Navigation – Plan du site
Blumenthal lectures

Restaging Descartes. From the Philosophical Reception to the national Pantheon

Stéphane Van Damme

Notes de la rédaction

Cornell, Blumenthal lectures, 8 octobre 2002

Texte intégral

1In his book, Esquisse des Progrès de l’humanité published in 1793, the French philosopher Condorcet underlined the strength of the cartesian Revolution as one of a basement of the mondernity. By this analysis, Condorcet closed the black box of one century and a half of science wars in the Republic of Letters in Europe. In fact, if the learned circles displayed deeply contrasting attitudes concerning the Cartesian question from the Descartes’death in 1650, beginning in the 1740s references to the philosopher appear to have grown less charged and to have shed the harmful potential. Once the period of polemic and the dissemination of a specific set of knowledge completed, a longer-term period began marking the commemoration of Descartes’ thought. In the second part of the Eighteenth Century, Descartes ceased to represent a renegade and integrated the pantheon of glorious French figures but this stablization remained ambiguous because Descartes will be also identified to a representant of the Old Regime during the Revolution.

2This starting point led me to adopt a multi-faceted approach which combines several different methods (historical, sociological, and philosophical), in order to describe Cartesianism as a social and cultural phenomenon in all its complexity1. By the examination of forms sociability, cultural practices and discourses, I will point out the tension between several patterns of recognition. The growing acceptance within european societies of Cartesianism and its new legitimacy cannot be entirely credited to its discourse alone. Rather, it was also the result of a social construction. Through the figure of Descartes, I’d like to underline the fact that the process of universalisation of his philosophy is shared between three different scenes : local identity (urban and Parisian identity), intellectual European networks and the formation of the nation.

The Invention of the Cartesian Novelty in the Seventeenth Century Paris

3The expression “new philosophy” which ended up describing the totality of Cartesian knowledge at the end of the seventeenth century provides a nice starting-point for our study, because it points directly to the stakes involved in the cultural survival of Descartes’ work and of its recognition as a major movement of philosophy. In this, the first part of my paper, I will attempt to examine a knowledge in action which is worked out after the death of Descartes in 1650 within the context of its circulation. This activity involves identifying the borrowings from and commentaries on Descartes, in short to accumulate elements of knowledge in order to reconstitute their intellectual filiation. Far from coming into existence immediately, Descartes’ philosophy is constituted gradually with each edition and re-edition of his scattered texts. This editorial work delimiting a corpus of texts lends workers in printing as well as readers an active role in the understanding of the Cartesian world. Printers’ efforts are all the more important in that they are associated with strategies for the mobilization and diffusion of these ideas in privileged spaces which constitute the crucible for the defense of new Cartesian ideas in public.

A Socio-Political Cause

4Because the emergence of Cartesian philosophy continues to be problematic, it provokes a multiplication of socio-political alliances heretofore unknown in French philosophy.

5A dynamic involving family networks appears to have been at work in the management of the Cartesian inheritance, given the strong influence of the family sphere which tied together the first protagonists of its diffusion. Among them, we can note the name of Claude Clerselier who was the brother-in-law of Chanut, an old friend of Descartes in Sweden. He made physical experiments in his company concerning the vacuum. At last, Jacques Rohault was the son-in-law of Clerselier. This quasi-direct relationship made the philosophical inheritance of this first generation a family inheritance. Thus, the publication of a letter at the start of the French edition of the Principes, which closes by evoking Descartes’ nephews, clearly situates the writing of the preface’s discourse withing a pedagogical and familial context. At the same time, with each successive edition of the text, Clerselier’s name progressively disappears from the title page, replaced by the cryptogram (CLR)2. The transition between private, isolated, and fragmented spheres of reception to larger circles of reception depended first on individual actions and novel collaborations3. But we must underline the fact that this system of personal familiarity did not necessarily lead to a public opening-up. It could also orient itself towards a closed, private sphere by restricting itself to interpersonal exchanges. The grandeur of this philosophy would thus be all the greater for remaining underestimated, unknown, even persecuted. Thus, the publication work of Clerselier and Rohault was also founded on a strategy of addressing these texts in order to place them under the protection of a prince or a prelate – that is, to emerge from the familial sphere in order to enter the domestic sphere. In the dedicatory epistle addressed to Monsieur D’Estrées, bishop and duke of Laon, situated at the beginning of the Oeuvres posthumes de Mr Rohault, Clerselier underlines the importance of this transition :

It is good, My Lord, that we leave some mark for posterity, and that those who in the centuries to come will honor the memory of the late Monsieur Rohault (who My Lors your brothers, the Marquis de Coeuvres and de Termines, along with the greatest at Court, did not in the past disdain to have as master), might know that this memory was so very dear to a Prelate of your rank, not only for having agreed that his posthumous works be published in your name; but also for having welcomed his associates to defend themselves before you, and for having recognized the joy of their innocence. I had begun his defense, as father-in-law of the deceased, and I am obliged to share the credit with the living ...4

6The historiography, however, has always accorded Cartesianism a capacity for mobilizing far beyond the expected circles. Beginning in the 1670s, its diffusion was noted in spheres (salons, academies, lectures, etc.) beyond the learned institutions being created like the new Royal Academy of Sciences, even if the latter became increasingly receptive to Cartesian ideas in the final two decades of the seventeenth century5. Prince Louis II de Condé became one of the protectors of this philosophy within the Academy directed by the Abbé Bourdelot. The Prince de Condé also invited Régis and Malebranche to his retreat at Chantilly6. The Cardinale de Retz was another protector of the Cartesian cause who deployed Descartes. Beginning in 1675, the Benedictine Dom Robert Desgabets sponsored a Cartesian circle at the Chateau of Commercy7. In his hotel on the rue de Seine and above all in his castle near Paris, the Duke of Liancourt played the role of patron (1669-1674)8. A friend of Théophile de Viau, he had been a protector of Corneille. The poet Gomberville became one of his intimates. A Jansenist, he played an active part in theological debates.

7What does this aristocratic protection signify ? From a political point of view, the association of Cartesian philosophy with the princes of the blood, and with Liancourt and Condé in particular, amounted to a strategy of scientific patronage which went royal authority. Katia Beguin has demonstrated clearly the nature of Prince Louis II de Condé’s protection of the Cartesians of doctor Bourdelot’s Academy, like Jacques Rohault, René Fédé (1639-1712), editor of the third edition of the Méditations métaphysiques of 1673, Pierre-Sylvain Régis and Géraud de Cordemoy, author of the Dissertations physiques du corps et de l’âme, published posthumously in 1689. The success of this circle derives from the paradox of the State’s patronage which, by its very control of intellectual activity limited its hegemonic vocation9,

[...] princely patronage offered a solution full of hope, a possible stepping-stone and always appreciable assistance against criticism, exclusion or disfavor.10

8If Cartesianism was not socially marginalized, it was politically with regards to royal authority. Many of those refused by the Academy of Sciences found themselves enrolled in the Academy of Bourdelot, like the physicist Jean de Hautefeuille11. But preventive censorship transformed the prince into a veritable intellectual arbiter who validated and certified the process of publishing knowledge. It is no coincidence to find in princely correspondence the recurrence of the Medicean model and of the Accademia del Cimento. In a letter addressed to Francesco Redi12, Ferdinand II de Médicis’ official doctor, and which was eventually published, Bourdelot insisted on the participation of the prince in the circle’s activities. The prince “derives the greatest pleasure in the world from all the curiosities of physics”.13 As concerns the generalization of gratitude, the integration into the princely orbit and into its practices of sociability combined the advantages of familial connections which had initially permitted a sharing of common criteria, the rapid constitution of common, positive representations of Cartesian philosophy, and the advantages of scientific patronage, by locating it within more general forms of judgment and evaluation. While the first efforts obliged Cartesian philosophy to generalize little by little, calling upon local reference points and interactions between individuals, the academic institution made it possible to deal with this philosophy in public. Early efforts made it impossible to free this philosophy from an interpersonal conception of its dissemination, while latter efforts represented a shift towards activities involving criticism, explanation, judgment and justification14.

A Cultural Event

9In a rare process, by surpassing the limits of aristocratic sociability, by moving into princely circles, Cartesian philosophy became a truly cultural phenomenon during the seventeenth Century. First, Cartesianism was integrated into noble educational practices. Thus, Rohault, the Prince de Conti’s tutor, and Jacques Sauveur, the Duke d’Enghien’s tutor, contributed to this aristocratic passion for Cartesian physics. The Prince de Condé’s Jesuit tutors led the way in teaching Cartesianism. In January 1684, the Jesuit father Du Rosel spoke of the philosophical education of the young Duke d’Enghien :

We continue to examine the questions of place and space. We read what the Principes of Descartes have to say on this subject, and what they can contribute to an understanding of the difference between the old and the new Philosophy.15

10One year later, he wrote :

Mr. de La Bruyère continued to explain Descartes, yesterday and in the morning Mr. Sauveur that of geometry.16

11Subsequently, two phenomena testify to the expansion of its audience : the activities organized following the philosopher’s death; and the literary celebration of the Cartesian rupture. The admirers of Descartes in France initiated a movement in order to restore the remains of the philosopher in Paris. The transport was organized by the financier Pierre d’Alibert and the French ambassador of that time, Hugues de Terlon. The transport took place in 1666 and 1667. The corpse was placed in the church Sainte Geneviève du Mont. In 1669, the monument was erected of which Terlon had written. It consisted of semi cylindrical plates with inscriptions and the top a terracotta relief said to be made after the portrait which Queen Christina had ordered to be painted. At the banquet which followed his funeral in 1667, magistrates are in the majority : Fleury, Cordemoy and Clerselier – all lawyers at the Parlement of Paris –, and d’Ormesson, Guédreville, Habert de Montmort – all maître des requêtes and members of the French Academy –, were all in attendance17. References to Descartes circulated throughout polite social circles : well-known Cartesians included the Countess de Grignan18, the Marquise de Sablé19, and the Duchess du Maine. Madame Sablé organized in her home in 1663 lectures on Calvinism as well as physics experiments. When Rohault invented his glass tubes for the purpose of conducting the barometric experiments that Pascal had brought into fashion, the Marsquis de Sourdis wrote him on the subject. People took position for or against and they read Descartes’ Pensées sur les opinions. Cartesianism permeated the ruelles and the salon sociability of the mid-seventeenth century20. It became a polite phenomenon, as a great number of commentaries penned by the Marquise de Sévigné demonstrate. Descartes was thus transformed into a fictional personage who inhabited literary writings. The works of Valentin Conrart include literary games based on the philosopher. One poem is addressed from “Descartes to Mademoiselle de la Vigne”, and the latter responds : “Lavinie to M. Descartes”, concerning the appearance of a ghost : “What ! You appear to me, illustrious and learned ghost !21” This dialogue set in the hereafter, this ghostly game, was characteristic of celebrations of libertines during the seventeenth century. These selections, appended to the Relation de la mort de M. descartes, the philosopher, by Mademoiselle Descartes, in the Recueil de vers choisis, were published by the Jesuit father Dominique Bouhours in 169322.

12A shift thus took place between philosophical and scholarly greatness to literary glory, albeit an impure glory not entirely devoit of critics or scandal. In order to fully understand the power of Cartesianism, it is necessary to consider the complex networks of local alliances, the mass of intermediaries and middle-men hidden behind Clerselier and Rohault who made it possible for Cartesian philosophy to be disseminated. This social network of alliances remained fragile and in danger of being disrupted at any moment.

A Controversial Philosophy : the role of intellectual networks

13In fact, it is necessary to pay close attention to the debates which unfolded between 1660 and 1745. In addition to this landscape, we will return to the practices of learned transmission on the European stage which define the boundaries of the Cartesian “Refuge” and sketch and art of inheritance specific to the world of letters. Even if the mechanism of polemics is now well-known, it might possible to sketch the European geography of this controversial reception and to assess the role of intellectual networks and powers in this diffusion. Historians have often noted that following Descartes’ death, the French monarchy manifested a benign neutrality concerning the posthumous publication of his works.23 In 1650, his heirs entrusted a portion of his manuscripts to the ambassador of France in Sweden, Chanut. An inventory was drafted three days after his death, on the 14th of February 1650.24 The diplomat, distracted by negotiations in Sweden and in Germany, left this task to Clerselier, his brother in law. It was only in 1653 that these papers finally were transported to Paris. This activity of publication was not pursued uniformly for the ensemble of Cartesian philosophy. Rather, it followed three primary paths : the publication of letters, the publication of treatises, and the constitution of opera omni – complete works. In 1663, the listing of the Cartesian corpus on the Index smoothed the way for a possible correction of Cartesian philosophy.25 This is an important nuance, because this condemnation indirectly authorized its use in a licit form. That same year, the apostolic nuncio in Brussels denounced Cartesianism at the University of Louvain26. In 1671, the University of Paris prohibited the teaching of all doctrines other than that defined in its statutes and regulations.

14Europe encompassed deeply contrasting situations. There existed increasing tensions between teaching practices and institutions prescriptions. In Switzerland, the council of Berne, turning its attention to the complaints of the ecclesiastical corps, prohibited the teaching of Descartes’ philosophy several times, notably in 1669 and 1680.

15In German-speaking areas, professors also engaged themselves in violent polemics which echoed French debates. In 1674, Johannes Tepelius published his Historia Philosophiae Cartesianae in Nuremberg. Leipzig was without a doubt the university where Descartes’ philosophy had encountered the success, represented by the anatomy professor André Pétermann, who published a refutation of Huet’s condemnation in 1690.

16In the Iberian Peninsula, Valencia, Madrid, Saragossa, and Barcelona all served as privileged stages for the importation of Cartesian philosophy through the Spanish novatores at the close of the seventeenth century and in the first decades of the eighteenth century27. In Madrid, Juan de Cabriada was one of the protagonists of the renewal of medicine, who in 1687 published his Carta filosofica, medico-chymica, seen as a manifesto of the scientific revolution on medicine and biological and chemical knowledge. In Seville, the reformist movement culminated in 1700 with the creation of the Regia Sociedad de Medicina and other sciences, which constituted one of the first Spanish scientific institutions. In Saragossa, the Italian doctor Juan Bautista Juanini, who had entered the service of Jean d’Autriche in 1667, contributed to the diffusion of modern ideas among the city’s doctors. These groups, however, remained decidedly in the minority and had to compromise with other institutions committed to defending the Aristotelian architecture of knowledge. For this reason, the founders of the Regia Sociedad de Medicina had to oppose themselves to the University of Seville. In Saragossa, José Lucas Casalete, one of the city’s principal novatores, was attacked by the courts for his teaching. In the same way, while the University of Valencia emerged as one of the principal seats of discussion and importation of Cartesian philosophy in medicine, physics and mathematics, it nonetheless remained in the grips of institutional inertia until the middle of the eighteenth century.

17As we can see, reactions were both many and varied. They never lacked an element of polemic. After 1690, Cartesian physics began to be taught everywhere in Europe28. A number of changes helped little by little to topple the Aristotelian edifice. Firstly, beginning at the end of the 1640s, teachers began to reorganize the teaching of philosophy by starting with metaphysics. Secondly, experimental facts were progressively integrated into the courses taught in Jesuit colleges beginning in mid-century, whether Harvey’s new physiology discussed and taught by Father Pierre Gautruche29, Galileo’s mechanics by father Honoré Fabri, as well as Toricelli’s and his successors’ experiments on the vacuum30. The teaching of Descartes attracted also a number of professors in the academies of the Protestant world. In Geneva, Pierre Bayle wrote to his father :

As for philosophy, it greatly flourishes here. Mr. Chouet the son of the bookseller and Mr. Tronchin’s nephew teaches that of Mr. Des Cartes with great renown and attended by a great number of foreigners.31

18It is important to take stock of the process by which the frontiers of polemic were redefined during the first decades of the eighteenth century. We should evoke several elements : the progressive acceptance of Cartesian philosophy as commonplace in schools and teaching congregations, including the Jesuits, Oratorians, and Génovéfains. The reception of Newton in France caused Descartes to be identified with the old philosophy. A general reconsideration of the importance of different philosophical traditions then took place, as did a parallel movement of peace agreements and reconciliations in favor of pacifying polemics (which normalize references to Cartesianism and defuse its polemical character). The final major battle took place between 1735 and 1745 on the question of the determination of longitude and the interpretation of universal attraction. Academic networks were mobilized to ensure the triumph of Newton. In Encyclopedist circles, the Cartesian inheritance was debated. It offered a social model of the philosopher, but its physics was rejected. People accepted its geometry and took inspiration from its metaphysics.

A Source of National Pride ?

19After 1740, an activity of commemoration took place an was accompanied by a nationalization of Cartesian philosophy between the close of the eighteenth century and the 1880s. Descartes left the only field of knowledge to became a cultural reference.

Descartes, from Academism to Free-Masonry

20Despite the polemic surrounding Newtonian thought, the academic eulogy of Descartes constituted from the beginning of the seventeenth century on a commonplace genre, and it is necessary to ask whether Descartes’ grandeur was modified by this shift in register and institutional context32. To understand the emergence of the epidictical Cartesian discourse does not imply limiting oneself to an analysis of the topoi or the rhetorical figures of this discourse, but rather necessitates situating this phenomenon within a double evolution : first that of the politicization of the academic eulogy; and second that of the institutional space in Paris which underwent profound changes33.

21The uses of this literary practice were not comparable from one institution to another. In the Academy of Sciences, it constituted an important but non-essential practice, one among other activities more directly tied to their intellectual work. In the French Academy, it was from the very beginning an academic genre par excellence. Marc Fumaroli sees it as the specific characteristic of the institution34 which testifies to its critical vigilance. This practice became somewhat rigidified during Louis XIV’s reign when meetings became public. According to Hélène Merlin, the eulogy’s restrictive demands “contributed to fixing the schema of the extraordinary.”35 Since its creation in 1699, the Academy of Sciences remained loyal to Descartes’ philosophy. Fontenelle (1657-1757), its spokesperson, the Abbé Bignon (1662-1743), who was responsible for reforming the Academy, Réaumur, the astronomer Jacques Cassini, and the physicist Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan were all staunch Cartesians and admirers of his method as well as his physics – and even his metaphysics. These various eulogies of the French philosopher within the Academy of Sciences called above all for a wide diffusion of the learned man’s ethic. From the very moment that he became secretary of the Academy of Sciences, Fontenelle repeatedly recalled the important features of the scholar’s morality, at once patriot and selfless36.

22In the second place, Cartesian philosophy was no longer inscribed within a continuity, or within a filiation with ancient philosophies, but was conceived as a major rupture, and had to be situated with relation to other possible “revolutions” as Fontenelle in his Préface de l’Histoire de l’Académie des Sciences. (Fontenelle quotations)

23But it was with the assistance of the French Academy in 1765, when the praise of philosophy was presented, that the literary practice attained the height of its intensity37. Begun in 1759, this contest celebrated above all those men of State like the Comte Maurice de Saxe, marshal of France (1759), and like the Chancellor d’Aguesseau (1760). The eulogy of Descartes inaugurated a series of speeches on men of letters : Molière in 1769, Fénelon in 1771, and Fontenelle in 1784. The prize-winning eulogy of Antoine-Léonard Thomas subsequently experienced an exceptional fortune, being repeatedly republished into the nineteenth century38. In 1786, when Thomas entered the French Academy, the Comte de Guibert in fact recalled in his welcome speech this remarkable work of aggrandizement by Thomas :

Through this chaos of whirwinds, suns, worlds, immortal truths, or even sublime errors, what happy rest for the Reader’s reflection, what beautiful quantities of ethics and philosophy thrown out in intervals, what fragments on Descartes’ education, on his travels, on the persecution he experienced in Holland, on his personal life, on that insatiable curiosity which made him study everything, examine everything, know everything, in order first to doubt and then to create ! How M. Thomas enlarges, with all these accessory details, the principal merit of Descartes and above all the sense that we have of his genius.39

24These praises inspired sculpture commissions for the Salon of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture40, like Augustin Pajou’s Descartes in 177741.

25What was the nature of this “praise” with relation to the many panegyrics already evoked ? The author proposes from the start to abandon the strict framework of the Fontenellian eulogy42 and the biographies which had defined militant hagiography, in order to propose an ethics of debt and redemption. Descartes is an outlaw who Thomas follows in his successive exiles. He incarnates France’s incapacity to honor its learned men. The case of Descartes demands reparation, and Thomas’ text fills the role of a national celebration. At the same time, it embodies a politicization of this figure. By emphasizing exile and the banishment of Cartesian philosophy from the kingdom, this highlighted the monarchy’s attitude. In a more subversive manner, the topos identified the representative of French philosophy as being “publicly placed outside the public”43. This tension could not be erased without a reintegration into the national community. Thus, as Jean-Claude Bonnet has suggested, in the second half of the eighteenth century the eulogy of men of letters replaced the hegemonic figure of the king who had inhabited all the eulogies of the Great and of the servants of the State celebrated by the Academy44. The erosion of the figure of the king left a space for a discourse about the Nation45.

26For Thomas, then, this involves creating a contrario a civic memory through the raising up of local heroes with whom the public could identify. If Berlin gave Leibniz’s eulogy, Paris would have Descartes, and Rouen Corneille, because these models “would stand in for the statues of ancient Rome, for the triumphal arches of China, for the mausoleums of Westminster.”46 This imposition of a new geography and this territorialization of the reference to Cartesianism certainly reflects a repatriation, but it also was articulated within the context of a competition among the different European cultural capitals emerging at the time. From the exiled philosopher to the Parisian Descartes, the academic fabrication of the hero profoundly modified the lexicon of Cartesian grandeur that had been fixed at the end of the seventeenth century by Adrien Baillet in 1696, or that defined in a polemical mode by jesuit father Gabriel Daniel in his Voyage de Mr Descartes. The impressive extension of his reputation through the Republic of Letters’ extensive networks was a double-edged sword. The nationalization was thus the result of both the politicization of Cartesianism’s greatness henceforth associated with the discourse on the nation on the one hand, and with an intensification of Cartesian communication through the limited networks of local celebration. By these language acts, the Academy became a patriotic tribune, as Morellet remarks on the occasion of Thomas’ death in 1793 :

But when Thomas describes Sully’s soul, when he brings Descartes’ remains back to his ungrateful country, when he has Apollonius, his hand on Marcus Aurelius’ coffin, this eloquence, as academic as it is, is certainly that of the great orators of the Assembly, one need only ask them to be its judges47.

27From then on the ordeals of greatness were played out less on the external stage of the Republic of Letters, with its wider dimension, and more on national stages and rested on an intensive reading of his glory.

28The reference to Cartesianism also circulated in other social spheres where the question of the relationship between the nation and cosmopolitanism was posed more explicitly. Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire signaled in his thesis numerous debates which ran through the lodges on the identification of Descartes as a national hero opposed to the Englishman Newton48. The reference served to criticize the English origins of FM thesis. Thus, in the foreigners’ lodge in Philadelphia in 1784, the Brother Béguillet delivered a Discours sur l'origine, les progrès, et les révolutions de la Franc-maçonnerie philosophique, contenant un Plan d'Association & un Projet Maçonnique de bienfaisance, pour l'Erection d'un double Monument en l'honneur de Descartes :

Never, M[y] D[ear] B[rothers], will be proposed to you a more beautiful project, a nobler project, one more philosophical, more masonic, more patriotic, better suited to remind Foreigners of the obligation they have to the French for having enlightened Europe, as Louis the Great said in the letters-patent with which he honored Philosophy in the person of Descartes [...] The eulogy of Descartes was Masonic, and was followed by an explanation of his too-poorly-known philosophy, and which has declined almost completely ever since Anglomania has pushed us to embrace a foreign system, which seems to have tried to revive the occult qualities of peripatetism. […] In consecrating a M[asonic] monument to Descartes, […] it is there that we will find together all that will help Philosophical M[asons] to study the different branches of Art which include not only the philosophy from which it emanates, but also the universality of human knowledge. It is there that Masons from both Hemispheres, who come to visit France’s capital, will go in large crowds to pay homage to the Father of philosophy and of letters.49

Descartes in the Pantheon ? An Imperfect Icon

29The Revolution and its cult of great men pushed this tension between a culture of reparation founded on a logic of redemption on the one hand, and Cartesianism’s public discredit on the other, to its logical conclusion. After Voltaire and Rousseau, Descartes was the third writer to be listed in the decree founding the Pantheon on April 4, 1791. And yet it was Descartes who provoked a calling into question of the Pantheonization of men of letters.

30First, we can note the process of sanctuarization of men of letters in national memory. The old church where the monument dedicated to Descartes, was partially demolished during the Revolution. In 1792, the monument of Descartes was deposited in a new musée des monuments français organised by Alexandre Lenoir, and cenotaphs to his honor and other great men’s erected in the garden, jardin élysée, around the museum. The corpse of Descartes was inhumated once more, in the church of Saint Germain des Près.

31In May 1796, a debate broke out within the Council of Five Hundred concerning the appropriateness of such an event. On the 18 Floréal of the Year IV (7 May 1796), Marie-Joseph Chénier (1764-1811), the poet’s brother, submitted to the assembly the draft of a law planning for elaborate ceremonies to mark the transfer of Descartes’ remains to the Pantheon50. This was not a new project, since as early as 9 Thermidor the National Convention had approved a decree to grant these honors to the philosopher. Chénier’s speech delivered on this occasion must be read within the context of the defense of the Enlightenment tradition with the Institute, in the wake of the 1795 celebration’s of Lavoisier, and represent a desire to transform the Pantheon into a new symbolic space open to writers. This effort conjugated both a short-term time frame – that of the Thermidorean reaction – and a long-term time-frame – the Enlightenment tradition. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who also sat on the Council of Five Hundred, responded to this logic of reparation outlined in Thomas’ speech by calling for a cultural regeneration implying a rupture with Ancien Régime practices of sociality. To Mercier, Descartes had become too closely associated since Thomas with Academism. The Pantheon had to be reserved principally for the heroes of the Revolution. To counter the Cartesian localism from which Thomas’s argument drew most of its strength, Mercier denounced Descartes’ lack of a strong identity to criticize his Pantheonization :

[...] there were only thirty people in all of Paris who had read him, to such an extent that the People would in no way be educated by his transfer to the Pantheon. When it will see his statue pass by, it will look upon it in the same way as if it were the Grand Lama. It will not be able to learn either the goal or the necessity of this apotheosis. How many men of this great city are utterly unfamiliar with Descartes and his doctrine !51

32While Louis-Sébastien Mercier suggests that writers’ true “apotheoses” is to be found in their books, Cartesianism’s greatness is disparaged in two ways : in the public revolutionary sphere as well as in the hermeneutic sphere. According to Mercier, Descartes appears to belong to the Middle Ages :

He noticeably slowed progress through the long tyranny of his errors; he is the father of the most impertinent doctrine that has ever reigned in France. It was Cartesianism which killed experimental physics and which transformed pedants into true scientists, learned France being servilely in the service of Descartes visions ! To this unreason which engenders dreams upon dreams, he joined the audaciousness to make them accepted !

33In the end, Descartes was never welcomed into the Pantheon.

Haut de page


1 See for example, the work of Nathalie Heinich, The Glory of Van Gogh : an anthropology of admiration, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996.
2 Descartes, Les principes de la philosophie, Paris, Vve Robin, 1681.
3 To compare, we can use S. Chapman, “ Patronage as Family Economy : The Role of Women in the Patronage Network of the Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain Family, 1670-1715 ”, French Historical Studies, 24, 2001, p. 1561-73.
4 Œuvres posthumes de Mr Rohaut, op. cit., épître dédicatoire.
5 S. Roux, “ Le scepticisme et les hypothèses de la physique ”, Revue de synthèse, 4e s., n°2-3, avr-sept. 1998, p. 245.
6 Fontenelle, éloge de M. Régis, note 22, p. 151.
7 Sur ces conférences, voir Œuvres complètes du Cardinal de Retz, Paris, 1887, tome 9, p. 209-358.
8 J. Orcibal, “ Descartes et sa philosophie jugés à l’hôtel Liancourt ”, in Descartes et le cartésianisme hollandais. Etudes et documents, Paris, PUF, 1950, p.87-107.
9 K. Béguin, Les Princes de Condé. Rebelles, courtisans et mécènes dans la France du Grand Siècle, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 1999, p. 372.
10 Ibid., p. 379.
11 Ibid., p. 376.
12 Sur Redi, P. Findlen, “ Controlling the Experiment : Rhetoric, Court Patronage and the Experimental Method of Francesco Redi ”, History of Science, 31, 1993, p. 35-64. 
13 Recherches et observations sur les vipères, faites par Mr Bourdelot, répondant à une lettre qu’il a reçu de Mr Redi premier médecin du Grand-duc de Florence, Paris, s.d., p. 49-50 (BNF  : S 12828).
14 Voir Laurent Thévenot, “ Le régime de familiarité. Des choses en personne ”, Genèses 17, sept. 1994, p. 72-101.
15 Archives du Musée Condé (Chantilly), Série P, t. 94, fol. 95, 7 janvier 1684.
16 Ibid., Série P, t. 99, fol. 165, lettre de Du Rosel à Louis II, 24 janvier 1685.
17 Paul Mouy, Le développement de la physique cartésienne (1646-1712), Paris, Vrin, 1934, p. 98-101 sur “ les milieux cartésiens français ” à Paris.
18 Lettres avec la marquise de Sévigné citées par Cousin, ibid., p. 140-144.
19 Victor Cousin, Madame Sablé, Nouvelles études sur la société et les femmes illustres du dix-septième siècle, Paris, 1882, 5e éd., p. 102-103. Pour des analyses plus récentes, voir E. Harth, Cartesian Women. Versions and subversions of rational discourse in the Old Regime, Ithaca et Londres, Cornell University Press, 1992. Sur la sociabilité des ruelles, voir la remarquable étude de Myriam Maître, Les précieuses. Naissance des femmes de lettres en France au xviie siècle, Paris, Champion, 1999.
20 F. Bouiller, Histoire de la philosophie cartésienne, 1, p. 437-447.
21 Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms 5418, Recueil Conrart, tome IX, fol. 213, p. 1045-1047.
22 AT, V, p. 494-500, ces vers avaient été publiés dans D. Bouhours, Recueil de vers choisis, Paris, G. et L. Josse, 1693, voir aussi Gustave L. Van Roosbroeck, “ The Unpublished Poems of Mlle de Scudéry et Mlle Descartes ”, Modern Language Notes, 40, mars 1925, p. 155-158.
23 Charles Adam, Vie et œuvres de Descartes. étude historique, Paris, 1910, p. 458-459.
24 J.-R. Armogathe, “ La correspondance de Descartes comme laboratoire intellectuel ”, in J.-R. Armogathe, G. Belgioiosio et C. Vinti, La biografia intellettuale di René Descartes attraverso la correspondance. Atti del convegno Descartes e l’Europe savante, Perugia 7-10 ottobre 1996, Naples, Vivarium, 1998, p. 5-22, sur cette question, p. 6.
25 Index librorum prohibitorum Alexandri Septimi, Rome, ex Typographia Reverendae Camerae Apostolicae, 1667, p. 111 ; Index librorum Prohitorum Clementis X, Rome, 1670, p. 270.
26 Paul Féret, La faculté de théologie et ses docteurs les plus célèbres, Paris, 1904, t.3, p. 330.
27 On suit ici Victor Navarro Brotons, “ Descartes y la introduccion en Espana de la ciencia moderna ”, in La filosofia de Descartes y la fundacion del pensamiento moderno, Salamanque, 1997, p. 235-236.
28 L. Brockliss, “ Curricula ”, in A History of the University in Europe, vol. II, éd. par H. de Ridder-Symoens, Cambridge,  Cambridge University Press, 1999.
29 Sur Gautruche, voir L. Brockliss, “ Pierre Gautruche et l'enseignement de la philosophie de la nature dans les collèges jésuites français vers 1650 ”, in Luce Giard (éd.), Les jésuites à la Renaissance. Système éducatif et production du savoir, Paris, P.U.F., 1995, p. 187-219.
30 L. Brockliss, “ Les atomes et le vide dans les collèges de plein-exercice en France de 1640-1730 ”, in Gassendi et l’Europe (1592-1792), réunis sous la direction de Sylvia Murr, Paris, Vrin, 1997.
31 Lettre de Pierre Bayle à Jean Bayle, du 11 septembre 1671, in Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, publiée et annotée par E. Labrousse, E. James, A. McKenna et al., Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1999, t. 1, p. 47.
32 P. Flourens, Recueil des éloges historiques lus dans les séances publiques de l’Académie des Sciences, Paris, 1857, 2 vol.
33 Sur ces mutations au xviiie siècle, D. Roche, “ Académismes et Académies : le modèle français au xviiie siècle ”, Mélanges de l’école Française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, t. 108, 2, 1996, p. 643-658, et du même, “ Trois académies parisiennes et leur rôle dans les relations culturelles et sociales au xviiie siècle ”, Mélanges de l’école Française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, t. III, 1, 1999, p. 395-414.
34 M. Fumaroli, “ La coupole ”, in Trois institutions littéraires, Paris, Gallimard, 1994, p. 47 ; voir aussi Lucien Brunel, Les philosophes et l’Académie française au dix-huitième siècle, Genève, Slatkine reprints, 1967 (1884).
35 H. Merlin, L’excentricité académique. Littérature, institution, société, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2001, p. 162.
36 Sur la question des éloges, Suzanne Delorme, “ La vie scientifique à l’époque de Fontenelle d’après les éloges des savants ”, Archeion, 1937, 19, p. 217-235 ; Charles B. Paul, Science and Immortality : the Eloges of Paris Academy of Science (1699-1791), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980.
37 Académie française, Les registres de l’Académie française, 1672-1793, Paris, 1895-1906, 4 vol. et M. Edwards, The Judgment of Distinction : The Académie Française and Interpretive Communities in Eighteenth-Century France, Thèse de doctorat de l’Institut européen de Florence, 1995.
38 Victor Cousin placed it at the start of his edition of Descartes’ works. The Mémoires de Trévoux reproduced it.
39 Discours prononcé dans l’académie française le lundi 13 février 1786 à la réception de M. le comte de Guibert, Paris, 1786, p. 8 (BNF : Z 5053 (161)).
40 N. Mc William (éd.), A bibliography of Salon Criticism in Paris from the Ancien Regime to the Restoration, 1699-1827, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 63-67.
41 Etienne Gros’ Fénelon, and Jean-Jacques Caffieri’s Corneille in 1779. Within this list, there numbered few philosophers with the exception of Pascal, Cassini and Bossuet.
42 Voir en particulier la diffraction de l’éloge cartésien dans de multiples éloges, Fontenelle, “ éloge du P. Malebranche ”, Œuvres complètes, éditées par A. Niderst, Paris, Fayard, 1994, t. VI, p. 337-360.
43 Sur cette figure politique voir H. Merlin, L’excentricité académique…, op. cit., p. 83.
44 J.-C. Bonnet, Naissance du Panthéon. Essai sur le culte des grands hommes, Paris, Fayard, 1998, p. 105-111.
45 R. Chartier, “ Espace public et opinion publique ”, in Les origines culturelles de la Révolution française, Paris, Seuil, 1990.
46 Ibid., p. 105.
47 Morellet, De l’Académie française ou Réponse à l’écrit de M. Chamfort de l’Académie française qui a pour titre “ Des Académies ”, Paris, 1791, cité par J.-C. Bonnet, Naissance du Panthéon…, op. cit., p. 304.
48 Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire, L’Autre et le frère, p. 637.
49 R. Yedid-Halevi, La sociablité maçonnique et les origines de la pratiques démocratiques, thèse de 3e cycle, l’EHESS, 1981, p. 37-39.
50 Corps législatif, “ Rapport par M.-J. Chénier sur la translation des Cendres de René Descartes au Panthéon ”, Paris, An IV, in Œuvres de M.-J. Chénier, Paris, Guillaume, 1826, t. V. Corps législatif, Discours de L. S. Mercier, prononcé le 18 floréal an IV de la République, Paris, An IV.
51 Cité par J.-C. Bonnet, Naissance du pantéon…, op. cit., p. 317.
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Stéphane Van Damme, « Restaging Descartes. From the Philosophical Reception to the national Pantheon », Les Dossiers du Grihl [En ligne], Les dossiers de Stéphane Van Damme, Blumenthal lectures, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2007, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

Haut de page


Stéphane Van Damme

Stéphane Van Damme est chargé de recherche au CNRS, affecté depuis 2003 à la Maison Française d’Oxford où il est responsable du programme d’histoire des sciences. à partir de septembre 2007, il sera Associate Professor in French Modern History au département d’histoire de l’université de Warwick (Grande-Bretagne). Il anime le groupe de recherche sur Savoirs et capitales européennes. Il a publié trois livres : Descartes. Essai d’histoire culturelle d’une grandeur philosophique (2002) ; Paris, capitale philosophique de la Fronde à la Révolution (2005) ; Le temple de la sagesse. Savoirs, écriture et sociabilité urbaine (Lyon, 17-18e siècles) (2005). Il vient d’éditer en collaboration avec Nicolas Offenstadt, Luc Boltanski, Elisabeth Claverie une enquête collective sur la forme affaire, Affaires, scandales et grandes causes. De Socrate à Pinochet, Paris, éditions Stock, 2007.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les Dossiers du Grihl est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 3.0 France.

Haut de page