Discovering Descartes

Descartes famously wrote “I am, I exist” and “I think, therefore I am.” But who was he? Kevin Hart of The Australian explores who the man behind these words was and the legacy that he left as described in Steven Nadler’s new book The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes.

Capturing the ‘am’ of a great thinker

MANY people will be familiar with the most familiar image of French philosopher Rene Descartes. It depicts the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with long dark hair, a moustache and a small beard under his lip.

He has a starched white collar that is folded over a black coat in the manner of 17th-century Dutch burghers. A strong aquiline nose and eyes with lids that seem about to cover them mark a face that gazes out at us a little quizzically.

Frans Hals, the great Dutch painter, once had Descartes sit for him. Was the portrait lost? Or did he simply do something small and quick, a portrait composed of short, broad strokes of paint applied roughly? We do not know for sure about a lost, full portrait, but we know the small one because it hangs in a museum in Copenhagen, and has been copied many times.

Steven Nadler’s charming introduction to Descartes begins with an evocation of Hals’s portrait of the philosopher, and the whole book is itself an intimate portrait of the man and his times. More exactly, it tells the story of how the portrait came to be painted.

[Read the complete article at The Australian]

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