The Young Descartes Nobility, Rumor, and War
by Harold J. Cook
University of Chicago Press, 2018
Cloth: 978-0-226-46296-7 | Electronic: 978-0-226-54009-2
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226540092.001.0001


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.


Harold J. Cook is the John F. Nickoll Professor of History at Brown University. He is author of several books on the early modern period, including Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age and Trials of an Ordinary Doctor: Joannes Groenevelt in Seventeenth-Century London.


“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

“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

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

"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

“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

“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

"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."
— Choice



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