Philosopher as Icon? Steven Nadler on Descartes and Frans Hals

53 DSCN1006Nadler, Steven. The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2013.

As you know if you read my earlier post “With No Virgil to Guide Me,” I found this book when I was browsing in my local bookstore actually looking for works by Terry Eagleton. The title of Nadler’s book intrigued me, and a quick examination of the volume persuaded me I wanted to read it.

56 DSCN1009In The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, Nadler has several aims. He wants to answer the question “what are the circumstances that led to this minor but highly intriguing work [Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes] in the oeuvre of a major Dutch master?” (6).  He also wants to do “the same” as Frans Hals and give us “a small, intimate portrait of a great thinker” and of the years in Descartes’ life “that culminated in some groundbreaking philosophical doctrines” (7). On the whole, Nadler succeeds.

42 DSCN0994At times, I did find the book not exactly fragmented but perhaps a little unfocussed. But then, this is not really surprising given that Nadler’s focus is at least twofold. The subtitle says it all: A Portrait of Descartes. The book is at once the history (I use the word advisedly) of Hals’ portrait of Descartes and a portrait, a miniature, if you like, of Descartes’ philosophy. Ultimately, the book is more Philosophy than Art History, but I shouldn’t be surprised by that either; Nadler is a philosopher.

46 DSCN0999I found The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter satisfying on several levels. With detailed and informative endnotes and a quite extensive bibliography, the work is well researched and scholarly but in no way inaccessible. The ten colour plates as well as the half tone illustrations support Nadler’s text well. I also appreciated the background information on the socio-political situation in the Netherlands in the early to mid-seventeenth century, and really, here, I suppose, one should really talk about the religious situation in the Netherlands because in the early sixteenth century the religious was the political.

53 DSCN1006Nadler makes it very clear why the Jesuit educated Frenchman Descartes found life in a little village not far from Haarlem where “neither Rome nor the bishops of Paris had any influence” highly conducive to philosophical endeavours. “While the [Calvinist] Dutch Republic was certainly no paradise. . . .the freedoms it offered and the laissez-faire attitude in intellectual matters—especially in Holland—suited Descartes’s purposes well” (136)  Writing to his friend Henri Brasset in 1649, Descartes describes himself as “a man who was born in the gardens of Touraine, and who is now in a land where, if there is not as much honey as there was in the land that was promised by God to the Israelites, there is undoubtedly more milk” (Qtd. Nadler, 136). I find this last sentence highly revealing of the man behind the philosophical thought. One is familiar with Cartesian thought, but how often do we actually give any thought to what it must have been like to have been the man doing the initial thinking? Nadler’s book gives us a brief glimpse into the personality and circle of the thinker. His history of the Hals portrait and of its possible genesis in the desire of Descartes’ friend Father Augustijn Bloemart to have a portrait as a memento of his friend after Descartes left for Sweden at the summons of Queen Christina, allows us to see Descartes at home with his friends. One imagines those evenings that the three men Descartes, Bloemart, and the musician Johan Albert Ban spent together in Haarlem “listen[ing] to the harpsichord, and discuss[ing] various subjects, perhaps while enjoying some warming beverage (but apparently nothing too strong) (148). It sounds all very cosy, if perhaps, and here I admit I’m allowing the values of my own time to intrude, a little overly monastic. It is one of Nadler’s strengths in this book that he makes Descartes and his circle so alive and recognizable to us.

51 DSCN1004Another of his strengths is his clarity in outlining not only Descartes’ thought but in his elucidation of some key theological and philosophical ideas. Nadler’s explanation of accidents and substance is clear and logical, and therefore his clarification of the doctrine of transubstantiation is one of the most lucid I’ve ever encountered. For that reason alone, I will keep this book safely on my bookshelves, despite the fact that when I bought it I wanted more Frans Hals than René Descartes.

Afterthought: If you’re interested in what happened to Descartes post mortem, then you might be interested in reading Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal history of the conflict between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto and published in 2008 by Doubleday.

The pictures are of Haarlem (the old town) and were taken 17 April 2011 

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