The Dreamer's Path: Descartes and the Sixteenth Century

[First published in Renaissance Quarterly 49 (1996): 30-76, this essay had a long pre-history. An early outline of its arguments was presented in a paper delivered to the research seminar of the School of English and American Studies at the University of Sussex in November, 1975; subsequent developments appeared in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis (“This Fatal Mirror”: Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, the Legend and the Context [University of Sussex, 1980]), and in a conference paper, “'The Order of Discovery': Descartes, Faustus, and the Place of Literature in the Teaching of Philosophy,” 14th Atlantic Philosophical Association Conference, Université Sainte-Anne (4-6 November 1983).]


[Descartes] ne croioit pas qu'on dût s'étonner si fort de voir que les Poëtes, même ceux qui ne font que niaiser, fussent pleins de sentences plus graves, plus sensées, & mieux exprimées que celles qui se trouvent dans les écrits des Philosophes. Il attribuoit cette merveille à la divinité de l'Enthousiasme, & à la force de l'Imagination. . . .

Adrien Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), paraphrasing Descartes' Olympica manuscript of 1619-1620 (Descartes, 1974, 10: 184)1


Methode ist Umweg.

Walter Benjamin, “Epistemo-Critical Prologue,” The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Benjamin, 1985, 21, 28)



Jacques Derrida begins a recent reflection upon Descartes' Discours de la méthode by remarking upon the metaphor of the path, the way or road contained within the etymology of the word 'method': “methodos, metahodos, c'est-à-dire 'suivant la route', suivant le chemin, en suivant le chemin, en chemin.” Implicit in this metaphor, as also in any concept of method, he finds a certain historicity: “There can be no method without, necessarily, an advance (cheminement)..., or proceeding (démarche); ... without a flow (cours), a sequel, a sequence: so many things which also form the structure of any history” (Derrida, 1983, 36 [my translation]). If method and history (including the sense of history as narrative) thus meet and overlap in the metaphor of the road or way—hodos in Greek, and in Latin via, iter—so too, Derrida suggests, they share a certain iterability. History, though it may be the domain of the singular event, is only constituted as history through iteration and reiteration. Method, on the other hand, which consists precisely of the rules of transposition that ensure iterability and repetition, annuls a certain historicity of the singular event.

The relation between history and method is thus, he proposes, a paradoxical one—and this paradox is displayed in an especially provoking form in the singular historical event constituted by Descartes' autobiographical discourse on method, a story told in a historically determined language which at the same time sets out to provide the foundations for a rational and universally valid system of precepts, maxims and laws. Derrida finds that the etymology of the word 'discourse' compounds the paradox. Discurrere, meaning to run about, to make an excursion, and also to digress, later came to signify, in addition, to follow an itinerary in speech. Discursivity is thus in effect itinerant speech, and the notion of a discourse on method acquires an element of redundancy through the traces in both its terms of the same hodos, cursus, path or itinerary (Derrida, 1983, 37-40).

After commenting on Parmenides' Poem of the hodos as an inaugural discourse of the path which resists incorporation either into a Platonic reflection on method or an Aristotelian system of rhetoric, and on Heidegger's view of the Wegcharakter des Denkens as a second instance of a discursive itinerary which exceeds the delimitations of direction, rules, or method, Derrida concludes by remarking on the doubleness, the duplicity of methodos and its cognates in Greek (in some contexts the word means artifice, fraud or perversion—voie détournée, meta hodos), and by observing how insistently roads and paths—“diverses voies,” “le droit chemin”—recur in Descartes' Discourse on Method (Derrida, 1983, 41-51).

Given Derrida's insistent blurring in this essay of method and history, of rationality and rhetorical sequentiality; given also his express dissatisfaction with Heidegger's attempts to ascribe to “the Cartesian moment” the origins of an “ideology of method” (46),2 it may seem surprising that he does not take this occasion to reinsert the Cartesian discourse on method into history, to recognize it as a re-direction and extension of discursive itineraries that had perhaps been well-travelled by Descartes' immediate predecessors.

Rather than reproaching him for this omission, I would like here to explore a small stretch of this 'road not taken.' I will not be concerned with what is, for rhetoricians at least, the most familiar immediately pre-Cartesian 'method,' the dichotomizing dialectic of Peter Ramus and its anticipations in such earlier writers as Rudolf Agricola and Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples.3 Descartes was conspicuously not interested in static, spatial schemata of this kind, preferring instead to elaborate a method which, though aimed at the discovery of operative eternal truths, was itself conceived of in temporal terms, as a discursive path, a narrative. Nor do I intend to comment on Descartes' indebtedness to another more obviously scientific method, the metodo risolutivo and metodo compositivo developed by Galileo out of the analytic and synthetic logic of Giacomo Zabarella and the other Paduan Aristotelians (see Randall, 1968, 222-51, and Randall, 1962-70, 1: 339-60).4

My own method in this essay, following the dictum of Walter Benjamin—“Methode ist Umweg”—will at times be deliberately digressive. However, my deviations from some of the standard paths of critical exegesis are undertaken with the aim of bringing to light certain continuities between Descartes' own narratives and earlier discursive paths. I want to argue that two of these, Renaissance Hermetism and its near-opposite, Calvinist theology, are of large (and largely unrecognized) importance in Descartes' development of his own distinctive path.

Étienne Gilson's demonstration that Descartes' philosophical vocabulary is affiliated to the scholastic traditions of the via antiqua and the via moderna has not prevented more recent commentators from continuing to understand Descartes as the fons et origo of a specifically modern mode of philosophizing. My intention here is less to disrupt than to complicate this perception. I do not wish to challenge Descartes' originality, much less to suggest that he was passively 'influenced' by two currents of sixteenth-century thought which, though both obsessively concerned with a recovery of origins, differ from one another in doctrinal terms as much as from his own project of returning to first principles. I am interested rather in considering the possibility that Descartes' originary rationalism may have been marked, in no merely superficial manner, by tendencies of a quite different order which were implicated in its primal gestures of constitution and exclusion.

Descartes was, if anything, reacting against Renaissance modes of speculation (in this sense he belongs to what has been called the “anti-Renaissance”). However, he was also re-using them, though very selectively. His path remains, by this analysis, original; but it seems to have begun, in a characteristically Renaissance manner, with a return ad fontes—in one case to Hermetic sources which owed their prestige to the belief that they antedated the Greek philosophers, and were as ancient as any of the Hebrew scriptures; and in another to theological writings which, in their analytical and exegetical rigor, were professedly a return to the uncorrupted teachings of the early Church.



Where better to begin than with the first appearance in Descartes' writings of the path, the hodos or iter that so interests Jacques Derrida? The text in question, a mere jotting preserved in the notes which Leibniz made in 1676 from Descartes' manuscript remains, could hardly be simpler:

Somnium 1619 nov., in quo carmen 7 cujus initium:

Quod vitae sectabor iter? . . . Auson[ius] (Descartes, 1974, 10: 216).

(“The dream of November 1619, and in it the seventh poem of Ausonius which begins: 'What path in life shall I follow?”)

Though simple, this jotting is of enormous import—for according to Descartes' first biographer, Adrien Baillet, the dream (or rather dreams) referred to here coincided with what Descartes himself in his Discourse on Method said was the first enunciation of his philosophical method, and hence the starting point of his path as an independent thinker. But this brief text is at the same time elusive. Henri Gouhier took it to represent an inaugural moment—the moment at which, having woken from his dreams, the young Descartes began the process of retrospectively reconstructing them as a legitimation of his philosophical project.5 However, it seems no less probable that these words are Leibniz's rather than Descartes'—that they amount to a reading note, rather than a transcription from that “petit registre en parchemin” which was found among Descartes' papers after his death, and which at some time in the eighteenth century was lost or destroyed. But whatever the authorship of this text, another sentence of Leibniz's—this time definitely in his own words—confirms Baillet's view of the importance of the dream or dreams:

Descartes for a long time devoted himself to studies at the Jesuit college of La Flèche, and as a young man formed the plan of emending philosophy after some dreams, and long meditation on that passage of Ausonius: “What path in life shall I follow?” (Leibniz, 4: 311, qtd. from Browne, 265)6

Moreover, Descartes' own account of this episode is preserved, though in distorted form, in Baillet's paraphrase of his lost Olympica manuscript.

In what sense, then, is it significant that the question remembered in these brief annotations—“Quod vitae sectabor iter?”—and remembered, it would seem, as a metonymy for the whole of Descartes' annunciatory experience of the night of November 10-11, 1619, came to him not as part of a methodical sequence of thought, but in a dream-revelation, one which he received (to cite his own words, quoted by Baillet) “cùm plenus forem Enthousiasmo”—in a state, that is, of divine exaltation, inspiration, or possession? (Descartes, 1974, 10: 179).7 And what should we make of the fact that the choice of paths presented itself, at the moment which Descartes then and subsequently understood as the inauguration of his own hodos and his own method, in the form of a citation from the poet Ausonius, and thus as something already iterated and reiterated?

Let us consider these dreams. Adrien Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (1691), which paraphrases extensively from the manuscripts to which the biographer had access, reveals that Descartes' philosophizing in his famous “poêle” in the winter of 1619 was, initially at least, a different process from that orderly sequence of thoughts recounted in the Discourse on Method. This process appears to have culminated in three dreams on the night of November 10th, 1619, in the course of which Descartes was crippled by ghosts, whirled about by a sudden wind, pushed by an evil spirit—this same wind—towards (of all places) a church, advised that an unnamed person wished to give him a melon, frightened by thunder, and finally engaged by another unknown person in conversation over a Dictionary, which signified “nothing other than all the sciences brought together,” and an anthology of Latin verse, by which Descartes understood “Philosophy and Wisdom joined together” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 181-84).

For what it may be worth, we have Descartes' word that his meditations in 1619 were bound up with an exercise of deliberate doubt. In Part Two of the Discourse he says of this aspect of his meditations in the “poêle” that “as regards all the opinions which up to this time I had embraced, I thought I could not do better than endeavour once for all to sweep them completely away, so that they might later on be replaced, either by others which were better, or by the same, when I had made them conform to the uniformity of a rational scheme” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 89; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 581). If Baillet's Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes can be trusted, this was a painful experience: “he had no less to suffer than if it had been a matter of stripping away his very self.” And according to Baillet, this self-imposed torment, this attempt to represent his mind to himself “entirely naked,” led directly to the night of dreams. Descartes' efforts “threw his mind into violent agitation.... He tired it to such a degree that his brain became overheated, and he fell into a kind of enthusiasm which so worked upon his already exhausted mind that he prepared it to receive the impressions of dreams and visions” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 180-81).8 The dreams thus seem not to have been an accidental by-product of this process, but rather its desired consummation. Indeed, Baillet attributes to Descartes' Olympica manuscript the statements “that the Genius which excited in him the enthusiasm by which he had felt his brain heated for some days had predicted these dreams to him before he went to bed, and that the human mind had no part in them” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 186).9

What path can be traced in these dreams? In the first of them, Descartes was terrified by the apparition of “quelques fantômes,” and thinking he was walking in the streets, he felt himself to be struck by such a weakness on his right side that he could not maintain himself upright, and had to “lean to his left side in order to be able to get to the place where he wanted to go....” Ashamed of this posture, he tried to straighten himself, but a sudden swirling gust of wind spun him around three or four times on his left foot. Hardly able to stand, he noticed a school in front of him—one is reminded of the Jesuit college of La Flèche where he was educated—and entered it “to find a refuge, and a remedy for his disorder”: he hoped to reach the school church and to pray there (Descartes, 1974, 10: 181).

The structure of the dream seems clear up to this point. It is the right side of Descartes' body image that is struck with weakness. If one can apply to the imagery of this dream some of the conventional associations of 'left' and 'right,' then the phantoms, the sinister wind and the weakness of Descartes' right side would together represent opposition, both internal and 'demonic,' to his conscious project of ridding himself of his former opinions, of stripping his mind naked. The most conspicuous clothing of the mind (to fill out the Neoplatonic metaphor) is the body; one might say that through the humiliating terrors of this dream the demonic body is fighting back. And in so doing it deflects the dreamer from his initial path, meta hodos: almost from the first moment of his dream, then, he is following a “voie détournée.”

Having decided to enter the church, the dreaming Descartes would seem, rather curiously, to have begun to find reasons for not doing so. Realizing that he had passed a man whom he knew without saluting him, he attempted to turn back, but was violently rebuffed by the wind. At the same time, though, he noticed another person, who called him politely by name, and informed him that a certain gentleman had something to give him—the famous melon. As a group of other people formed around him, Descartes, still hunched over, observed that they stood upright and firm on their feet, and also that the wind was greatly diminished in force. At this point he awoke—without having entered the church, one may remark.

The path marked out by this first dream is a paradoxical one. Descartes at its beginning had a goal, “the place where he wanted to go”; but crippled by the ghosts, and spun about by the wind, he directed his steps instead to a church as a place of refuge, only to find that the wind which had previously obstructed him was now pushing him in that direction, while at the same time blowing against the church (“le vent … souffloit contre l'Eglise”). What seems really to have frightened Descartes—Baillet's wording is unfortunately imprecise at this point10—was not so much his own disability, or the humiliation of being spun around like a top, as the discovery that the wind which had attacked him was furthering his decision to seek refuge in a church. His own pious will was suddenly revealed to be in accord with the demonic force which was oppressing him. One could hardly ask for a clearer dream image of psychic overdetermination. The issue raised is that of autonomy or free-will: if Descartes wills what the wind wills, then what is his will—or, more precisely, whose is it? The young Descartes has no answer to this question: as he wrote in what Henri Gouhier believes to have been part of the Olympica manuscript, “God made three marvels: things from nothing, free-will, and the Man-God” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 218).11

Descartes' own interpretations of this first dream only heighten the sense of paradox. On waking, “he felt a real pain, which made him fear that this might have been the work of some evil genius who wished to seduce him.... He prayed to God, asking to be guarded from the evil effect of his dream....” But the process of interpretation which continued after he awoke from his third and last dream complicated this identification of the power at work in the first one. According to Baillet's paraphrase, “The wind which pushed him towards the college church when his right side was weakened was none other than the evil Genius which was trying to throw him by force into a place where he was planning to go voluntarily.” In the margin Baillet quotes Descartes' own words: A malo Spiritu ad Templum propellebar.” He continues: “This is why God did not permit him to advance further and let himself be carried, even into a holy place, by a spirit whom He had not sent—although Descartes was convinced that it had been the Spirit of God who had made him take his first steps towards this church” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 182, 185-86).12

The dreamer's behaviour is thus, in retrospect, doubly overdetermined—first by the demonic forces represented in the dream, and then, simultaneously, by the God whom his interpretation inscribes in it as the initial prompter and final preventer of his movement towards the church, and thus as the unseen author of what had seemed to be Descartes' own actions. One is left with a disturbing overlap between the (presumably good) Genius who excited Descartes' state of enthusiasm and predicted his dreams to him, the evil spirit or evil Genius who in the first of those dreams attempted to push him into a church, and the God whom his interpretation summoned up to dispose of this paradox.

Baillet tells us that after dreaming his first dream, Descartes meditated for some two hours. He then fell asleep again, but was awakened at once by a sound like a clap of thunder, “and opening his eyes, he saw many sparks of fire scattered about the room.” This second dream, which he initially found as terrifying as the first, he later understood to be “the signal of the Spirit of Truth which descended on him to possess him”; the terror which it inspired was “the remorse of his conscience over the sins he might have committed in the course of his life till then” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 182, 186).13

The third dream, while lacking the narrative shape of the first, condenses its vivid imagery into a textual metonymy, and supplements this with what is quite clearly a response to the project of Descartes' waking mind. In this dream, which he took to signify his future, Descartes found two books upon his table, a dictionary and an anthology of Latin poetry: it was in the latter of these that he found the poem of Ausonius beginning with the words Quod vitae sectabor iter?” which he appears later to have remembered as a metonymy for the whole dream-experience. Before he awoke, Descartes understood the dictionary to mean “nothing other than all the sciences brought together,” while the anthology “indicated in particular, and in a distinct manner, Philosophy and Wisdom joined together”; upon waking, “he was bold enough to persuade himself that it was the Spirit of Truth who had wished to open the treasures of all the sciences to him by this dream” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 184-85).14


But in what manner were these dreams related to the path Descartes did in fact follow, or to the philosophical method which is its most important textual residue? Baillet interpreted Descartes' words “X. Novembris 1619, cùm plenus forem Enthousiasmo, & mirabilis scientiae fundamenta reperirem &c.” as meaning that on the day preceding the night of dreams he had discovered, in a state of exaltation, the foundations of a marvellous science. By this account, the dreams would seem not to have constituted his discovery, but rather to have confirmed it, and perhaps expanded its implications.

The nature of the “marvellous science” remains to some extent a mystery. That it was initially unclear to Descartes himself may be suggested by a marginal note which, according to Baillet, he added to the Olympica manuscript: XI. Novembris 1620, coepi intelligere fundamentum Inventi mirabilis” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 179): “November 11, 1620, I began to understand the foundations of the marvellous invention.”15 This marvellous science would seem to have included some of the ideas on method developed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628). The concept of a universal wisdom to be attained through a recognition of the interrelatedness of all the sciences (Rule 1) is clearly present in the dictionary and the anthology of the third dream. And the evident parallel between Descartes' “simple natures” theory (Rules 6, 8, 12) and the geometrical problems upon which he had been working in 1618 and early 1619 suggests that he had struck upon the idea of generalizing that mathematical logic, which he described to Isaac Beeckman in March 1619 as a “fundamentally new science,” and also as “an incredibly ambitious project” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 37-39), into a universal method of inquiry. More important, from my point of view, is the strong probability that the meditations which culminated in the dreams of 1619 embodied a process of deliberate doubt that was aimed at establishing an unshakeable “knowledge of the naked understanding”—upon which “the knowledge of all things else depends” (Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Rule 8; Descartes, 1973, 1: 24-25).

Almost a decade after the annunciatory experience of his dreams, Descartes returned to this use of doubt in a more rigorous manner: in Part III of the Discourse he dates to the years 1628-29 his formulation of the arguments which led him through a systematic doubt of everything that could be doubted to the Archimedean point of “I think, therefore I am,” and from thence to a reconstruction of philosophy (Descartes, 1973, 1: 100).16 His letters, as R. H. Popkin has noted, also indicate “that around 1628-29 he was struck by the full force of the sceptical onslaught [that is, of the contemporary revival of Pyrrhonism], and the need for a new and stronger answer to it” (Popkin, 174).

There are clear differences between the doubt of 1619 and that of 1628-29. The latter formed part of a sophisticated argument, while the former, though in some sense methodical, and evidently expected to produce a guarantee of reliable knowledge, appears not to have been integrated into any systematic philosophical construction. Moreover, while the doubt of 1628-29 could be described as abstract and theoretical, that of 1619, as the dreams attest, was inextricably linked to the path of Descartes' own life. But despite these differences, Descartes seems to have seen a close connection between his meditations in the “poêle” and the argument he constructed almost a decade later. In Part II of the Discourse (which also contains a masked allusion to the dreams of 1619),17 the description of his doubting in 1619 is closely followed by the enunciation of the four elementary rules of his method, the first of which proposes a criterion of clarity and distinctness as the basis for determining which judgements may be accepted as indubitable. The use of this criterion is thus made a part of the 1619 meditations—even though its philosophical basis is established only in Part IV in the argument which follows from the systematic doubt of 1628-29.

A more conclusive link between the experience of 1619 and the argument of 1628-29 can be found in the unfinished dialogue La recherche de la vérité par la lumière naturelle, in which Descartes' spokesman responds to objections against the systematic doubt which he is proposing with the assurance that

these doubts which alarmed you to begin with, are like phantoms and vain images which appear at night in the uncertain glimmer of a feeble light. If you flee from them, your fear will follow you, but if you approach as though to touch them, you will discover them to be no more than air and shadow, and will in the future feel more confident in any such encounter. (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1121)18

This is, unmistakably, an echo of the first of Descartes' three dreams: he was frightened by phantoms, and crippled by a demonic wind; but he resisted, and after the thunderbolt of his second dream and the revelation of the third, could look back on these terrors without fear. Perhaps more importantly, this passage provides a link between the evil genius of Descartes' first dream and that other evil genius who constitutes the final, 'hyperbolic' form of Cartesian doubt in the Meditations of 1641: the phantoms, who in the dream of 1619 were clearly allied to the wind, here represent systematic doubt.

This linkage between the doubt and dream-experience of 1619, the argument refuting scepticism which Descartes developed in 1628-29 and to which he gave literary form in La recherche de la vérité and in the Discourse, and the Meditations in which he cemented the metaphysical foundations of his new philosophy, draws our attention to the banal fact that the arguments of systematic doubt are a threat to, and the Archimedean point of cogito, ergo sum a proclamation of, human autonomy. The connection may also serve as a reminder that what Cartesian philosophy identifies as its own primal scene remained substantially unchanged between 1619 and the 1640s. The dream-walker of 1619, or the thinker of the Meditations who is willing to assume that his thoughts may be a dream, encounters or hypothesizes an evil Genius who threatens to make him the helpless object of its manipulations. In this sense the evil spirit of 1619 poses the more radical threat, raising the unanswerable question of whether Descartes' decision to seek refuge in a church was psychologically overdetermined; the power of the evil Genius in the Second Meditation, in contrast, is restricted to the epistemic level by Descartes' insistence that his own thoughts “spring up of themselves” in his mind, and are inspired by nothing beyond his own nature (for the Latin and French versions of this passage, see Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 417 respectively).

The dreamer escapes from this predicament through an act of resistance—in the first case by refusing to let the spirit push him into a church, and in the second by insisting, “let [the evil Genius] deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think I am something” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 415)—an act which is then divinely authenticated. In 1619 Descartes subsequently discovers in his resistance the agency of a benevolent God who wanted to reveal to him the treasures of all the sciences; in 1641 he argues the existence of a similarly benevolent God, who “cannot be a deceiver” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150 [Meditation II], 1: 171 [Meditation III), and who thus provides him with the criterion of clarity and distinctness that legitimizes his method of discovery.



The very improbability, the extravagance of a path which, beginning in religious enthusiasm and dreams, appears to lead without detour to the method of Cartesian rationalism, will perhaps justify a degree of interpretive indirection on our part. The result may be a kind of fable. But so also, by Descartes' own account, is the Discourse on Method—which, in a well-known passage, modestly indicating that he does not insist that others should adopt the paths he himself has followed, he likens to “a history, or, if you prefer it, a fable....”

Three paragraphs later, speaking not of his own text but of the histories and fables of the ancients, Descartes remarks that “fables make one imagine many events possible which in reality are not so, and even the most accurate of histories, if they do not exactly misrepresent or exaggerate the value of things in order to render them more worthy of being read, at least omit in them all the circumstances which are basest and least notable....” He compares the reading of such texts, which he himself abandoned once his schooling was finished, to travel in foreign lands, too much of which, he says, makes one “a stranger in one's own country”—this from a man who had spent more than half of the preceding two decades outside his native France (Discourse, I; Descartes, 1973, 1: 83, 84-85).

One notes with interest the inadvertent warning here, and also the implicit link between Descartes' own history or fable and those of the ancients, which it seems to be part of his purpose to supplant. Is there perhaps, in addition, some more intimate connection between this autobiographical narrative and certain ancient fables (a word which Descartes' text does not require us to understand in a narrowly literal sense)? In one of the paragraphs which intervene between the passages I have quoted, he writes that “la gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit”: “the grace of fables awakens the mind” (Discours, I; Descartes 1963-73, 1: 572). He is speaking here of the education of children. But it may shortly come to appear that the connection between fables and intellectual awakening has deeper resonances in the writings of this dreamer, this consummate story-teller.

Taking the word 'fable' in its widest sense, as applying not merely to a certain kind of moralized or didactic narrative, but also more generally to discursive paths and narratives of legitimation to which we grant at best a partial or conditional assent, let us ask which of the 'fables' current in Descartes' early manhood could have provided him with the materials—including the dream-revelation of November 1619—for the construction of his own history or fable, the Cartesian Bildungsroman.

The answer will not necessarily be a simple one. Writers of the period were almost inescapably caught up in complex ideological, and often also physical, conflicts. Descartes was himself serving as a volunteer with the Imperial army in the opening campaign of the Thirty Years' War when he experienced his dream-revelation, and while in Germany he experienced some of the excitement generated by the apocalyptic fantasies of those bizarre offshoots of Lutheranism and Hermetic magic, the Rosicrucian manifestos (texts which, as Frances Yates showed, there is good reason to connect with the political and ideological tensions that led to war).19 During his absence from France there occurred the Huguenot revolt of 1621, one of the instigators of which, the tragic poet Antoine de Montchrestien, was killed in a skirmish in Normandy that October (Griffiths, 14-18). And on Descartes' return to Paris in 1623 he was himself briefly suspected of being one of the Rosicrucian 'invisibles,' over whose supposed arrival in the city to spread their 'atheistical' and magical doctrines writers like the Jesuit François Garasse were trying to stir up alarm. For Descartes this was a dangerous situation: in 1619 Giulio Cesare Vanini had been burned at the stake in Toulouse for 'atheism,' and there seems to have been around this time an epidemic of sorcerer-burnings in France, one of whose victims in 1623 was a man executed at Moulins for the crime of possessing a copy of that sixteenth-century encyclopaedia of magic, Cornelius Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.20 The climate, in short, was an increasingly repressive one.

The books written by François Garasse and by Marin Mersenne in the early 1620s are of interest as showing with some clarity what it was that was being repressed. Garasse makes clear at the outset of his loose-lipped attack upon the subversive currents of the age that he is primarily concerned with sceptical and libertine tendencies, with those “beaux esprits” who set themselves up as opponents of “the heavy yoke of superstition,” but he sees these tendencies as closely allied to an interest in “le secret des causes naturelles,” in Neoplatonist mysticism, magic, the cabala, and alchemy (Garasse, 1: 2-4).21

Although, unlike Garasse, Mersenne was a serious scholar, his Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim also attacks 'atheists' and deists like the unfortunate Vanini along with magi like Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico, Cornelius Agrippa, and (most emphatically) that Hermetic philosopher and avowed supporter of the Rosicrucians, Robert Fludd, who had recently published an extended cabalistic interpretation of Genesis—and whom Mersenne calls a cacomagus,” a haereticomagus," and (punning on his name) “one soon to be submerged in the eternal floods” (Mersenne, 1932, 62).22 It would be possible for analytical purposes to distinguish between Mersenne's treatment of these tendencies, but Robert Lenoble's conflation of the two as related aspects of “Renaissance naturalism” is probably closer to Mersenne's own view of the matter (Lenoble, 5 ff.).

Having discharged himself of this counterblast against magical or naturalistic appropriations of Christian doctrines, this summa against Renaissance magic, its whole way of thinking, and all its offshoots in the vast contemporary dissemination of magical practices” (Yates, 1964, 434), Mersenne in the following year attacked the scepticism of Pierre Charron, the 'Renaissance naturalism' of Jerome Cardan and the Hermetism of Giordano Bruno in L'Impiété des déistes, athées, et libertins de ce temps (1624). The main body of this work, however, is devoted to refuting a Deist poem, the mocking libertinism of which Mersenne correctly understands as prompted less by these currents of thought than by the harsh paradoxes of Calvinist theology. Mersenne argues against this anonymous “Poëte Calvino-déiste” (and also against Calvin) that God's will and his foreknowledge are in no sense the cause of our sins, and that our actions “do not follow the absolute will of God” Mersenne, 1624, 572).23 Not surprisingly, his defence of God's justice slides into the familiar equivocations that it was Calvin's purpose to confront and to eliminate: arguing in one chapter that we can do nothing, for good or evil, without divine aid, Mersenne maintains in the next that “God's foreknowledge, his will, and also his laws and all his works, are in no sense prejudicial to our liberty” (Mersenne, 1624, 471-72, 477-78 [ch. xvii], 517 [ch. xviii]).24

In 1625 Mersenne published another fat book, La vérité des sciences, a dialogue of some one thousand pages in which the opinions of an Alchemist, who believes his science “capable of renewing the whole world, and dispersing the shadows of ignorance by some extraordinary new light” (Mersenne, 1625, 3),25 are demolished by a Sceptic, whose tropes are in turn refuted by Mersenne himself in the person of the Christian Philosopher, and supplanted by his own mitigated, constructive scepticism. But if the primary target of this book is the current wave of Pyrrhonist scepticism, it also contains a reminder of Mersenne's opposition to “those magicians and charlatans known as Brothers of the Rosy Cross, who boast of understanding [Hermes] Trismegistus and all the cabalists of Antiquity...” (Mersenne, 1625, 566-67).

Catholic orthodoxy, then, saw itself as threatened in the early 1620s by searchers into “the secrets of natural causes” who, practising one or another form of Hermetic and Cabalistic magic or alchemy, at the same time appropriated Christian doctrine for their own purposes; by deists and libertines, whose reaction against the hard doctrines of Jean Calvin led them to scoff at all of the more punitive tenets of Christianity; and also, increasingly, by Pyrrhonist sceptics, who threatened not so much the faith as its appendages of rational theology and scholastic philosophy. Despite their obvious diversity, these tendencies were not roped together arbitrarily by Garasse and Mersenne: they in fact overlap in ways that have a direct bearing upon Descartes' meditations in November 1619.

That Descartes read Montaigne is well known. In the next section of this essay I wish to show that there is reason to believe that he was also acquainted with a tradition of sixteenth-century occultism to which Montaigne's scepticism is in certain respects connected. And in the concluding three sections I will propose that Descartes' thought took shape as an itinerary across a discursive field structured not only by the scholastic texts to which modern Cartesian scholarship has so insistently drawn attention, but also (and decisively) by two diametrically opposed groups of texts: the 'philosophical' writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and the theological writings of Jean Calvin.



Montaigne and his successors argued that all human opinions are doubtful, and that consequently we should not merely suspend our judgment as to their truth or falsity, but should actually reject their claims to any truth value. Yet as R. H. Popkin has remarked, sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Pyrrhonists wished not simply to destroy the supposed certainties of human knowledge, but also to prepare the mind to receive a superhuman truth that could come only from above: the “nouveaux Pyrrhoniens” aimed, as much as the mature Descartes did, “to find certain knowledge. But they hoped”—rather like the Descartes of 1619—“to find it miraculously, to have it suddenly delivered to them by God” (Popkin, 182). Their Pyrrhonist tropes, demolishing any human criterion of truth, made them the more thirsty for a divinely authorized criterion. Thus, for example, Montaigne writes in his “Apologie of Raymond Sebond” (I quote from the translation of Florio) that Pyrrhonism “representeth man bare and naked, acknowledging his naturall weaknesse, apt to receive from above some strange power, disfurnished of all humane knowledge, and so much the more fitte to harbour divine understanding, disannulling his judgement, that so he may give more place unto faith” (Montaigne, 1904-06, 2: 233).26

At this point, as has often been observed, Montaigne's debt to the fideism of Cornelius Agrippa's De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium (1530) is palpable (see Villey, 2: 166-70). And the writings of this early sixteenth-century humanist and magician anticipate in a remarkable way the full range of tendencies attacked by Garasse and Mersenne. Agrippa's De occulta philosophia libri tres (1533), which was of central importance to magi from John Dee and Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth century to Thomas Vaughan in the 1650s, made him notorious as a Hermetic magician and cabalist; and a spurious Fourth Book which was widely accepted as authentic exaggerated the demonic implications of his magic. But not only did Agrippa practise and write about all of the occult sciences, including alchemy, he also wrote against most of them in his De vanitate. In this book, setting out to demolish or at least to cast doubt upon all human arts and sciences, he presented himself as at once a radical evangelical reformer, a sceptic, and a mocking subverter of the established order and its pieties—as, in effect, the Lucianic ironist and libertine denounced by Calvin in his De scandalis.27

Agrippa seems to have been widely read in France. The Latin text of De vanitate, first published in 1530, was frequently reprinted, and the work went through at least five editions in French by 1617 (two more followed in 1623 and 1630).28 Different editions of Agrippa's Opera were also in circulation, the most recent being the one printed at Lyons in 1600. Needless to say, he was a controversial figure: Jean Bodin attacked him in 1580 as “the greatest sorcerer of his age” (Bodin, fol. 20, sig. E4, fol. 219-20, sig. IIi 3v-4), and four years later André Thevet lamented that “Had it pleased God that Agrippa should have drowned only himself in that abyss of impiety, we would not today be faced with such a heap of atheists, backbiters and lampooners as this century has produced.... He hatched infinite swarms both of magicians and of atheists...” (Thevet, 2: fol. 544).29 In the early seventeenth century Agrippa continued to attract comment: in 1603 Jean Belot criticized (at the same time plagiarizing) his occult philosophy (Belot; see Secret, 290); in 1623 Mersenne denounced him as an Archimagus” (Mersenne, 1623, col. 590); and two years later Gabriel Naudé defended his reputation, along with that of other “great men falsely accused of magic” (Naudé, 400-29).

Perhaps more to the point, Descartes mentions Agrippa in a letter of April 1619 to Isaac Beeckman. In March of that year he had written to Beeckman of his plans for a “fundamentally new science” which he contrasted to the Ars brevis of Raymond Lull. In April, he told of meeting a man who, while admitting that Lull's art and Agrippa's commentaries on it consisted of a mere ordering of the parts of dialectic, also claimed that there were, in addition, certain keys which could open up the secrets of this art. To Descartes' request that he check this in his copy of the book, Beeckman replied that the supposed keys are in Agrippa's text; “you yourself would have noticed them, not long ago, had you wished to” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 165-68). During the previous winter, then, when he and Beeckman were together, Descartes had access to this book—and as Charles Adam proposed, there is reason to believe that the book in question was the Lyons edition of Agrippa's Opera published in 1600 (see Descartes, 1974, 10: 63, note d, and Gouhier, 28, 111). From the contempt with which Descartes wrote to Beeckman of the Lullian whose claims of secret knowledge inspired his request—“his knowledge, drawn from books (libris), was on his lips (labris) rather than in his mind”—interpreters of this episode have too easily concluded that Descartes felt a similar contempt for Agrippa. But this opinion in fact echoes Agrippa's own dismissal, in De vanitate, of the Art of Lull as one which “availeth more to the outward shewe of the witte, and to the ostentation of Learninge, then to gette knowledge, and hathe mutche more presumptuousnesse, then efficacie” (Agrippa, 1974, 56 [ch. 9]).30

I have no intention of substituting, in place of the “roman rosi-crucien”31 of certain modern scholars who would have made Descartes an adherent of that shadowy sect, an even less substantial “roman agrippain.” On the other hand, it might be rash to accept at face value Descartes' statement in the Discourse that even before leaving La Flèche he knew well enough what false doctrines were worth “to be subject to deception neither by the promises of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or the artifices or empty boasts of any of those who profess to know more than they do” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 576). For his attitude towards imposture and artifice was perhaps more complicated than this text would suggest. In La recherche de la vérité his spokesman Eudoxus lays out the order he will follow in expounding his method: beginning with “the rational soul, in which all our knowledge resides,” he will then consider its author and His nature, our knowledge of other creatures, the operations of our senses, and the manner in which our thoughts become true or false. “Then I shall display here the works of man upon corporeal objects, and having struck wonder into you with the most powerful machines, the rarest automata, the most specious visions, and the subtlest impostures that artifice can invent, I shall reveal to you their secrets, which are so simple and so innocent that you will henceforth wonder at nothing in the works of our hands” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1114). What Descartes promises is to demystify the impostures of artifice: he will incite wonder only in order to efface it. But the first step of this double movement is one of self-imposition through artifice—and turning to Descartes' manuscripts of the years 1619 to 1621, one finds repeated intimations of this same first step, but no hint of a subsequent demystification. He proposes, for example, that

In a garden one can make shadows which represent diverse figures, such as trees and others. . .

Item, in a room, to arrange that the rays of the sun, passing through certain openings, represent various numbers or figures:

Item, to make appear, in a room, tongues of fire, chariots of fire and other figures in the air; all this with certain mirrors which focus the sun's rays on those points.... (Descartes, 1974, 10: 215-16)

Such “visions apparentes” as these, derived, it would seem, from a reading of Giovanni Battista Porta's De magia naturali (1558), were part of the stock in trade of Renaissance natural magic. So also were automata like the famous dove of Archytas, which is mentioned by Descartes in another note, and which, as Charles Adam remarks, he could have read about in Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.32

In 1628, according to Beeckman's journal, he and Descartes amused themselves by mocking Agrippa and Porta (Descartes, 1974, 10: 347). But it seems likely that nine years earlier, Descartes might easily have understood Agrippa—the more sceptical side of him, that is, the author of De vanitate—as writing from a situation not unlike his own. Ferdinand Alquié has remarked of Descartes' account of his schooling in the first part of the Discourse on Method that “At the end of such a description, one is convinced that Descartes' doubt was not simply voluntary and methodical. In his youth and at the end of his studies, Descartes experienced a doubt that was profound and spontaneous, a real disillusionment” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 576 n.2). This young man apparently had access to Agrippa's Opera omnia at the time of his encounter with Beeckman in the winter of 1618-19, if not before. He might then have been receptive to the Hermetic illuminism which pervades both the third book of De occulta philosophia and the later chapters of De vanitate—where Agrippa insists, for example, that

God alone contains the fountain of truth, from which he must drink who desires true doctrines: since there is not, nor can be had, any science of the secrets of nature, of the separate substances, much less of God their author, unless it be revealed by divine inspiration. For divine things are not touched by human powers, and natural things at every moment flee from the power of sense....33

Another text printed in the same edition of Agrippa's Opera, entitled De magia seu pneumatica veterum and ascribed to one 'Arbatel,' may help to explain the title of Descartes' Olympica (the word does not occur in classical Latin)—and may also in some sense underlie the revelatory experience recorded in that manuscript. Seven of the forty-nine aphorisms which constitute this short text are concerned with Olympic spirits or the spirits of Olympus. 'Arbatel' writes that these stellar intelligences are counted among the angels of God by whom, according to the New Testament and the traditions of the Egyptians (which is to say the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus), all sciences have been delivered to mankind; the particular role of Olympic spirits is to declare human destinies and to impart wisdom (Agrippa, 1970, 1: 710-13 [Arbatel, De magia, aphorisms 12-15]). A magician is defined in this text as one to whom, by the grace of God, the spirits have given knowledge of the secrets of nature; shortly thereafter the writer adds—I quote from a seventeenth-century translation—that “The passage from the common life of man unto a Magical life, is no other but a sleep, from that life; and an awakening to this life...” (Agrippa, 1655, 213 [aphorisms 41 and 44]).34 Yet this transition may be a dangerous one, for while Olympus and the inhabitants thereof, do of their own accord offer themselves to men in the form of Spirits,” another kind of being is attracted to us by our sins—evil spirits, who in another aphorism are said to be the cause of all corruption in human knowledge, “sow[ing] tares amongst the children of disobedience, as it is manifest out of St. Paul, and Hermes Trismegistus.” Whoever therefore wishes spiritual illumination must “keep himself from all enormious sins, and diligently pray to the most High to be his keeper; and he shall break through all the snares and impediments of the devil...” (Agrippa, 1655, 194, 184 [aphorisms 19, 12, 19]).35

For all its naivety, this text reflects a mind-set not far removed from that of the dreams recorded by Descartes in his Olympica, in which the assault of an evil spirit and an incitement to remorse over his past sins was followed by a kind of revelation. His dreams seem to have authenticated, rather than transmitted, the mirabilis scientiae fundamenta. But their genre is clearly that of the dreams alluded to in a Paracelsan text according to which

Many wonderful Arts and Sciences also have seemed to be made appeare to Artists in their dreams. . . : this oftentimes happeneth, but the greatest part perisheth in oblivion: some rising early in the morning, say, This night a wonderful dreame appeared to me, as that Mercury, or this or that Philosopher corporally appeared to me in a dreame, who taught me this or that Art; but it is fallen out of my memory. . . .

The author of the Olympica was presumably familiar with the sort of advice this text offers: “To whom any such thing hath happened, he ought not to go forth out of his chamber, nor speak with any man … until he call to remembrance that which he had forgotten” (Paracelsus, 47-48).36



My argument does not require us to believe that the young Descartes was conclusively influenced by the writings of sixteenth-century occultists like Agrippa, Paracelsus, or 'Arbatel'—most of which he could with good reason have dismissed, even in 1619, as superstitious, silly, and vain. However, I would propose that he was familiar—whether directly or indirectly—with the 'philosophical' writings attributed to Hermes (or Mercurius) Trismegistus. Agrippa and other occultist writers would have pointed him in this direction: the philosophical Hermetica were a principal source both of Renaissance magical doctrines and of that prisca theologia, larded with supposedly pre-Christian anticipations of Christianity, which legitimized this magic. Oddly enough, more orthodox writers could also have directed him to Hermes. Even for those polemicists of the 1620s, Garasse and Mersenne, the name of Hermes was not one to be scoffed at. The former, in speaking of destiny, places “Mercure Trismégiste” at the head of a list of “les plus sages d'entre les Philosophes” who have written on this subject, if too obscurely for Garasse's taste (Garasse, 1: 345-46). And Mersenne, the first two chapters of whose L'impiété des déistes consist of a declamation in the Hermetic manner on the excellence of man, in a later chapter refers his reader for evidence of the piety of ancient philosophers to the De perenni philosophia (1540) of Augustinus Steuchus Eugubinus—a work which, presenting Mercurius Trismegistus as the “most ancient source” from whom the Greek philosophers derived their theology, also expounds his opinions in some detail.37 Other writers, whom Descartes might have read before 1619, are very much more positive. Pontus de Tyard, Bishop of Chalon-sur-Saône, compared the prayer at the end of the first dialogue of Hermes' Pimander to the psalms of David (Tyard, fol. 112v-113; qtd. in Walker, 69); and François de Foix, duc de Candale and Bishop of Aire, believing that Hermes had received from God “the same instruction as had Moses, the prophets and the apostles,” wrote that “since he agrees with and expounds the scriptures, … one cannot go wrong in revering his opinion” (Foix, sig. A2; qtd. in Walker, 69). (Foix de Candale, interestingly, was a mathematician as well as a Christian Hermetist: of his five published works, “three are editions and translations of the Pimander.... The remaining two are editions of Euclid's Elements” [Harrie, 503]).38

What, then, could Descartes have found in Hermes Trismegistus? An answer, of a kind, to that fear of psychological overdetermination which is imaged in the first of his three dreams (and which Mersenne's attack upon the deists might suggest was prompted by the doctrines of Calvin)—for the Hermetic writings contain repeated proclamations of the quasi-divine autonomy of the human mind. But much else besides.

I have proposed that in his meditations of November 1619 Descartes was trying to separate his mind from his body (the left-right asymmetry of his first dream suggests that he succeeded in creating such a psychic split), and that he was doing so in the expectation of being rewarded with a visionary revelation. His doubt, his rejection of all his previous opinions, was also an attempt to recognize and isolate that which in him could truly know: his own essential self. One need go no further than the first and thirteenth dialogues of the Hermetic Pimander in order to appreciate the Hermetic orientation of this project.

The first dialogue, the seminal Hermetic text (whose title Poimandres or Pimander Marsilio Ficino took to apply to the whole body of Hermetic writings he translated), consists largely of a vision and a divine discourse which result from the narrator's meditation de rerum natura: “my intellectual perceptions were borne aloft,” he says, “and my bodily senses lulled, as commonly happens to those who, through fatigue or satiety, are oppressed by sleep—when suddenly I perceived a being of immense size who called me by name, saying: 'What, o Mercury, do you wish to hear, to consider, to learn and understand?'” To this being, which identified itself as “Pimander, the mind of the divine power,” he replied: “I want to learn the nature of things, and to know God.”39

The eschatology of this text (which later dialogues of the Corpus Hermeticum, the thirteenth in particular, assimilate to the notion of a this-wordly rebirth or deification) involves a progressive release of the true self from what envelops it: the inactive character (ociosus habitus) is “relinquished to the [avenging] daemon and laid aside; the bodily senses … return to their sources...” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B3).40 Having received his revelation, Hermes cries out against the “enticement of irrational sleep”; he has learned that whoever recognizes himself “has obtained the good which is above being”; but he whom the body envelops “in the deception of love” remains wandering “in darkness, perceiving by sense the evils of death” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B3v, Bv).41 Secure in his possession of the truth about the creation of the world, the origins of mankind, and the way to salvation, Hermes says: “I inscribed the benefaction of Pimander in my innermost mind, and having obtained all that I had sought, reposed in joy. For the sleep of the body became sobriety of the mind, and the closing of the eyes true intuition (verus intuitus), and my silence a fertile gestation of the good, and the speaking of the word a begetting of all good things” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B4).42

In the thirteenth dialogue of the Corpus Hermeticum, the mystery of a this-worldly rebirth is associated with a similar kind of experience, and the dualist ascesis of other tractates (notably the first, fourth, and seventh) is developed into what might be described as an embryonic instrumental scepticism—instrumental, because its purpose is to prepare for a revelation which will efface all ignorance and doubt. Hermes' disciple has prepared himself for rebirth by “banish[ing] the deceptions of the world from [his] mind” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4)43; he is then initiated into a mode of understanding from which the deceptions of the senses are excluded, and which is purely mental. Hermes' insistence that his own reborn form cannot be perceived by bodily sight excites in his disciple a state of inspired frenzy or madness—in effect, what Descartes' age called 'enthusiasm'—to which Hermes responds in these words: “May you too, my son, go forth from yourself sleeping, like those who are taken up by visions in their sleep” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v).44

What follows, however, is a waking initiation, a regeneration whose author, according to Hermes, is “the Son of God, the one man, by the will of God” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v).45 That which is true, says Hermes, is “that which is unperturbed, unlimited, without colour, without shape, undivided, naked, clear, comprehensible to itself, unchangeable, good, and wholly incorporeal.” This truth is accessible to the mind, because the mind's purged form is what constitutes it: “Return into yourself, and you will understand: desire it and it will be. Purge the senses of the body; release yourself from the irrational afflictions of matter” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G4v-G5).46 Rebirth and deification are achieved when Hermes' disciple is lifted by divine power into contemplation of the truth: the ten powers of God (of which the first is knowledge of God) descend into him to expel the twelve afflictions of matter. This descent of the powers of God is a begetting of intellect which permits a recognition of the self as divine, and also a form of understanding “not by eyesight, but by an act of mind” which gives an immediate knowledge, as though from the inside, of all nature (Hermes, 1532, sig. G6).47 To his disciple's exultant statement that he now sees the All, and sees himself in the Mind, Hermes replies: “This, my son, is regeneration: no longer to attend to three-dimensional corporeality” (Hermes, 1532, sig. G6v).48

There are strong grounds for claiming that Descartes' meditations and dream-revelation in November 1619 followed the Hermetic paradigm established in these texts. The dualist ascesis undertaken in the hope of a visionary illumination, the separation of mind from body, the pervasive 'enthusiasm' and the resulting sense of empowerment and certainty: all these suggest that Descartes' reading had led him to the writings of Hermes. “La gentillesse des fables réveille l'esprit”: these, it would seem, were among the fables which contributed at a crucial moment to the awakening of his mind. And they were fables in the additional sense that their supposedly ancient author was himself entirely fabulous. The Huguenot scholar Isaac Casaubon demonstrated in 1614 that the Hermetic writings—previously thought to be the work of an approximate contemporary of Moses—were composed no earlier than the first century A. D.; however, this work of demolition seems not to have become widely known until the late 1620s (Grafton, 145-61),49 and because it was published as part of a polemic against the Catholic church historian Baronius, it was not accepted in some circles until at least several decades later.

There may then be unsuspected reserves of meaning in Descartes' declaration in the Letter to Father Dinet appended to the Meditations and the Objections and Replies—a declaration which he admits “may seem paradoxical”—that while in the philosophy taught in the schools, “in so far as it is Peripatetic and different from others, there is nothing that is not new, on the contrary there is nothing in mine that is not ancient....” By this Descartes means that the principles of the Aristotelians were innovations when they were first introduced, and have since been the subject of constant revisions and wranglings; he, in contrast, accepts only those principles “which up to now have been known and admitted by all philosophers, and which for that reason are the most ancient of all...” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 1088). Would it be extravagant to construe these words as implying some degree of affiliation to that most ancient philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, who was still, in the 1640s and later, being held up by a distinguished member of Dinet's Jesuit order as the major source of what Steuchus a century earlier had called the philosophia perennis? (see Yates, 1964, 416-23).



The Hermetic writings mentioned above would seem to anticipate in certain respects the movement of Descartes' mature philosophy through scepticism to a perception of the irreducible incorporeal self, an abstract knowledge of God, and a division of the world into thinking substance and extension. Whether these anticipations are sufficiently distinct to be of analytical interest is another matter altogether. Yet it does seem worth remarking that there appear to be echoes of these texts (and of derivative Renaissance texts) in Descartes' mature writings.

Consider, for example, the concluding paragraph of the first of his Meditations of 1641. It is here that Descartes introduces for the first time the hypothesis of an “evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, who has employed all his energies in deceiving me....” Whatever the logical force of this supposition, its immediate rhetorical effect is to dispose of the speaker's body: “I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to have all these things” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 181).50

One way of responding to the evil genius hypothesis—perhaps, in any context but the present, a slightly eccentric way—would be to observe that this passage constitutes part of a rather peculiar sequence of metaphorical exchanges in Descartes' writings. These exchanges involve two primary terms, the body and the evil genius, and also a third term—“quelques fantômes”—which in some sense mediates between them. The sequence can be traced in three texts: in the Olympica and La recherche de la vérité, as well as in this passage of the Meditations.

In Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619 the phantoms which make the right side of his body powerless are apparently allied to the wind, the evil genius. In a passage transcribed by Leibniz which Alquié believes formed part of the Olympica, Descartes himself commented on the more obvious of these dream-metaphors: Sensibilia apta concipiendis Olympicis: ventus spiritum significat....” “Sensible things enable us to conceive the things of Olympus: wind signifies spirit....” This linkage of wind with spirit is unexceptionable—though in the context of the first dream it may seem peculiar that Descartes makes no attempt to draw a line between the wind which is an evil genius and a wind blowing from Olympus. But what of the phantoms? Are they not also a metaphorical vehicle? Another remark copied by Leibniz from the same text indicates an awareness that metaphorical exchanges can operate in more than one direction: “Just as the imagination uses figures to conceive bodies (Ut imaginatio utitur figuris ad corpora concipienda), so the intellect uses certain sensible bodies to figure spiritual things (ita intellectus utitur quibusdam corporibus sensibilibus ad spiritualia figuranda)....” (Descartes, 1974, 10: 218, 217). The chiastic form of this sentence makes explicit a paradoxical doubleness: the figures bodied forth by imagination are an immaterial representation of the corporeal, while the sensible bodies summoned up by the intellect are a corporeal figuration of the spiritual. If Descartes' first dream incorporates a double exchange of this sort, then just as the wind signifies the evil genius, so the phantoms would signify the body from which it had apparently been the dreamer's waking project to divorce himself.

This imaginative figuration recurs in La recherche de la vérité in what may at first seem a strikingly different manner: the “phantoms and vain images” by which Descartes represents the systematic doubt he is proposing will, he promises, be revealed upon a close approach as nothing but air and shadow: “rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre.” In what way are these phantoms related to the body?

I would like to suggest that the last word of that sentence in La recherche de la vérité—“rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre”—may have resonances inaudible to the modern reader. In a commentary on Paracelsus by Jacques Gohory, a sixteenth-century occultist, one reads that “The Olympic spirit who plucks away the shadow (Spiritus Olympicus qui umbram avellit), and in this the cabalistic art consists, is the star in man” (Suavius, 52; qtd. in Gouhier, 88, n. 7). The shadow or umbra is explained by Marsilio Ficino in his Theologia Platonica as the term applied by the 'ancient theologians' to the elemental murk (caligo elementalis) with which the soul is surrounded, most particularly during this life (Ficino, 233). Iamblichus, similarly, in his De mysteriis Aegyptiis, identifies the body and matter with shadows and irrationality (Iamblichus, VI. 4, 185). So also does one of their common sources, the first dialogue of the Pimander of Hermes Trismegistus—where, in Ficino's translation, the key word is again umbra, and where the insistent lesson is of a separation of mind from body which will free the self from the deceptions of the senses and from what in the thirteenth dialogue are called “the irrational afflictions of matter” (Hermes, 1532, sig. B2).51

Did Descartes' Olympic spirit, in proclaiming his destiny, free him from his umbra at the same time as from any lingering fear of those “ombres” which had appeared to him at the beginning of his first dream? What then of the act of demystification in La recherche de la vérité which undoes the metaphor of the phantoms, reducing them to air and shadow? Might one describe this as a controlled repetition of that foundational experience? The phantoms which in the dream were linked to the body now signify fears prompted by doubt—a shift in signifieds which may seem less startling if it is remembered that what Baillet wrote of as Descartes' attempt to represent his mind to himself “entirely naked” was recalled by the philosopher in his Discourse as a project of ridding himself of his former opinions. There is, surely, no reason to regard these two descriptions as mutually contradictory.

In the Meditations the same complex of metaphorical exchanges resurfaces. One encounters in the First Meditation not the phantoms of doubt, but in their place the evil genius (whose earliest appearance, in the dream of 1619, was as their supplement and ally)—and the act of confronting this demon of doubt effectively does away with the body by imposing a recognition of the self as incorporeal, as radically disembodied—as a res cogitans.

The extraordinary labyrinthine simile with which Descartes concludes the First Meditation may contain less distant echoes of Hermetic texts. Descartes writes that the task of resisting the hypothetical evil genius, of taking his belief in his own body to be the result of demonic deceptions, of suspending all judgments,

is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me back into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream, fears to be awakened, and conspires with these agreeable illusions to prolong his deception, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I am anxious about being roused from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquillity of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 181-82 [Latin text], 1: 412-13 [French version]).52

This simile achieves a remarkable inversion. Ordinary waking consciousness is compared to a captive's dream of liberty, an agreeable illusion, a state of repose. And the peculiar disembodied state into which Descartes has projected himself—in which he has raised the fear of insanity, and suspects he could be dreaming, or subject to the systematic deceptions of the evil genius—is a true, a strenuous wakefulness (in which, presumably, resistance to captivity becomes possible). If Plato's allegory of the cave seems the most obvious source for this passage, that is only because modern Cartesian scholars are more likely to have read Plato than Hermes. The first dialogue of the Pimander links slavery and confinement with the enticements of “irrational sleep,” and preaching a return to the wakeful state in which we were created, calls upon us “who labour in want, enveloped in the shadows of ignorance,” to recover our true selves (Hermes, 1532, sig. A8v)53 Descartes may have been remembering either—or more probably both—of these ancient fabulists when he wove together this brilliantly persuasive text.



When Cornelius Agrippa in his De vanitate turned from the labour of refuting the philosophers to the more congenial business of calling them names, one of the most provoking things he could think of to say was that philosophy first developed out of the “trifles and fables” of the poets—which, he says in another chapter, were “written to no other ende, but to the delite of fooles...” (Agrippa, 1974, 143 [cap. 49], 33 [cap. 4]). I have been suggesting here that Descartes' philosophy was decisively indebted to those writers of the first centuries A. D.—one might almost call them poets—who effectively created Hermes Trismegistus by fathering upon this Hellenized form of the Egyptian god Thoth a body of quasi-philosophical writings. This is not to challenge Descartes' claim to have returned to first principles; it is, rather, to give force and specificity to what would otherwise be a banal observation: namely, that any sense of what first principles are, and any project of returning to them, must both be textually conditioned.

Descartes' own insistent metaphor of the path suggests as much. Quod vitae sectabor iter? Before it can be followed, the path must in some sense be already delineated—failing which, one is at the mercy of that blind curiosity which, in Rule 4 of the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes says leads men to “conduct their minds along unknown routes,” hoping to find by pure chance the truth they seek (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 90). Yet while the existence of a “vrai chemin” which is to be followed is implied by the notion of method, the formulation of this notion also suggests the projection of previously undiscovered paths, and the construction of new roads.54 The metaphor is inescapably duplicitous.

To say that the path which became Descartes' fully elaborated method was in some sense supplied to him by the revived Hermetic tradition of the Renaissance does not therefore amount to rejecting what must be obvious—that his interest in certain features of this tradition, partial to begin with, was in most respects rapidly outgrown. In Part II of the Discourse, speaking of his meditations of November 1619, and of his decision to strip himself of his former opinions, Descartes writes: “But like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in all things, that even if I advanced only very little, I would at least take care not to fall” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 584). This, it would seem, is a masked allusion to what I have called the primal scene of Cartesian philosophy, in which Descartes' best efforts barely sufficed to keep him from falling—yet it appears to be back-dated from the first dream of November 10 to the period immediately preceding the dreams. When, by my analysis, Descartes was re-fashioning himself according to a Hermetic paradigm—entering, that is to say, a path marked out by Hermes and his Renaissance interpreters—he was thus, by his own retrospective account, advancing alone, cautiously and in the shadows. The duplicity of the path metaphor validates this statement: even if one believes that, in recalling his past, Descartes was also revising it, one can concede that, whatever his debts to a Hermetic paradigm, he was also in late 1619 engaged in searching out a new path.

This process, as Étienne Gilson demonstrated long since, involved an appropriation of elements of the scholastic tradition. And to the literary expression of the resulting system even the egregious François Garasse may have contributed: a sentence in La doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits anticipates closely the famous first sentence of the Discourse on Method, and may well be its immediate source.55 I will not attempt to explain how Descartes' Hermetic borrowings may be related to his appropriations of certain features of scholastic philosophy, much less how he could have read as far as page 56 of Garasse's book before throwing it aside in disgust. But an indication, in concluding, of another tradition to which Descartes appears also to have been responding may help both to reveal more fully the originality of his itinerary and to complete my analysis of his relations to Hermetism.

In the second section of this essay I remarked on the image of psychic overdetermination provided in Descartes' first dream of November 10, 1619 by the wind's attempt to push him into a church in which he had already decided to seek shelter from that same wind; and I commented also on the curious overlap, in Descartes' own interpretation of his dreams, of his good Genius, the evil spirit, and the God who governs the entire episode. If the wind, and the spiritual force it represents, threatened the dreamer's autonomy, his resistance implies a counter-assertion by—one might say—either the self-determining mens of the Hermetists or the nascent Cartesian subject. In the following section I observed that the arguments of systematic doubt, in the culminative form of the evil genius hypothesis, constitute an analogous threat to human autonomy—one which is triumphantly resisted by the proclamation of cogito, ergo sum. Tullio Gregory and other scholars have with admirable precision situated the evil genius of the Meditations, and the closely-linked issue of whether God can be a deceiver, in relation to late-scholastic discussions of the same questions.56 But I would propose that the evil spirit of the Olympica and the evil genius of the Meditations are more pressingly related to that Calvinist theology which Mersenne's refutation of the “Poëte Calvino-déiste” shows to have been a live issue at the time. In confronting these spirits, Descartes was standing up to the most extreme contemporaneous threat to the autonomy he wished to assert: he was in effect confronting the God of the Calvinists.

There are several good reasons why a young man who wished to establish a secure and metaphysically-grounded method of discovering the truth should have found himself engaged in such a confrontation. Politically speaking, Calvinism may have been a spent force in France by 1619, but it continued to pose an intellectual challenge as a persuasive explanation of the relationship between an omnipotent and omniscient deity and a creation which is somehow distinct from him.

The insistence on the complete and uncompromised sovereignty of God's will which is one of the distinguishing features of Calvin's theology entails a rejection of the autonomy of created beings, the possibility of free-will, and the very notion of contingency, as derogations from the majesty of the Creator.57 The ethical consequences of this doctrine are disturbing: God's will, according to Calvin, is the active cause of every event or action, either good or evil; and God foreknows who will be damned and saved for the very good reason that he has willed it from all eternity. This judgment actualizes itself in humans, through divine grace or the lack of it, in the form of the individual's self-validating conviction (which amounts either to faith or to despair) with respect to his or her eternal destination.

Calvin can avoid the conclusion that God is evil (a conclusion drawn by the poet whom Mersenne took such pains to refute in L'impiété des déistes) only by asserting God's utter incomprehensibility. He distinguishes repeatedly between the inscrutable reality and the accommodated forms in which the divinity typically represents himself to humankind. But accommodation, a trope of mediation between the human knower and the unknowable, is also one which invests with an aura of the fictive the divinely-authored discourses to which it is applied, making them fables as well as vehicles of—here one needs inverted commas or scare quotes—of 'truth.' As a result, the attributes ascribed by God to himself are deprived of any distinct meaning, since they correspond neither to the incomprehensible divine reality nor to human realities (God's justice and human justice, to take one example, are said to be incommensurable).58

In effect, contingency is displaced by this theology from the phenomenal to a transcendental realm—where it assumes the alarming form of a divine will which the faithful will term inscrutable, but which others (at their own risk) may prefer to call arbitrary and capricious. This divine will empties the concept of natural law: according to Calvin, the sun rises each day by God's command alone (Calvin, 1960, I. xvi. 2), and “not even an abundance of bread would benefit us in the slightest unless it were divinely turned into nourishment” (Calvin, 1960, 2: 909 [III. xx. 44]). The system of nature serves to confirm that state of condemnation which is the common lot of all except those who receive the arbitrary gift of divine grace: “The purpose of natural law,” Calvin writes, “... is to render man inexcusable” (Calvin, 1960, 1: 282 [II. ii. 22]). The problem posed on the ethical level by a deity who cannot reliably be distinguished from the evil spirits who are among his agents thus appears to resurface on the epistemic level: the natural world is as much a structure of entrapment as it is an object of knowledge, and any sense that it is bound by law is subverted by assertions that the divine will which in every respect controls it is itself both unconstrained and unintelligible.

In his Second Meditation, Descartes determines that whatever the efforts of the evil genius, “without doubt I exist also if he deceives me”—from which it follows “that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 150; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 183, 415-16). But this position of decipior sive cogito, ergo sum is separated by a wide chasm from the assurance that such a reflexive self-recognition can provide a criterion of certainty from which other truths can be deduced. Descartes' movement in the Meditations from the evil genius hypothesis to the assurance that God is the guarantor of truth is, in effect, an act of faith. In his reply to the second set of Objections (composed by Mersenne), he insisted that an atheist cannot possess true science: “he cannot be sure that he is not deceived in the things that seem most evident to him...; and though perchance the doubt does not occur to him … he can never be safe from it unless he first recognizes the existence of a God” (Descartes, 1973, 2: 39; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 565).

To Mersenne's remark that the Scriptures themselves indicate that God may sometimes deceive us, Descartes responded with an intriguingly duplicitous use of the trope of accommodation. “Everyone,” he says, “knows the distinction between those modes of speaking about God which are commonly used in the Scriptures, and which are accommodated to the vulgar understanding (ad vulgi sensum accommodatos)..., and those others which express a more naked truth (magis nudam veritatem)..., and which everyone should use in philosophy...” (Descartes, 1974, 7: 142; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 566-67). Yet having thus dismissed inconvenient scriptural passages as irrelevant, on the grounds that philosophy should concern itself with the underlying verity rather than with accommodated representations of God, he then refuses even to consider the possibility that what we perceive as true may appear false to God or to an angel, and thus, as an accommodated representation, be relatively true but, in absolute terms, false. “Why should we be bothered with this absolute falsity, since we neither believe in it nor even suspect its existence? We have assumed a conviction or persuasion so strong that nothing can remove it, and this is clearly the same thing as perfect certitude” (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 569-70). Scepticism is thus vanquished, not by necessary arguments, but by an irresistible subjective conviction that is objectively self-validating.

A suspicion that there is something reminiscent of Calvinism both in Descartes' evil genius and in his intuitionism can draw support from R. H. Popkin's assertion of structural parallels between the arguments of the Meditations and Calvin's understanding of the nature of religious knowledge. In Popkin's words, “The same mental event in which [the Calvinist] gains his assurance somehow transcends itself and reveals to him God, the source of the event, who then guarantees that the content of the event, the religious truths, are not only personal beliefs, but also truths that He has ordained.” In an analogous way, “The cogito leads us to the rule of truth, the rule to God, and God provides the objective assurance of our subjective certitude. Having started on the way to truth by experiencing the illumination of the cogito, one ends by realizing that the indubitability of all clear and distinct ideas is not only a psychological fact that one accepts and lives with, but is a God-ordained fact, and hence objectively true” (Popkin, 190-91).

However, the analogy is not complete, for Descartes' act of faith follows, not the Calvinist's admission of total helplessness, but rather a proclamation of irreducible autonomy. He does not throw himself upon God's mercy; rather, he demonstrates that even the evil genius whom in the First Meditation he substitutes for the notion of a possibly deceptive deity could not deprive him of one basic truth—and his defiance of this demon is a kind of exorcism.

The dreams of November 1619 contained a similar element of exorcism. Unhappy consciences, Calvin wrote, “find no rest from being troubled and tossed by a terrible whirlwind...” (Calvin, 1960, 2: 1007-08 [III. xxv. 12). But Descartes' willed fulfilment of a Hermetic paradigm of regeneration enabled him to confront and to transcend a similar challenge to his autonomy: having resisted the wind which spun him around like a top, he was granted a revelation by the Spirit of Truth.

Appropriately enough, given Descartes' interest in fables, this interweaving of motifs derived from Hermetism and from Calvinism is itself anticipated by the culminative Renaissance version of a fable which originated in the sixteenth century (and which in its canonical post-Enlightenment versions has become a vehicle for explorations of the dilemmas of subjectivity in the modern era). I refer to the legend of Faustus, which Descartes could have encountered in his youth in Palma Cayet's French translation of the German Faustbook—and, in particular, to Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, a play which Descartes is most unlikely to have encountered in any form.

Marlowe's Faustus proclaims his affiliations in the first scene of the play when he expresses his desire to be “as cunning as Agrippa was, / Whose shadowes made all Europe honor him” (Marlowe, 1968, A: 150-51).59 In what might seem to be an exaggerated anticipation of Part I of the Discourse on Method, but is more clearly a parody of Agrippa's attempted demolition of all forms of human knowledge in De vanitate, Faustus dismisses the academic disciplines he has mastered (“Philosophy is odious and obscure, / Both Law and Physicke are for pettie wits,” and “Divinitie” is “Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible and vilde” [Marlowe, 1968, A: 139-42]), and turns instead to magic, which he praises in terms reminiscent of the more enthusiastic chapters of De occulta philosophia:

O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious Artizan?
All things that moove betweene the quiet poles
Shalbe at my commaund.... (Marlowe, 1968, A: 83-7)

The extent to which this trajectory parallels the path that led Descartes from a rejection of “all the opinions to which I had hitherto assented” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 581) to a method which promises to make us “masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 119; cf. Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 634) should not be exaggerated. This stage magician, however, confronts a challenge to his autonomy which is closely analogous to the problem of overdetermination faced by Descartes in 1619. The key moment in his turn to magic (and to the invocation of his evil genius Mephastophilis) is a passage, packed with Calvinistic overtones, in which Faustus finds in the New Testament an iron doctrine of necessity that condemns him to “everlasting death” (Marlowe, 1968, A: 76).60 Magic, which at certain points in the play acquires clear Hermetic resonances (cf. Marlowe, 1991, xlv-xlvi), is thus for Faustus a response to despair, and a despairing assertion of autonomy and self-determination: “A sound Magitian is a Demi-god, / Here tire my braines to get a Deity” (Marlowe, 1968, B: 88-89). The futility of this stance is made evident when, in the play's final scene, Faustus finds himself so thoroughly permeated by external agencies that he cannot make even the gestures of penitence:

. . . ah my God, I woulde weepe, but the divel drawes in my teares, gush foorth bloud, instead of teares, yea life and soule, Oh he stayes my tong, I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold them, they hold them. (Marlowe, 1968, A: 1416-20)

Like Descartes' dreams, the play contains a scene of reading; in this case, however, the act of reading appears to be overdetermined, and guided not by the Spirit of Truth but rather by demonic powers—a notion made explicit in lines added to the play early in the seventeenth century in which Faustus learns from his attendant spirit that even his initial dismissal of Christian theology was not an autonomous act:

'Twas I, that when thou wer't i'the way to heaven,
Damb'd up thy passage, when thou took'st the booke,
To view the Scriptures, then I turn'd the leaves
And led thine eye. (Marlowe, 1968, B: 1989-92)

Even if he never encountered any form of this fable, Descartes might be said to have effectively revised it: confronting the manipulations of his evil spirit at the beginning of his itinerary, he subsequently integrated them into an argument designed to provide a firm metaphysical footing for an autonomous subjectivity.

However, his contemporaries, among them Meric Casaubon, son of the Isaac Casaubon who in 1614 had dated the Hermetica, were not uniformly impressed with the resulting rationalism.61 In A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasme (1655), Meric Casaubon ranked Descartes' philosophy with the “Mysticall Theology” of Numa Pompilius and Minos, who, “to make their law received as oracles, did their best to perswade, that they did not come by them as other men did theirs, but that they were the fruits of Caves and darknesse...” (Casaubon, 172-73; qtd. in Spiller, 19-20). And in an unpublished text written in the late 1660s—a quarter-century still before the publication of Baillet's biography revealed the details of Descartes' meditations in November 1619—the younger Casaubon returned to the attack: “... for his Method: I took him for one whome excessive pride and self-conceit (which doth happen unto many) had absolutly bereaved of his witts.... A cracked brain man, an Enthusiast … I took him to be...” (Spiller, 21). Meric Casaubon's writings do not, on the whole, give evidence of unusual perspicuity. But in recognizing Descartes' method as a product of 'enthusiasm,' he had identified a feature of it that has been largely neglected by modern readers of the Discourse on Method and the Meditations.

Casaubon's contemptuous identification of 'enthusiasm' with folly or madness (the latter deprived, quite clearly, of the heroic resonances given it by Ficino and other Renaissance interpreters of Plato) is very much a reflex of his time—which was the time, also, of Butler's Hudibras and of Henry More's polemics against 'enthusiasm.' But another more interesting and less dismissive understanding of the relation between reason and madness in the philosophy of Descartes has recently become available. I am thinking, again, of Jacques Derrida—this time of the well-known essay “Cogito and the History of Madness,” in which he has this to say of Descartes' Evil Genius hypothesis and its resolution in the 'cogito':

The hyperbolical audacity of the Cartesian Cogito, its mad audacity, which we perhaps no longer perceive as such because, unlike Descartes' contemporary, we are too well assured of ourselves and too well accustomed to the framework of the Cogito, rather than to the critical experience of it—its mad audacity would consist in the return to an original point which no longer belongs to either a determined reason or a determined unreason, no longer belongs to them as opposition or alternative. Whether I am mad or not, Cogito, sum .... for even if the totality of what I think is imbued with falsehood or madness, even if the totality of the world does not exist, even if nonmeaning has invaded the totality of the world, up to and including the very contents of my thought, I still think, I am while I think. Even if I do not in fact grasp the totality, if I neither understand nor embrace it, I still formulate the project of doing so, and this project is meaningful in such a way that it can be defined only in relation to a precomprehension of the infinite and undetermined totality. This is why, by virtue of this margin of the possible, the principled, and the meaningful, which exceeds all that is real, factual, and existent, this project is mad, and acknowledges madness as its liberty and its very possibility. (Derrida, 1978, 56)

Despite my invocation of Derrida at the beginning and end of this essay, it should be apparent that the itinerary of this essay is not a Derridean one. For that philosopher, though claiming to locate “the very historicity of philosophy” in what he describes as a dialogue between hyperbole of the kind exemplified by the Cogito and “determined historical structures,” at the same time maintains that the Cartesian hyperbole “cannot be enclosed in a factual and determined historical structure, for it is the project of exceeding every finite and determined totality” (Derrida, 1978, 60).

My argument is a quite different one. For while in identifying the indebtedness of this dreamer's path to the discourses of Hermetism and of Calvinism I would not want to obscure the sense in which his thinking remains (to borrow the words of Walter Benjamin) “a leap in the open air of history” (Benjamin, 1973, 263), I hope to have shown that it is most precisely in the pivotal hyperbolic gestures of his thought that Descartes makes manifest his participation in a particular historical moment.

It is only, I think, in historical terms that one can begin to appreciate the multiple ironies of the Cartesian itinerary. A century before Descartes, the magus Cornelius Agrippa hoped all his life for a miraculous illumination that he never received; nor did Michel de Montaigne claim to have received the illumination that he thought possible. Descartes, however, had in 1619 rendered his mind “bare and naked”—and had indeed received from above a guarantee of truth and certainty. A fitting reward, presumably, for his belief that the writings of poets, since they are inspired by enthusiasm and the force of imagination, contain profounder thoughts than those of the philosophers.





1 In quoting from Renaissance and seventeenth-century sources, I have modernized u/v and i/j, but have not altered spellings in any other way.

2 Derrida remarks that “there is always a moment in [Heidegger's] analysis when, more or less furtively, discretely, he discloses before Descartes—notably in Plato rather than in Aristotle, but in the Greeks at any rate, the beginnings of this Verstellung, this disfiguration” (46). Derrida would of course object to the notion that any secure point of origin can ever be identified.

3 On Ramus and Agricola see Ong. Ramus was no doubt familiar with Lefèvre's Introductio in Ethicen Aristotelis (Paris, 1525), which begins (sig. a.ijr-v) with a table of dichotomized virtues and vices, states of mind etc., each of which is then treated in three sections: a definition, a sequence of quaestiones, and answers to these (elementa).

4 In addition to a directly methodological indebtedness, one might suggest that Descartes would have found resonances with the 1619 experience discussed in this essay in a passage like the following, from Galileo's The Assayer (1623): “that [philosopher] will indeed be fortunate who, led by some unusual inner light, can turn from dark and confused labyrinths in which he might have gone perpetually winding with the crowd . . .” (Galileo 240). The thinking of Zabarella may also have reached Descartes through other channels: see for example Alister McGrath's suggestive remarks on the influence of Zabarella on Théodore de Bèze's systematizing of Calvin's theology (McGrath 191-95).

5 Ascribing this text to Descartes' Experimenta manuscript, Gouhier identifies it as the experiential basis of the dream-narrative in the Olympica manuscript, according to which Descartes awoke for the third and final time while meditating on the poem of Ausonius beginning “Quod vitae sectabor iter?” Gouhier argues that the further removed in time anything in the narrative is from this waking moment, the more completely it is a retrospective reconstruction rather than an account of any actual dream-experience (Gouhier, 32-41). Resting as it does upon the assumption that the words in question are Descartes' rather than Leibniz's, this argument scarcely justifies Gouhier's reference in inverted commas to “les 'songes' de Descartes.” Even if the words are Descartes', it is not evident to me why one part of an autobiographical text should be privileged as being somehow less a retrospective reconstruction than all the rest of it.

6 Leibniz's Latin original: “Cartesius diu Flexiae in collegio Jesuitarum studiis operam dedit, juvenisque emendandae Philosophiae consilium cepit post somnia quaedam et illud Ausonii diu expensum: quod vitae sectabor iter?”

7 'Enthusiasm here carries a sense close to that of 'divine inzpirtion.' See Henry More, Enthusiasmus triumphatis, sect. II (More, 1: sig.s4v). My quotations in English from Descartes' writings are, where possible, based upon the translation of Haldane and Ross (Descartes, 1973)--although in places where this translaton seems to me inaccurate, I have not hesitated to modify it. Page references are in most cases given to the Latin and/or French texts in the editions of Adam and Tannery (Descartes, 1974) or of Alquié (Descartes, 1963-73).

8 Baillet's French: “.... il n'eut pas moins à souffrir, que s'il eût été question de se dépouiller de soy-même. Il crût pourtant en être venu à bout. Et à dire vrai, c'étoit assez que son imagination lui présentât son esprit tout nud, pour lui faire croire qu'il l'avoit mis effectivement dans cét état. Il ne lui restoit que l'amour de la Vérité.... Ce fut la matiére unique des tourmens qu'il fit souffrir à son esprit pour lors.... La recherche qu'il voulut faire de ces moiens, jetta son esprit dans de violentes agitations.... Il le fatigua de telle sorte, que le feu lui prît au cerveau, & qu'il tomba dans une espéce d'enthousiasme, qui disposa de telle manière son esprit déjà abatu, qu'il le mit en état de recevoir les impressions des songes & des visions.” Baillet does not indicate any textual source for these statements. For a discussion of the problems raised by the fact that Descartes' Olympica survives only in a few fragments, and in Baillet's paraphrase and commentary, see Moyal.

9 Baillet's French: “Il ajoute que le Génie qui excitoit en luy l'enthousiasme dont il se sentoit le cerveau échauffé depuis quelques jours, luy avoit prédit ces songes avant que se mettre au lit, & que l'esprit humain n'y avoit aucune part.”

10 Baillet wrote as follows: “Etant honteux de marcher de la sorte, il fit un effort pour se redresser; mais il sentit un vent impétueux qui, l'emportant dans une espéce de tourbillon, lui fit faire trois ou quatre tours sur le pied gauche. Ce ne fut pas encore ce qui l'épouvanta. La difficulté qu'il avoit de se traîner, faisoit qu'il croioit tomber à chaque pas, jusqu'à ce qu'ayant apperçu un collége ouvert sur son chemin, il entra dedans pour y trouver une retraite, & un reméde à son mal. Il tâcha de gagner l'Eglise du collége, où sa prémiére pensée étoit d'aller faire sa priére; mais s'étant apperçu qu'il avoit passé un homme de sa connoissance sans le saluër, il voulut retourner sur ses pas pour lui faire civilité, & il fut repoussé avec violence par le vent qui souffloit contre l'Eglise.” The dreamer's terror might have been inspired by the fact that he found himself scarcely able to stagger along, but given that he was a young man with philosophical ambitions, it was more probably prompted by the paradox with which the episode of his turn towards the college church culminates.

11 See Gouhier, 11-17, for an analysis of the relations between the Olympica manuscript and the texts preserved in Leibniz's copy under the title Cogitationes privatae.

12 Baillet's French: “Il se réveilla..., & il sentit à l'heure même une douleur effective, qui lui fit craindre que ce ne fût l'opération de quelque mauvais génie qui l'auroit voulu séduire. […. ] Le vent qui le poussoit vers l'Eglise du collège, lorsqu'il avoit mal au coté droit, n'étoit autre chose que le mauvais Génie qui tâchoit de le jetter par force dans un lieu, òu son dessein étoit d'aller volontairement. C'est pourquoy Dieu ne permit pas qu'il avançât plus loin, & qu'il se laissât emporter, même en un lieu saint, par un Esprit qu'il n'avoit pas envoyé: quoy qu'il fût trés-persuadé que c'eût été l'Esprit de Dieu qui luy avoit fait faire les prémiéres démarches vers cette Eglise.”

13 Baillet's French: “... il crût entendre un bruit aigu & éclatant, qu'il prit pour un coup de tonnére. La frayeur qu'il en eut, le réveilla sur l'heure même; et ayant ouvert les yeux, il apperçût beaucoup d'étincelles de feu répandües par la chambre. […. ] L'épouvante dont il fut frappé dans le second songe, marquoit, à son sens, sa syndérêse, c'est-à-dire, les remords de sa conscience touchant les péchez qu'il pouvoit avoir commis pendant le cours de sa vie jusqu'alors. La foudre dont il entendit l'éclat, étoit le signal de l'Esprit de Vérité qui descendoit sur luy pour le posséder.” A connection between sparks and synderesis appears to be traditional. Meister Eckhart wrote as follows about the parable in Luke 14: 16-17 of the man who prepared a great feast and sent his servant to invite his friends: “It seems to me that this servant is the spark of the soul [daz vünkelin der sele], which is created by God and inserted [into the soul] as a light from above. It is an image of divine nature, contantly opposed to everything that is not of God. But it is not a power of the soul.... It is called a synteresis, and that designates both a connection [with God] and an aversion [from all that is not God]. It has two activities. The one is bitter combat against every impurity. The other is constant attraction to what is good” (qtd. from Ozment, 7).

14 Baillet's French: “Il jugea que le Dictionnaire ne vouloit dire autre chose que toutes les Sciences ramassées ensemble; & que le Recueil de Poësies, intitulé Corpus poëtarum, marquoit en particulier, & d'une maniére plus distincte, la Philosophie & la Sagesse jointes ensemble. [… ] Voyant que l'application de toutes ces choses réüssissoit si bien à son gré, il fut assez hardi pour se persuader que c'étoit l'Esprit de Vérité qui avoit voulu lui ouvrir les trésors de toutes les sciences par ce songe."

15 Jacques Maritain followed G. Milhaud in rejecting Baillet's interpretation of the mirabilis scientia and proposing that “the plenitude of enthusiasm, the dream and the discovery are but one and the same event” (Maritain, 189n.). Most interpreters, however, associate the mirabilis scientia with the method, and regard the dreams as an authentication of meditations which preceded them. See, for example, Schuster, 83-84 n. 32, 87 n. 64.

16 Descartes' allusion to Archimedes occurs at the beginning of the Second Meditation (Descartes, 1973, 1: 149). The Regulae or Rules presumably antedate the precise formulation of these arguments; they show, nonetheless, that he had already worked out some of their elements. Consider his first example of an intellectual intuition: “... each individual can mentally have intuition of the fact that he exists, and that he thinks” (Rule 3; Descartes, 1973, 1: 7). In Rule 12 he writes that “If Socrates says he doubts everything, it follows necessarily that he knows this at least—that he doubts”; and he presents the following propositions as necessary rather than contingent: “'I exist, therefore God exists' … 'I know, therefore I have a mind distinct from my body'” (Descartes, 1973, 1: 43).

17 Descartes writes: “But, like a man who walks alone and in darkness, I resolved to go so slowly, and to use so much circumspection in all things, that even if I advanced only very little, I would at least take care not to fall” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 584). As Georges Poulet observed, “toute cette seconde partie du Discours est, sans que Descartes y fit formellement mention du songe, remplie de l'expérience même que le songe lui communiqua” (Poulet 24).

18 The French text: “... je vous avertis que ces doutes, qui vous ont fait peur à l'abord, sont comme des fantômes et vaines images, qui paraissent la nuit à la faveur d'une lumière débile et incertaine: si vous les fuyez, votre crainte vous suivra; mais si vous approchez comme pour les toucher, vous découvrirez que ce n'est rien, que de l'air et de l'ombre, et en serez à l'avenir plus assuré en pareille rencontre.”

19 See Descartes, 1974, 10: 193-200, 214; also Yates, 1975.

20 Vanini combined the Aristotelianism of Averroes and Pomponazzi with the naturalistic philosophy of Cardano and Telesio. On the burnings of sorcerers at this time, see Lenoble, 30 ff. For the man burned at Moulins, see Mersenne, 1932, 51 n3.

21 “[L]e pesant ioug de la superstition” is Garasse's own phrase. Two further books by Garasse, published in 1624 and 1625, repeated and expanded his vituperations, but also brought on a crushing counter-attack by the Jansenist theologian Saint-Cyran which resulted in the condemnation of Garasse's “buffooneries” by the Sorbonne in 1626. See Popkin, 111-15.

22 The wording of Mersenne's pun on Fludd's name (the Latinized form of which was De Fluctibus) is “brevibus submergendum fluctibus aeternis.”

23 I have quoted from the title of Ch. xx: Auquel il est monstré que nos actions ne suivent pas l'absolu vouloir de Dieu....” On p. 539 Mersenne writes, “Pour moy je croy que cet homme a esté Calviniste...”; on p. 580, after attacking the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, he refers to him as “ce Poëte Calvino-déiste.”

24 Mersenne, 1624, 517 (ch. xviii): “... la volonté de Dieu n'est point cause de nos pechez, mais nous tous seuls: … sa prescience, & sa volonté, aussi bien que ses loix, & toutes ses oeuvres ne prejudicient en rien à nostre liberté....”

25 This is in fact the Sceptic's characterization of alchemy: “On diroit à vous ouyr parler, que vostre Alchymie seroit capable de restaurer tout le monde, & faire évanouyr les tenebres de l'ignorance par quelque éclat extraordinaire....”

26 What Florio translates as “bare and naked” is “nu et vide” in Montaigne's text (see Montaigne, 1965, 2: 226).

27 For Calvin's denunciation of Agrippa and other Lucianici homines,” see De scandalis, in Calvin, 1552, sig. Ccc2-3; and for analyses of Agrippa's ironies and libertine tendencies, Korkowski, 594-607, and Wirth, 609-13. On Agrippa's relation to the 'radical reformers,' see Zambelli, 1969 and 1976. De vanitate has often been discussed as an early instance of sixteenth-century scepticism; R. H. Popkin in surveying these discussions finds the work to be an instance less of scepticism than of “fundamentalist anti-intellectualism” (Popkin, 24); Backus argues for different reasons that the term 'sceptic' is inappropriate. But neither Popkin nor Backus takes any notice of Ch. 7 of De vanitate, where there is a brief but coherent argument to the effect that our senses are often deceived and cannot in any case “attaine to the intellectual nature, and the causes of the inferiour things,” from which it follows that “al these derivations and sciences, which are fast rooted in the senses shalbe uncertaine, erroneous, and deceiptful...” (Agrippa, 1974, 49).

28 See Gouhier, 114, and Graesse, 1: 45.

29 Thevet's French: “Et, pleut à Dieu, que tout seul il se fust noyé en ce goulfre d'impieté, auiourd'huy nous n'aurions un tas d'Athees, de mesdisans & brocardeurs, comme ce siecle les nous a produict.... Pour la Magie & Atheisme Agrippa en a esclos une infinité de formillieres....”

30 Agrippa's Latin reads as follows: “Hoc autem admonere vos oportet, hanc artem ad pompam ingenii & doctrinae ostentationem potius, quàm ad comparandam eruditionem valere, ac longè plus habere audaciae, quàm efficaciae” (Agrippa, 1970, 2: 40).

31 The expression is Henri Gouhier's; see Gouhier, 150-57.

32 For the evidence that the young Descartes had read Porta, see Gouhier, 112-13. The natural magic of optical illusions could be used to demystify commonly accepted superstitions: thus Vanini had proposed in his De admirandis naturae deaeque (1616) that stories of angelic apparitions could be accounted for by mirrors; see Mersenne, 1623, cols. 475-8, 500-37, and Hine, 167-70. On Descartes' allusion to the dove of Archytas, see Descartes, 1974, 10: 232.

33 Agrippa, 1970, 2: 299-300 (cap. C): “DEUS enim solus fontem veritatis continet, a quo haurire necesse est qui vera dogmata cupit, cum nulla sit nec haberi possit de secretis naturae, de substantiis separatis, deque ipsorum authore Deo scientia, nisi divinitus revelata: divina enim humanis viribus non tanguntur, & naturalia quovis momento sensum effugiunt....” 'Separate substances' means spirits or intelligences. On that Hermetic illuminism which is the basis of Agrippa's understanding both of the highest forms of magic and of the Christian religion, see my article “Agrippa's Dilemma” (Keefer, 1988a).

34 Compare Agrippa, 1970, 1: 735: “Transitus de communi hominum vita, ad vitam magicam, non est alius nisi de cadem vita dormientem ad eandem vitam vigilantem.”

35 Cf. Agrippa, 1970, 1: 719, 711. The reference in aphorism 12 is to Romans 1: 18-23 and to the 'Hermetic apocalypse' in the Asclepius—for the text of which see Hermes, 1960, 2: 326 ff., and Hermes, 1992, 81-83.

36 For detailed discussions of the genre of Descartes' dreams in terms of the classical tradition of dream-interpretation, see Browne and Wagner.

37 In the first two chapters of L'impiété des déistes Mersenne is clearly appropriating for his own uses that discourse on human power and dignity one of the major sources of which was the Hermetic Asclepius; the speaker in his dialogue who delivers this declamation is “Aesculape.” On p. 140 Mersenne refers the reader to Steuchus—who devoted the major part of I. viii-x, xxiii-xxvi, II. xvii, and X. x of his De perenni philosophia to expounding Hermetic texts; in I. x he writes: “Is ut apparet fuit fons Graecae Philosophiae, inde Theologiam hauserunt”; and in X. x: “Mercurius Trismegistus vetustissimus fons, unde manavit Graecorum Theologia...” (Steuchus, 21, 577). As Mersenne was well aware, Steuchus was also an unimpeachably orthodox Counter-Reformation polemicist whose other books include Pro religione christiana adversus Lutheranos (1530) and Contra Laurentium Vallam, de falsa donatione Constantini, libri duo (1547): see Delph, 104-36.

38 For indications of the range of writings in which the young Descartes could have encountered similarly laudatory references to Hermes, see Yates, 1964, Marcel, and Dronke. On the Hermetic writings, see Festugière, Fowden, and Copenhaver's very useful bibliography in Hermes, 1992.

39 Hermes, 1532, sig. A6: “Cum de rerum natura cogitarem, ac mentis aciem ad superna erigerem, sopitis iam corporis sensibus, quemadmodum accidere solet iis, qui ob saturitatem vel defatigationem somno gravati, sunt: subito mihi visus sum cernere quendam immensa magnitudine corporis, qui me nomine vocans, in hunc modum clamaret: Quid est ô Mercuri, quod et audire & intueri desideras? quid est quod discere atque intelligere cupis? Tum ego: Quisnam es inquam? Sum inquit ille Pymander, mens divinae potentiae, ac tu vide quid velis, ipse vero tibi ubique adero. Cupio inquam rerum naturam discere, deumque cognoscere.” Rather than quoting from Cophenhaver's excellent translation (Hermes, 1992), which is made from the Greek texts of the Hermetica and draws upon the best contemporary scholarship, I have preferred to use Ficino's Latin translation, which was the most widely available version of the Hermetica during the period with which I am concerned.

40 The Latin of Ficino's translation: “Morum ociosus habitus daemoni conceditur atque dimittitur. Sensus corporei partes animae facti, suos in fontes refluunt....” The daemon alluded to here is presumably the avenger mentioned several sentences previously by Pimander (sig. B2v): “Contra ab ignaris, improbis, ignavis, invidis, iniquis, homicidis, impiis, procul admodum habito, permittens eos daemonis ultoris arbitrio, qui ignis acumen incutiens, sensus affligit....”

41 Ficino's Latin: “O populi viri terrigenae, qui vosmetipsos ebrietati, somno, & ignorantiae dedidistis, sobrii vivite, abstinete a ventris luxu vos, qui irrationali somno demulcti estis” (sig. B3v). “Demum qui seipsum recognovit, bonum quod est super essentiam consecutus est. Qui vero corpus amoris errore complectebatur, is oberrabat in tenebris mortis mala sensu percipiens” (sig. Bv).

42 “Ego autem Pymandri beneficium inscripsi penetralibus animi, atque adeptus quae petieram omnia in gaudio requievi: Corporis enim somnus animi sobrietas extiterat. Oculorum compressio verus intuitus. Silentium meum bonitatis foecunda praegnatio. Sermonis prolatio bonorum omnium genitura.”

43 “Ecce iam paratus sum pater, a mente mea mundi deceptiones excussi.”

44 “Cernis me oculi fili? Quando vero meditaris intentus corpore atque aspectu, non oculis hisce videro. TAT. In furorem me insanumque mentis oestrum ô pater nimium concitasti, in praesentiarum meipsum haud video. TRIS. Utinam fili charissime tu quoque teipsum dormiens transcurrisses, instar eorum qui in somno insomniis occupantur.”

45 “TAT. Dicage quis erit regenerationis autor? TRIS. Dei filius, homo unius voluntate dei.” Passages like this encouraged Renaissance readers to accept Hermes as a pagan prophet of the coming of Christ.

46 “TAT. … Quid ergo verum Trismegiste? TRIS. Quod non perturbatum, non determinatum, non coloratum, non figuratum, non concisum, nudum, perspicuum, à seipso comprehensibile, intransmutabile, bonum, ac penitus incorporeum.” Sig. G5: “TRIS. Absit hoc ô fili: recurre in teipsum, & consequeris: velis, ac fiet: purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus.”

47 “Quicunque igitur propter benignitatem generationis, quae secundum deum est, sensum dimittit corporeum, seipsum cognoscit ex divinis compositum, factusque indeclivis divina potentia tota mente laetatur. TAT. O pater concipio, non oculorum intuitu, sed actu mentis, qui per vires intimas exercentur. In coelo sum, in terra, in aqua, in aëre, in animalibus sum, in arboribus, in corpore, ante corpus, atque post corpus, & ubique.”

48 “TAT. Eia pater universum video, meipsum in mente conspicio. TRIS. At haec est regeneratio fili, non adesse ulterius corpori quantitate dimenso.”

49 In 1630 Mersenne made use of Casaubon's demolition of Hermes in his controversy with Fludd; his earlier writings show no awareness of Casaubon's work (Yates, 1964, 434-40).

50 In the French text (Descartes, 1963-73, 2: 412) this last paragraph is divided into two paragraphs.

51 “TRIS. … cur digni morte sint ii qui in morte iacent? PYM. Quia praecessit proprio corpori tristis umbra, ex hac quidem natura humida, ex hac vero corpus in mundo sensibili constitit....” In the vision of the cosmogonic process with which this text begins (sig. A6v), an “umbra quaedam horrenda” turns into the “natura humida,” with great effects of son et lumière. In the “dialogus decimitertius” Hermes exhorts his disciple: “... purga sensus corporis, solve te ab irrationabilibus materiae ipsius ultoribus” (sig. G5).

52 The translation offered here is largely based on that of Haldane and Ross in Descartes, 1973, 1: 148-49.

53 “Homo igitur harmonia superior extitit: in harmoniam vero lapsus, periclitatus, servus effectus est. Hic utriusque sexus foecunditate munitus ab eo qui amborum sexuum fons est, vigilque factus ab eo qui est vigilans, continetur, atque eius dominationi subjicitur.” Sig. B3v: “O populi viri terrigenae, qui vosmetipsos ebrietati, somno, & ignorantiae dedidistis, sobrii vivite, abstinete a ventris luxu vos, qui irrationali somno demulcti estis.... Revocate iam vosmet, qui laboratis inopia, ignorantiae tenebris involuti.”

54 For the metaphor of a pre-existent path, see Discours, III (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 594, 598); the notion of building a new road appears in Part II, where the idea is said to be inapplicable to “la réformation des moindres choses qui touchent le public” (Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 582).

55 Garasse, 1: 56: “Jamais Platon n'avança plus belle maxime que celle par laquelle il dit qu'il n'y a partage au monde si bien faict que celuy des Esprits, d'autant, dit-il, que tous les hommes en pensent avoir assez, il n'y a si pauvre idiot qui ne s'en contente....” Compare Descartes, 1963-73, 1: 568.

56 See Gregory, and the works by other scholars, especially H. G. Frankfurt, R. Kennington, and G. Rodis-Lewis, which are cited in his article.

57 Calvin's view of divine sovereignty and of its consequences with respect to contingency, free-will and human autonomy is set forth in Calvin 1960, 1: 197-217 (I. xvi.1-9, I. xvii.1-5). On free-will, see further II. ii.1-11, II. ii. 26-7, II. iii. 5, II. v.1-19. On the primacy of the divine will, see III. xxiii. 6. In these remarks on Calvin I am drawing upon my essay “Accommodation and Synecdoche” (Keefer 1988b).

58 For instances of Calvin's reliance on the notion of accommodation, see Calvin, 1960, I. xi. 2-3, I. xiv. 3, I. xvii.12-13, II. xi.13, II. xvi. 2. The notion is also implicit in I. xvi. 9 and III. xviii. 9. David Hume was to write, with obvious reference to Calvinism: “The Deity, I can readily allow, possesses many powers and attributes, of which we can have no comprehension: But if our ideas, so far as they go, be not just and adequate, and correspondent to his real nature, I know not what there is in this subject worth insisting on. Is the name, without any meaning, of such mighty importance?” (Hume, 158).

59 Quotations from this play are identified by the text cited (A refers to the text of 1604, and B to that of 1616) and by line numbers. The “shadowes” alluded to in A: 151 are usually taken to refer to the spirits of the dead raised in necromancy.

60 For analyses of the interweaving of Hermetic and Calvinistic motifs in this play, see Keefer, 1985-86 and 1987, and Marlowe, 1991, xlv-lv, 181-211.

61 In one respect at least, the son followed in his father's footsteps: Isaac had exploded the reputation of Hermes; Meric did the same for Dr. John Dee, the English Hermetist, mathematician and magus, when in 1659 he published a large part of Dee's “spiritual diaries.”   




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