Published Humanitas, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2001

In his Discours préliminaire to the Encyclopédie, the French philosophe d’Alembert penned the following tribute to Descartes:

He can be thought of as a leader of conspirators who, before anyone else, had the courage to arise against a despotic and arbitrary power and who, in preparing a resounding revolution, laid the foundations of a more just and happier government, which he himself was not able to see established.

From this statement one may gather that Descartes was not only a political thinker, but one of a particularly revolutionary bent. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Descartes had less to say about politics than any of the major philosophers, and the little he did say was of a markedly conservative, even reactionary nature. This fact did not, however, deter subsequent writers from finding the seeds of revolt and liberalism in Descartes’s philosophy. Indeed, the Revolutionaries of 1789 acknowledged Descartes as a forerunner, and the Marquis de Bouillier (cousin of Lafayette) even proclaimed him as the inspiration behind the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

If the Revolutionaries can be excused for republicanizing Descartes, why would a philosophe like d’Alembert credit his conservative countryman with overturning the political order in France and laying the groundwork of a new and better government? Conversely, given his apolitical (even anti-political) orientation, why have scholars spoken of Descartes’s “political philosophy” and dedicated books and articles to the subject? More fundamentally, in what way is it possible to speak of Descartes as a political thinker, and what was his actual contribution to political thought? Given his pivotal role in the history of philosophy and profound impact on intellectual culture, such questions speak not only to the student of political ideas, but go to the very roots of modern civilization.

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