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Cartesian Nightmares
1676: how Descartes scored 45% on the Leyden list of prohibited propositions [BH]


In the morning of January, 17, 1676 a new placard hangs everywhere in Leyden (half a day downstream from my present Linge location), sporting a list of 20 prohibited propositions. Those entering town can already read one outside the gate. Professors "ventilating" one of those shall, starting today, be fired immediately and expelled from town. The placard is signed by the Curators of the University. 9 of the 20 are taken from the work of Descartes. The question of my short study, mainly a reading of the relevant sections of a defense by the then Leiden professor Abraham Heidanus: what made these 9 reach the top of an opponent-selected list of apparently nightmare provoking scholarly positions?

... placard ...

The wave causing this incident started in 1672. Four years before. The rampjaar ("disaster year"): the Dutch Republic got attacked from South, West and East. France and the German neighbouring states were monitored for long, but nevertheless the scale of the attack made it a bolt from the blue. Dutch diplomacy had missed completely England`s stealth transition to the attacking alliance, or at least had sent reassuring reports only [Rowen, John de Witt, Princeton 1978, 725,731] . The approach between France and the German border states had been underestimated.

Holland, the richest and leading part of the Republic, had been ruled for two decades without stadhouder, that is, since the very early death of stadhouder Willem II, whose quick introduction of military power threat in the dealings with Holland had severely damaged the Orange brand. In these two decades the world view of the rich traders had dominated the political argument, in which wealth was obtained through peace and trade, hence in staying ahead of your competitors in knowledge, craft and technical ability, and not, as was the idea in European noble circles, Orange vassals not excepted, through war and taxation.

Under the leadership of Johan de Witt, Holland contained the Army, because large standing armies make attractive military options, with, sooner of later, their lobbyists. That was one of the reasons to have no stadhouder, since that figurehead's position will naturally make him the Army's champion. And as long as England would not ... but it would. And that got clear only when there was no more time to reinforce the Army.

While Louis XIV advanced and occupied even Utrecht, in the unoccupied part of the Republic the champions of peace were bluntly pushed away. Many got aggressive home visits. William III, 22 years of age, became stadhouder, power got seized by Orangists, typically simple, rigid reformed protestant souls, rarely financial tycoons, though many of those quickly turned on the new wind. Under Raadspensionaris Johan de Wit it had been peace, tolerance and "true freedom", suddenly we were ready to die for God, Fatherland and Orange.

Johan de Witt had failed to take heed in London, but once virtually desposed in the Calvinistic-Orangistic rising, would he really not have realized that he could not just go on foot to the prison where his brother Cornelus was held in the chaos, to take him out and go home? They got shot, roasted and partly swallowed (1672-the-year-the-dutch-ate-their-prime-minister). Planned suicide? Some icons of the stadholder-free era fled to (Spanish) Antwerp. Though that town had seen its harbour blocked for ages by the Republic, the sub-top was safe there for the moment. Louis had advanced in an Eastward half-circle to enter the Republic from the German side along the Rhine. But the de Witts, where could they go in this stage? Denmark perhaps. But how to get there? With your family? I think they just had given up. These are no people to acquire shock and get apathetic.

The Republic barely survived. The great men of the stadhouder-free era were solidly out. Willem with the power and the patricians with the money were of course condemned to each other, but the patricians understood that a more humble and rigid Calvinist tone should be produced, and well, they remembered how to do that. 

The mongols before Bagdad

Back to those placards that morning in Leyden three years later. The rigid Calvinists, the "Voetians", were still in fierce battle for the jobs and functions of the besieged liberal enlightened reverends, theologians en even philosophers from de Witt's times, often called the "Coccejans".

The rift between these two circles officially consisted of differences in articles of faith, such as whether God held the sun for an hour as the Bible says, or whether this should be interpreted metaphorically. What it means where the Bible says the sun moves around the earth. But the underlying rift was in the personal and social profiles of the members of the opposed parties: the enlightened party consisted of well trained scholars, informed about the recent scientific theories, discoveries and positions of their time, often practical research workers in their own right: classifying plants and animals, engaged in chemistry, anatomy, atronomy, optics, mathematics. They shared the new excitement of making and improving scientific instruments like clocks, telescopes, microscopes, thermometers, barometers. They had learned to consider nature from the question "how it works", a subject rarely touched upon in the church services of the fundamentalist Calvinists.

This approach to nature could not but bring them in conflict with the Bible if taken literally in its account of all those unnaturally spontaneous events, shrubs catching fire and starting an oration, water turning into wine etc. etc. generally just about anything that makes the Bible amazing, interesting, awesome and inspiring humility towards High Power. But even worse, it prompted general thoughts about the proper method of finding the truth. René Descartes, who had moved to the Republic to gain a healthy distance to the aggressive French catholic fundamentalism, got read and venerated in all corners of Dutch scholarship and research. He had died 16 years earlier at the age of 54, and e.g. the Leyden theologian Heidanus, who will soon below be given the floor, had been in his close company. Descartes' influence in the Republic reached as far as Theology, where Coccejus had based his rationalistic Calvinist Bible interpretation using Cartesian principles.

The standard fundamentalist "Voetian" on the other side of the rift lived in a different world. One typically could not expect from him any interest or education in research of natural phenomena. He tended consider that as a waste of time: everything one should learn and know was in the Bible. Simple souls who had no intellectual defense at all against the findings of the new science, then still called "philosophy" (thus a microscope was called a "philosophical instrument"). In Voetian circles, where men like Cartesian theologian Coccejus more often evoked fear for the devil than were understood, all Cartesian and Coccejan arguments could do was to provoke aggression.

Though sub rosa the patricians, dealing with court through some untainted faces in their midst, with their incredible money taps - amply sufficient to buy France had they thought the idea profitable - quickly regained some discreet power to put some limits here and there, the fundamentalist Calvinist Voetians were the street power base of the new Orange regime. How far would Court let them go in their fights with the scholars and research workers? The men who had enhanced cartography, navigation, marine military techniques, virtually everything that had brought the Republic a decisive advance in the distant sea trade? In 1776 the Orangists judged the time had come to discipline Leyden University, the best international university of the time. They stood, as it were, before Leyden as once the Almohads before Cordoba, and the Mongols before Bagdad.

Pressure increased. Willem decided to back his Orangists and ratified a submitted list of 20 "positions" that should no longer be "ventilated" in Leyden. University board members ("Curatoren"), shat in their pants and signed. The 20 "positions" looked largely Coccejan, but 9 of then were taken from Descartes. And the interesting question here is: What made these 9 reach the top of an opponent-selected list of apparently nightmare provoking scholarly positions?

I am reading here a kind of counter-plea by the Nestor of Leyden theology at the time, Abraham Heidanus. "A kind of", since the Senate got refused its unanimous request for an opportunity to defense under submission of a plea. We shall probably never know who whispered what to whom. The Curators were not in the least a recently appointed gang of Orange agents, but the Senate got its plea returned. Curators "had not read it". Heidanus' 172-page booklet found, in despair, but may be also, and not unsuccessfully, to use the occasion provided for some rationalist propaganda among broader circles in the Republic, in quite large impressions its way to the world of nervously gossiping scholars and research workers in and outside the universities.

Abraham Heidanus on the barricades for Rationality

What makes the discussion - if it can be so called - curious is the rift of culture between the parties. Though the Voetians were in power they would never be able to come up with intellectual arguments to the standards of those put forward by Heidanus, neither could they produce any reply meeting those standards. They were no match in the intellectual game, but in the game "stop it or you will regret it" they had good chances in the orange conditions.

But where could a victory lead the Voetians? To the predicament of a gorilla forcibly taking charge of the driver's seat of a team of horses, not unlike Clovis, and Abu Ya'qub Yusuf the Kalif of Cordoba ("I'm ruling here, ehmmm ... tell me how to do that ...", "... our pleasure Sire ... "). Had Heidanus been offered a chunk of de Witt's roasted flesh, he would not have been able to swallow it. At least some Voetians had proved to have no problems: one of de Witt's lethal attackers was put in the vroedschap of Hoorn by one of Williams cronies  [Kooijmans, L., Onder Regenten. De elite in een Hollandse stad. Hoorn 1700-80, Dieren, 1985), p. 43]

AH about prohibiting "positions" generally (1-49)

Heidanus - his booklet Consideratien, over eenige saecken onlanghs voorgevallen in de Universiteyt binnen Leyden (Considerations about some recent events in the University of Leyden) is in pdf on Google - has the confidence to honestly show his liberal face, but sometimes his rhetoric is meant to remind the fundamentalists that they and he have always belonged together, which causes some logical tension in his argument. For calling to mind how they together "battled" against the catholics, socinians, remonstrants and other "heretics", contrasts with his main plea to weigh all arguments from all sides and select, convincingly to everybody, the good by rational means, a procedure in which, to everybody's happiness and satisfaction we tend peacefully to end up quite straight in the orthodox Calvinist doctrines.

The ukase posted all around Leyden is not practical, Heidanus claims, unless in arbitrariness, despotical. For it would be an unworkable novelty if someone got the assignment, in an intricate philosophical debate, in case of a foul, to blow a whistle.

Heidanus claims the placard is a violation of the principle, endorsed by friend and foe, that only the Holy Writ contains certain truth, that not even all of that must absolutely be known to be a good Christian. In particular, the so called synodic formulieren, also signed by Heidanus ("Formulieren van Eenigheyt" consisting of Confessie, Catechismus, en Canones Synodi Dordracena) do not contain certain truth. I do not know of any Voetian rejoinder but they would have an easy job saying they're not sure either but if he would do it again fire him anyway!

Heidanus: the 9 prohibited Cartesian positions one by one

The placard prohibits 20 "positions". I only deal with the 9 Cartesian ones. The rest is about theologists, who do not have my interest, though Heidanus is one

Prohibited position 6: That the clear and distinct understanding, in issues of religion, is a rule and measure of truth. Of the expression clare et distincte everybody is told who studies even the shortest introduction to Descartes. The idea is that an issue needs to be clearly and distinctly understood before one can enter the stage of considering whether it is true or not. Many now shrug their shoulders in reaction, unable to see more in it than a matter of course. But see! It is the very first of the 9 Cartesian propositions  henceforth prohibited in Leyden! Why was this such a pressing issue to the fundamentalists?  Because the key Biblical truths as the trinity and the incarnation of God in Christ are overwhelming the righteous believer by their incomprehensibility. Incomprehensibility serves as a proof of the power of God. And such super-imposing incomprehensible issues would not not even be fit for truth analysis? Would they, so to say, not even pass the qualifying round of reasoning?

Descartes had realized the danger and made a provision to cope with it. He held out his hand but kept it too high. Heidanus squats down to explain it again: what is clear about the dark and unclear parts of the Bible is that their report is Gods revelation, and another clear and distinct thing is that God does not lie (for details one reads Descartes on this, I am happy not to meddle with it, we have more than enough problems at hand as it is). The content, or the revealed issue can be dark, but we know it must be true because its status as revelation is clear and distinct. The black box passed the test, so we cannot but consider all its content as certainly true, for better and for worse. This had escaped the fundamentalist selectors of the placard's positions, Heidanus claims. But it leaves me with the feeling that it must be an infamy to the fundamentalist that a highly suspicious scholar as Descartes can walk with the Bible along the abyss to save It at the last moment with something that Horace would quite aptly call a deus ex machina.

Prohibited position 11: that the World originates from certain principles like seeds. Yes, that should  make you panic for the devil if you think they believe that in Leyden while in church you learned that Genesis is God's own report of His creation. But Heidanus quotes Descartes saying that Genesis is a certain revealed truth, Adam and Eve created à bout portant as adults-at-once not excepted, but that it is "better to properly understand the nature of plants and animals, that they are considered as they since can originate from certain seeds, than that they are considered the way they are created in the beginning".

In the natural course of events since creation Descartes is not far off. This was known about plants since millennia ago man started to sow fields, there was a certain awareness about pregnancies and babies, even in the Bible, and one year after this barbarian hectic Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek put his sperm under his latest microscope and saw his own seeds. One can see how Descartes here again reached out tactically to the Bible, and how this time he held his hand low enough to be grasped by the simplest fundamentalist. Did they not understand even this obvious gesture or did they see through it and preempted this Ode to the Bible while deemed hypocritical? Heidanus seizes the chance their omission provided and writes triumphantly: "is so much as saying ... that yes is no ..."

Prohibited position 12: That the same [the world] is infinite in extension, hence it would be impossible for more Worlds to exist. Heidanus shows that Descartes does not call the world "infinite" but "undetermined", and does so because the second term points rather to our ignorance (of borders). There is, Descartes holds, no sufficient reason to conclude to the infinity of the world, but sufficient reasons for its finiteness lack as well.

Heidanus treats part 2 of the position as purely semantical: if "earth" is meant then there can be more, but Descartes was dealing with the universe, the "whole all", as Heidanus puts it. Nothing can be outside that by definition. Why this issue could raise so much emotion among the simple minded in the Calvinist world does not at all become clear. It may have been viewed as a theological position of content, not featured in the Bible, and Monsieur Descartes could have been reproached with adding to revelation on his own account.

Prohibited position 13: : that the Soul of Man is nothing but a thought, and being taken away, Man yet could live and be moved. Heidanus devotes 7 pages to this position, more than the average. He feels sure right from the start about the cause of shock in fundamentalist circles: they conceive a "thought" as something fleeting that passes by quickly, hence that the eternity of the soul is denied.

Here, Heidanus decides to take his time, and squats down to explain, trusting thus to calm down the nerves of the opponents - bad luck they returned his plea without reading - : just like the body exists by being an extended thing, part of extension, the soul exists by being part of thought generally. Thought is the substance of thoughts like extension is the substance of extended things. Though living bodies die, the soul is an eternal thought. Nothing scary there (to the Voetians, that is; if I got convinced of this I would surely panic).

Part two of the prohibited proposition, about the possible living and movement of soul-less bodies, that sounds spooky indeed, and Heidanus claims not even the most errand Descartes reader could ever have claimed it. The absurdity and contradiction in it are obvious, Heidanus claims. We modern readers could, with our enlightened modern neurology, even chase Heidanus at full trot out through the town gates ... the easier because according to Descartes the human soul finds itself in the pineapple gland, which nowadays, though it is not recommended, we can have peeled out from under our brain tissue without interrupting our conversation.

Prohibited position 14: that nothing appertains to human nature except thinking. This might sound disturbing to the simple minded if they conclude that exactly their weak point has been raised, in exclusion of all else, to the status of human nature. But this even to them should be ridiculous. Heidanus uses stronger language: " ... such propositions ... being examined, lightly could be judged as impossibly fall in any brains containing the least of reason". Heidanus take care!, the fresh stadhouder Willem III read and ratified this, you apply for a day in the scaffold!

Heidanus repeats that Descartes considers Man living on earth as a unity of body and soul, starts reading Descartes a few lines earlier, thus revealing that he locally deals with the nature of the soul, subsequently denoted by "nature". To be purely Cartesian this prohibited position should have read "the nature of the human soul", and we would be in repetition of the first part of prohibited proposition 13, resting, see there, on a misunderstanding of the Cartesian concept of "thought".

Prohibited position 15: that the will of Man is truly free, and with respect to bodies as infinite as Gods will. Here Heidanus gets in trouble. He does not want to part the side of Descartes, but has to push and pull the interpretation about as much as he accuses his opponents of doing with the other positions. He starts with improving the translation of the Latin to the "Duyts". "that the will of Man is absolutely or unconditionally (t'eenenmaal) free and undetermined, ... " Then he decides to hang on the meanings of "free" and "infinite". Freedom in Descartes is claimed not to relate to "the will of Man in so far as he considers God". But the long proof of this by reductio ad absurdum, that I skip, is purely Heidanian and not to be found like that in Descartes.

After that he starts lecturing the difference between "natural" and "free-will" causes about with "all theologians and philosophers" would agree. In the course of this Heidanus, to the disappointmenet of Descartes I suspect, almost completely kills freedom, though he leave a tiny little breething hole. Then the infinity of Man's will. What is it? He reproduces the text of which his opponents took offence, but without any comment at once moves to Descartes' Fourth Meditation, where it is "put clearer", because there Descartes writes that he sees no "poles" (trl. Heidanus) that mark the limits of his will, and that "we feel" our will is determined by no outside power. The reader has to be content with that, which I surely refuse.

Maybe Heidanus should have admitted that Descartes held the will of Man too high, but is allowed to make a mistake without his position causing the punishment of a Leyden professor who erroneously believes it for a while. Spinoza would overtake Descartes in a few years by proving from absolutely unreligious and largely Cartesian principles that freedom of the will is impossible (but wisely kept it a. in Latin and b. in his drawer).

Prohibited position 17: That we have the power to always prevent errors. And that errors are caused only by the will. Why does this require prohibition? Heidanus suspects that it is seen by opponents as claiming that since the Fall of Man we only err and sin because we want the wrong things, not because our will is weak (to the latter of which the fundamentalists apparently were inclined). Hence Heidanus searches again for friction between the prohibited position and Descartes' source text, reading (in H's translation): "I find in myself a certain power to judge, that I got, like all else, from God; and since he does not want to deceive me, he surely did not give me such a power to let me err, at least when I correctly use it".

Who can deny God gave us power of judgment? Heidanus asks. And the trick is in correctly using it. It is obvious that such should prevent errors because if not, how could we say we correctly used it? Someone who masters the art of calculation can err, but only if he does not apply the art correctly. My personal thought is that if Descartes is simply transferring the burden from truth to correctness as Heidanus claims here, I would start to sympathize with the simple minded. Concerning part 2 of this prohibited position Heidanus explains that the "error" is only in the will when your definition of "will" includes the judgment, and not if you don't. Simple comme bonjour.

Prohibited position 18: That one should doubt all things, also the essence of God, such that one holds as false the thing one doubts. Now Heidanus realizes he is in deep trouble. But he is going to devote the record (at a distance) of 18 pages to a heroic attempt to reconcile the righteous placard gluers with Cartesian doubt. The  simple minded would, Heidanus assumes, read prohibited proposition 18 as "that one should doubt ... things, also the essence of God, yes that one should hold all those things including the essence of God as false". But, after thus having put much more in his enemy's mouth than had come out, he continues, eagerly grabbing the chance to show that even he has limits: even in a wealthy Republic people who claim such things should be expelled.

Thus the issue of doubt "with which one polluted so much water some years ago, en still continues to do" requires him to raise the issue "from its beginning". Isn't it exciting not to associate, for a change, the Cartesian method of doubt with an unhealthy looking student who, yawning, already thinks of his next examination, but rather with a Danton facing the Comité du Salut Public?

Why start with doubting everything? Because, our rhetor thunders, in the course of removing the doubts step by step and reasoning towards certain truths one wants every reasonable mind, however skeptically inclined, to follow, which has the not unimportant advantage that afterwards also you yourself are sure that underway nothing has been simply taken for granted in misplaced confidence.

When I saw Heidanus devoting so many pages to convince the fundamentalists that thus you will end up better than when you just start to read the Bible, I had my doubts, but in the first instance they melted away watching Heidanus' unexpectedly lofty performance: one saves the erring sceptic from his sinful doubt by starting together with him, in doubt, and giving him his certainties one by one, a deed of Sacrifice and Christian Love! In no time the skeptical fellow-man is saved with the certainty of the existence of God, and the distinction of his body and his soul.

Enter: the Pagan, the Jeweler, the Mathematician and of course Descartes himself. If one set out to bring a pagan to Christianity, isn't it clear we can't simply start to read the Bible to him? Should he not first understand where the Bible comes from etc. ? And the Jeweler selecting diamonds from a box of mixed stones, does not he pour them on his table to put the diamonds back one by one? And the Mathematician, does he not often patiently prove a proposition for others that he does not need anymore to prove for himself? Is one henceforth no longer "allowed to find out what are the most powerful arguments to prove the essentiality of God?" Only the one who starts with considering to be proven, hence unproven the proposition that the sum of the angles of a triangle is two straight angles and then proves it, has certainty. Whoever simply accepts it out of obedience to authority has no certainty.

Reading the unleashed Heidanus I cannot escape the thought that his message, to a fundamentalist Calvinist, which is, clearly and distinctly, that the latter can read the Bible to the stage of squinting but that he will not have the tiniest little chunk of certainty about the "essentiality of God" as long as he has not personally gone through the mill of Cartesian doubt, is unmarketable, even for who is called Heidanus. He is not even half way his 18 pages devoted to this issue but I can't further follow and see poor Heidanus giving Curators all reasons to fire and expel him (which lucky for them and him they did not have to do since they "had not read" it). Rubberneckers are referred to Heidanus Consideratien p. 125-134.

Prohibited position 19: That we have an idea of God that expresses his essence, as it is in itself. So that's not allowed either. Have we now moved too far from doubt and err at the other side of the narrow road? Haughtiness? Descartes, in H's translation: "The Idea of God is in me, having all perfections, that though I can not understand them, I can reach".

Heidanus then chastises, with heavy labeling ("ignorance, ... the filthy nature [vuylaardigheid] of these lads [lui], ... , the filthiest unreliability") opponents for knowingly blurring the distinction between an adequate idea, that Man can have, also concerning God, and a perfect or complete idea, that only God can have. He quotes approvingly a "Philosopher": "The one who rejects or neglects the innate idea, or image in thought, of God, throws himself necessarily in Atheism". Now opponents are even atheists. You can't lie deeper in the Heerengracht.

Final Meditations

It is purely the first shock of confrontation, history shows. All a fundamentalist needs, if he has some brains, is time. To hear some things and have some thoughts. Clovis had himself baptised. Abu Ya'qub Yusuf when ill, called for the Coccejan (avant la lettre) of Cordoba: Ibn Rushd, suspected of rationality but a medical doctor as well. And after some relaxed conversations about the differences between the local Cordovans and the fundamentalist barbarians that recently invaded the town, Rush got appointed qadi. Just give them some time to understand their self interest.

When in 1688 William III finally sank his tired back side on the English throne, he understood for long that Voetians are quite useless if you want to make your canons more precise, powerful and gunpowder-efficient, but they are very useful to operate them and die happy in case of bad luck. He had become a champion of religious tolerance with an active, well-designed and practical policy against fundamentalism, both in England and in the Republic.

If the Leyden Curators let the Voetians glue that ridiculous placard everywhere in town just to keep them happy and because they judged that after a year all would be forgotten anyway, the hopeless among them departed out of boredom and the rest acquired interest, that would not have been bad thinking and those interested in a fertile future for the Descartes reception should count Heidanus misunderstanding of this as a blessing.

That placard! If it could be found it should be distributed once more over Leyden.

But, in earnest, my little study does not yield much of the news I hoped for concerning the Descartes reception: it has been said more than enough that the "exercise" of methodical doubt, the clare et distincte, was, in a  world of revelation and authority, a scary leap to independent individualism in judgment, and whatever the rationalists claimed indeed entailed the introduction of a second captain on the ship, moreover one who, as we now know, in due time tipped the old one over the rail. That was not diagnosed so badly by the fundamentalists.

The fallout is restricted as long as the rationalist does his exercize in silence, but once one starts recommending in public the universal utility of rationalism the row is around the corner. The temporary stop on the flow was the use of Latin in rationalist philosophy while the common people where kept ignorant by being taught to read only Dutch and the Staten Bible (read only! writing formed no part of the Calvinist literacy campaign). In long run this language dike yielded in this first ever country made - by the fundamentalists! - literal. That was the root cause of evil: flabbergasted foreigners reported that even the maids could read, and a print shop next to the streetcorner's bakery, with discussing readers standing around, became a familiar sight. Scholars got pestered with unsolicited translations of their careful Latin works, often anonymous and adorned with some reckless "improvements". Local eccentrics without any scholarly education grabbed a pen to oppose or even ridicule, in Dutch, their home town rigid reverends with often well taken common sense acquired on the streets. Quite some print, prepared with ardour and enthusiasm got burned by order of Justice and stubborn authors as well as printers could find themselves languishing in itchy moist polder prisons.

Even without Louis the leak between the two language communities, and between the two speeds of Dutch culture, would have ceased to allow fundamentalists to stay dry.

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