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From Athens to Amsterdam: One Maritime City to Another

The true mirror of our thoughts is the conduct of our lives. (Montaigne, 1592, Essais, I, XXVI, p. 247)

Descartes was born in France in 1596, in The Hague, a city of Touraine. He attended the Jesuit College of La Fleche, on the banks of the Loire, where he studied law, mathematics, and philosophy. He remained in contact with certain Jesuit priests all of his life.1 This did not prevent him from taking Galileo’s side at the occasion of his trial in 1633. Nonetheless, he had too much fear of the Church to publish his writings on astronomy, which adopt the theses of Galileo and Kepler.

Descartes became a soldier. Having traveled in Germany and France, he established himself in the Netherlands, where it was possible to think with relative freedom. He felt close to Montaigne’s humanism The latter was frightened by the bloody and cruel religious wars that tore Europe apart for a century. These wars were notably caused by individuals who were convinced they were right and unable to value those who thought otherwise. The Catholics and their inquisition massacred the Protestants, the Gnostics, and the free thinkers. After having had to defend themselves, the Protestants also become all too often intolerant. Montaigne proposed a humanism that questions all forms of idealism He therefore rejects the possibility that a human being might know what is true and false. Only God is thus able. Idealism is thereby not rejected but relativized. The god of the humanists is the smallest common denominator to that of the Catholics, the Protestants, the Muslims, and the Jews.

In this spirit Descartes thought that the scientific method is a good way to help human beings seek the truth together, instead of looking for it by killing each other. The choice of Amsterdam was not insignificant for Descartes. Amsterdam has much in common with Athens. Holland was part of the very Catholic and very tyrannical Holy Roman Empire of Charles V and was annexed to Spain, which was close to the Catholic Inquisition under Philip II. In liberating itself from Spain, Holland became a relatively tolerant Calvinist republic.2 The Netherlands rapidly built a colonial empire for themselves in diverse continents and became one of the richest European nations.3 Just like Athens, she partially democratized her internal institutions without renouncing her sometimes cruel domination of her colonies. And like Athens, the Netherlands became a center for art and philosophy that was characterized as a golden age of human thought.

Descartes finished his days in Sweden, guest of the Swedish Queen Elizabeth, where he died of pneumonia in 1650.

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