occasions) to be shown that the existence of God is more certain than mathematics. Without God, one does not have certainty, not a mathematical model. It is fundamental.
Q - Which is the contribution of Descartes ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Something which marked all posterior philosophy : the philosophical reflexion starts with the awakening of the subject which thinks ; one manages to explain the world only at the end of a long route. Before Descartes, one left the world present, with the qualities projected on the things and which one sought to explain. From the world, one went up with a cause first. Descartes even shows God before knowing if there is a world. And when it discovers this world, it is identified with extended from the matter. However the extent, mathematics can explain it. On the contrary, all qualities it is we who test them according to this union with the bodies. You see blue, you feel heat, it is you. There is a true revolution.
Q - There is thus a true Cartesian revolution.
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - There is a rupture with former philosophy by this priority given to the thought. And this because he wanted to destroy the doubt by the doubt. It was the opposite of Montaigne which fell asleep on its mol pillow.
Q - From which does this idea come from the doubt ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - ambient skepticism and in particular of Montaigne. The scholastic was already collapsing at the time when it makes its studies. Recently, one discovered a work which was offered to him to Neubourg in 1620 by a Jesuit : " the Wisdom " of Cartwright ; who accentuates this doubt in universal negation : " I do not know " (nothing).
Q- And this exercise of the hyperbolic doubt ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Hyperbolic, that wants to say thorough until the end. Descartes doubted even mathematics, while doubting God ; it doubted itself, but it is there that, abruptly, the obviousness emerges : I doubt, and I cannot doubt only I doubt ; to doubt, it is to think ; and it is to think in an imperfect way. All that is seized in only one intuition : I doubt, therefore I do not know well. Why do I suffer from it ? Because I have this ideal of perfection. It is the essence of the demonstration of the existence of God ; a very simple step finally. But it recovers very quickly to the study from science.
Q - For Descartes the exercises metaphysics should not take time too much.
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - When it published the " Discourse on Method ", it gave only one very weakened summary of it, for fear the weak spirits do not remain prisoners of the doubt. Envisaging a Latin translation, it initially thought of joining to it a beginning of metaphysics written in Latin and that it had stopped to explain the famous forgery suns which one had observed close to Rome. Finally it developed it and supplemented by writing the " Meditations metaphysics ", published with the answers to the objections that one addressed to him. Descartes always aimed at an unquestionable truth. As soon as it is in possession of the certainty of the principles, it sticks to développmement science. It is what it expresses in the foreword with the translation of the " Principles " : metaphysics, they is the roots from which the tree leaves. And it will pass its life to develop the tree : physics, the trunk, and them branches, medicine, mechanics, and morals. All the end of its life, it will be devoted to morals according to the union of the heart and the body.
Q - Wasn't Cartesian morals condemned to remain " provisional " ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - makes some, there were two morals : morals by provision, necessary while it lived the doubt, it was necessary well that it has some simple rules to act. They are borrowed from Montaigne and Charron : to follow the laws and habits of the countries where it saw, not to remain irresolute while it does not know. This morals is completely different with the morals which forms part of the branches of the tree and which is nourished by the trunk of physics.
Q - From which does the topic come from the firmness of the will ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It was a rule which it gave itself because it tended itself to make promises and not always to hold them. With Descartes, one must rigorously distinguish promises and wishes. Because it distinguishes very well these promises which block our freedom then which makes that they are not always followed, while the religious wishes and the contracts imply an obligation.
Q - How would you summarize Cartesian morals ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - To seek the truth, to distinguish what is true of what is illusory, and then, to act as consequence.
Q - One allots to Descartes the maxim to live hidden...
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It is a formula which it repeats. There is also the famous one " I advance masked " who am at the beginning of the register that it had started to fill after the departure of his friend Beekmann. Maxime Leroy in drew his " Descartes, the philosopher with the mask ", interpreting it like veiling intellectual libertinage. That appears insupportable to me. Initially because Descartes wrote this formula on a book which was intended to be seen of nobody ; and it had started with a sentence of the Bible : " the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom " Gouhier in gave a rather plausible interpetation : " Here me am believed military, but I maitnenant chose another way ".
Q - That does not give a great general information to the maxim...
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - not too much to show itself to keep its independence. It is always this double movement : to go from front but to retain themselves at the same time not to be disturbed by the others.
Q - It is said that Descartes would have been very careful in the divuglation of its ideas. Knowing misfortunes of Galileo with the Church, it would have preferred to keep for him its clean discovered not to be worried.
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It is a fact that he had written a rough work entitled " the World ", which was to be supplemented by the study of the man. He worked there. He repeated in Mersenne that he was going to send the next winter to him, not in spring, not with the autumn. He always developed his work. When it learns the judgment from Galileo, it is said : I do not want to have the same troubles, I keep my manuscript and I will write another thing. Thus it published the " Discourse on Method ". However, in the Netherlands where it lived, it was not likely to be imprisoned. But he did not want that his book is condemned, that it is destroyed.
Q - How did it live in the Netherlands ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Descartes had money by the revenues inherited his/her mother. That had enabled him to be voluntary without balance. It wanted to be free. It lived rather simply with a servant. In the " Speech ", he writes that he was of a condition which did not oblige it to make a trade. He had wanted to be neither parliamentary nor doctor like his ancestors.
Q - Does one know his timetable ? It had a regulated life ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - One knows by a rather picturesque history that it had continued to like to work with the bed the morning, fenestrates open. What was the only means by which then the primary infections tubercular patients were cured. How it known is ? At the time of a stay in Paris, it placed in a friend. But because of visits which disturbed it, it had left with its servant without leaving of address. Its host meets the servant, asks him where Descartes took refuge. The servant led there. Before entering, the friend looks by the keyhole : Descartes was with the bed with a book beside him, the open window. One can imagine that it still observed this practice in the Netherlands.
Q - In the Netherlands, it did not have public life at all... one does not know his relational life...
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It had good Dutch friends. A French, Barb, often lived with him, and were occupied of his material businesses. It is him which translated the " Principles " of Latin into French.
Q - Why does it leave Holland for Sweden, where it will find death ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It was let try. Why did it choose to leave for the winter ? It had a good memory of this winter spent in what one called a part a "stove" - i.e. a part heated by a "stove" - i.e. heated by a stove maintained since the close part, therefore without smoke, without sparks, without one being disturbed by the maintenance of fire. It had of it a so good memory which it had to say that, in these very cold countries, one was to be very well heated the winter. However, the Christine queen, who had invited it, had thought that awaking early, it would have the free spirit while starting by studying philosophy at five hours of the morning. And it was happy that such an intelligent and curious princess invited it to teach it.
Q - It liked to correspond with the women, with the princesses.
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - Not because they were princesses, but because they was exceptional women and who was interested in philosophy. As of the " Discourse on Method ", Descartes had wished that the women be able to hear something there.
Q - Which is the topicality of Descartes today ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It is exceptional, in the history of the ideas, which one celebrates a book : the " Discourse on Method " honoured by congresses and publications in the whole world, in 1937, and still again for its 350E birthday in 1987. Already in 1896, there had been some celebrations of its birth in 1596. See the list of the commemorations envisaged this year ; it is absoluement extraordinary.
Q - Does it act of a return towards Descartes, of a reactualization of the Cartesianism ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - It is the universal recognition which it has in the history of the ideas an exceptional importance. But that does not want to say that one is quite Cartesian.
Q - Did he know, like one says, of the moments of " purgatory " ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - One hardly any more publishes it at the XVIIIe century, but in 1765 the French Academy puts at the contest a praise of Descartes. There were five of it, including two which was preceded. Voltaire prefaced that which had had the first price. Then, with Victor Cousin, at the XIXe century one started to put the " Discourse on Method " at the program in secondary education ; from where an imposing number of editions of this work.
Q - Since the large edition of Adam-Tannery, there did it have a new edition of Descartes ?
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis - the edition Adam-Tannery was re-examined and supplemented in the Sixties, which already makes it possible to speak about a new edition. The Vrin bookshop into present, at the end of March, a more handy edition, reproducing the 11 volumes of Adam-Tannery in 11 volumes connected, a smaller format. There was an edition of the Pleiad without notes by André Bridoux. In this moment, one prepares for Gallimard a new Pleiad in several volumes with introductions, notes... (probably two volumes for complete Works and later, correspondence).
Inliterary magazine n°342 - April 1996
Genevieve Rodis-Lewis is author of " Descartes " (Ed.Calmann-Levy) biography remarkable where it analyzes the fundamental correlation between doubt and ideal, which melts the " cogito ", and highlights how much its philosophy keeps this air of innovation which made admiration or caused the concern of its contemporaries. A biography which wants to be a " effort to still include/understand better this work which brings us closer alive Descartes ".