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The Young Descartes

Nobility, Rumor, and War

René Descartes is best known as the man who coined the phrase “I think, therefore I am.”  But though he is remembered most as a thinker, Descartes, the man, was no disembodied mind, theorizing at great remove from the worldly affairs and concerns of his time. Far from it. As a young nobleman, Descartes was a soldier and courtier who took part in some of the greatest events of his generation—a man who would not seem out of place in the pages of The Three Musketeers.

In The Young Descartes, Harold J. Cook tells the story of a man who did not set out to become an author or philosopher—Descartes began publishing only after the age of forty. Rather, for years he traveled throughout Europe in diplomacy and at war. He was present at the opening events of the Thirty Years' War in Central Europe and Northern Italy, and was also later involved in struggles within France. Enduring exile, scandals, and courtly intrigue, on his journeys Descartes associated with many of the most innovative free thinkers and poets of his day, as well as great noblemen, noblewomen, and charismatic religious reformers. In his personal life, he expressed love for men as well as women and was accused of libertinism by his adversaries.

These early years on the move, in touch with powerful people and great events, and his experiences with military engineering and philosophical materialism all shaped the thinker and philosopher Descartes became in exile, where he would begin to write and publish, with purpose. But though it is these writings that made ultimately made him famous, The Young Descartes shows that this story of his early life and the tumultuous times that molded him is sure to spark a reappraisal of his philosophy and legacy.

288 pages | 14 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Biography and Letters

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy: History and Classic Works


“Cook wants to shake up our image of Descartes, to turn our attention from the familiar and to get us to think more deeply about just who this Frenchman who spent most of his adult life in the Netherlands really was and why he engaged in the projects he did. . . .  As a skilled historian, Cook brings a good deal of archival and other material to bear on the matter. The cast of characters in his chronologically limited and relatively short narrative is impressive. Right or wrong, if Harold Cook’s reading succeeds in drawing our attention beyond the theses and arguments of Descartes’s treatises to their historical contexts and his personal engagements, then it will force us to reconsider once again just who this great thinker really was."

Times Literary Supplement

"Cook’s account . . . presents the young Descartes as a mysterious and peripatetic soldier of fortune, possibly an associate of the scandalous libertine freethinkers, who was peripherally involved in the events that defined early-17th-century France. As a corollary to Descartes’s story, Cook provides a detailed primer on the complicated history of the period, which featured shifting and dangerous court rivalries; the brutal consolidation of power by the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, a probable enemy of Descartes’s; and the clash between French Protestants and the dominant Catholics."

Publishers Weekly

"Philosophers tend to ignore Descartes’s early years and focus instead on his final two decades, during which he wrote and published his famous works. In fact, not a great deal is known about those early years. Cook (history, Brown Univ.) sets out to reconstruct the life of the young Descartes by following what he calls hints and clues in Adrien Baillet's La vie de monsieur Descartes (1691) and correlating Descartes’s whereabouts with the major events of his day. The resulting portrait is of a man who, as Cook writes at the beginning of part 1 ("Mysteries"), “could have walked straight out of the pages of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers." Though the book is admittedly speculative, there is considerable plausibility to Cook’s account, even if it is not always persuasive, and the book provides a helpful picture of the social and political world in which Descartes lived. Cook’s conclusion that Descartes left Paris for the Netherlands in 1629 not to find the solitude necessary to complete his philosophical writings but to flee from Richelieu is intriguing, and the book should inspire—or provoke—many future studies. Cook includes a time line of events, but the book would have benefited from a bibliography to accompany the 35 pages of notes. Recommended."


“Cook is right to emphasise that what we do know implies that we cannot write about Descartes’s life as solely one of the mind. Clearly he had prolonged aspirations to be a gentleman soldier, aspirations that any biographer must take seriously and place in the context of European military life in this period. Cook does just that, and the best parts of his book give a fascinating insight into this world.”

Literary Review

"With fervor, Harold J. Cook describes Descartes's adventurous journeys throughout Europe, from one siege or battlefield to another, and his advancement in the circles of the French high nobility, siding with the opponents of Richelieu. . . . The questions Cook raises in his preface regarding Descartes’s early life and how and why he started to write philosophy—assuming that he did not enter adulthood with the decision to change philosophy and science fundamentally—are important, intriguing, and justified."


"Addresses a significant gap in our knowledge of Descartes’s intellectual development, and thus serves to shed light and contextualize the early days of Cartesian philosophy. . . . [Cook] makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the French philosopher’s youth. While the historical records here are too scant to ever conclusively determine all of the facts, this book goes a long way to assess what little we know. Ultimately, this book will be of interest not just to scholars interested in the history of Cartesian philosophy, but also those keen on the intellectual world of seventeenth-century Europe."


"This meticulously researched book will provide interesting details about the complex environments in which [Descartes] spent the first 30‐odd years of his life."

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"Harold Cook’s new book is a valuable addition to the growing series of modern biographies of the great thinker René Descartes (1596–1650). To a considerable extent, it exemplifies the dangers of leaving the biographies of great philosophers to philosophers and the usefulness of entrusting them to historians. As a result, we know a good deal more than before about the bizarre, perplexing, and often mysterious life led by Descartes. . ."

Journal of Modern History

“Cook does a very fine job of weaving Descartes into the complex world of seventeenth-century Europe: its politics and especially its military campaigns. He’s written a book that—provocatively and compellingly—seats intellectual history in the real world and helps make Descartes into a real human being.”

Russell Shorto, author of Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason

The Young Descartes is an engaging and intriguing work. Harold Cook follows René Descartes through the political minefields of the French court, riven by the rivalry between Marie de Medici and her son, Louis XIII, and his eminence grise, the formidable Cardinal Richelieu, and over the dangerous intellectual terrain of the seventeenth century, into a world that is rich while also complex, contested, and often veiled by caution or secrecy. This book makes central the fact that Descartes, frequently relegated to the status of arm-chair philosopher, actually traveled widely, indeed, almost incessantly for crucial periods of his life, and asks important questions about where he traveled and to what ends.”

Kathleen Wellman, Southern Methodist University

“Anyone who starts reading will quickly be drawn into the life of a young and intriguing French noble who only gradually found his way to becoming the Descartes later generations know, love, or sometimes hate. This is a fascinating study of the personal, social, and political complications of living in early seventeenth-century Europe, just as the modern nation-state was starting to form.”

Dennis L. Sepper, University of Dallas

Table of Contents


Part 1 Mysteries: Remains of a Hidden Life
Words on Paper
In Search of a Person behind the Words

Part 2 A France of Broken Families
Breaking with His Father
Aristocratic Paris
Libertine Paris
A Political Education

Part 3 Gearing Up for War: Mathematical Inspirations
Military Engineering
Meeting Isaac Beeckman
The Holy Roman Empire
Anxious Dreams
Curious Meetings

Part 4 War and Diplomacy in Europe
Into Bohemia
To Hungary and Disaster
The Baltic and Return to The Netherlands
Again in France
Paris and the Rosicrucian Scare
The Valtellina and Rome

Part 5 The Struggle for France
Problems with the Cardinal
The Campaign for La Rochelle
Confrontation and Departure
The Meetings
Confrontation and Conversation
Becoming a Sectarian
Feeling Threatened

Part 6 Not Yet Concluded
Chronological Table
List of Early Correspondence and Publications
For Further Reading

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