The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution
Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and the Cultivation of Virtue
Amid the unrest, dislocation, and uncertainty of seventeenth-century Europe, readers seeking consolation and assurance turned to philosophical and scientific books that offered ways of conquering fears and training the mind—guidance for living a good life.
The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution presents a triptych showing how three key early modern scientists, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Leibniz, envisioned their new work as useful for cultivating virtue and for pursuing a good life. Their scientific and philosophical innovations stemmed in part from their understanding of mathematics and science as cognitive and spiritual exercises that could create a truer mental and spiritual nobility. In portraying the rich contexts surrounding Descartes’ geometry, Pascal’s arithmetical triangle, and Leibniz’s calculus, Matthew L. Jones argues that this drive for moral therapeutics guided important developments of early modern philosophy and the Scientific Revolution.
"With an exceptional blend of historical, philosophical, literary, and technical skills, Matt Jones reframes the whole debate about the place of civility in science and philosophy. Politeness has been typically seen as a tool for the social legitimation of the sciences, but Jones demonstrates that Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz viewed the mathematical sciences as a means to the only civilizing process that really mattered. Civility and mathematics converged in the pursuit of 'the good life'— the refining of the limited cognitive, ethical, and spiritual capacities humans still had in the postlapsarian context. By refusing to reduce civility to either the order of society or nature, Jones’s book shows us the simultaneous production of selves and knowledge.”
“We have long known two things and yet, only with Matthew Jones’s strikingly original book, have they been put together. On the one hand, the long philosophical tradition, back from the time of the ancients, has stressed the profound connection between the study of philosophy and the conduct of a good life. On the other, Descartes, Pascal, and Leibniz each embedded their science and their philosophy in a common enterprise. What Jones has shown is that, for these pivotal thinkers, the practices of the science was a form of spiritual exercise, a cultivation not only of a right way of thinking but of a right way of being. This is fresh, important work that re-situates key works of early modern science—indeed of early modern thought, full stop.”