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The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter : A Portrait of Descartes

Steven Nadler

In the Louvre museum hangs a portrait of a middle-aged man with long dark hair, a mustache, and heavy-lidded eyes, and he is dressed in the starched white collar and black coat of the typical Dutch burgher. The painting is now the iconic image of René Descartes, the great seventeenth-century French philosopher. And the painter of the work? The Dutch master Frans Hals--or so it was long believed, until the work was downgraded to a copy of an original. But where, then, is the authentic version located, and who painted it? Is the man in the painting--and in its original--really Descartes?

A unique combination of philosophy, biography, and art history, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter investigates the remarkable individuals and circumstances behind a small portrait. Through this image--and the intersecting lives of a brilliant philosopher, a Catholic priest, and a gifted painter--Steven Nadler opens up a fascinating portal into Descartes's life and times, skillfully presenting an accessible introduction to Descartes's philosophical and scientific ideas, and an illuminating tour of the volatile political and religious environment of the Dutch Golden Age. As Nadler shows, Descartes's innovative ideas about the world, about human nature and knowledge, and about philosophy itself, stirred great controversy. Philosophical and theological critics vigorously opposed his views, and civil and ecclesiastic authorities condemned his writings. Nevertheless, Descartes's thought came to dominate the philosophical world of the period, and can rightly be called the philosophy of the seventeenth century.

Shedding light on a well-known image, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter offers an engaging exploration of a celebrated philosopher's world and work.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. His books include Rembrandt's Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award; and A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton).


"[C]harming. . . . Nadler, an American philosopher and author, has written an immensely readable introduction to Descartes."--Australian

"Riveting. . . . In The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, Nadler has . . . written his most inviting book yet. . . . Nadler's detective work makes for fascinating reading. . . . [T]he resulting survey of Golden Age Dutch culture, Cartesian philosophy and art connoisseurship . . . makes for . . . very welcome intellectual entertainment."--Michael Dirda, Washington Post

"As one would expect from a distinguished philosopher such as Nadler, the description of Descartes's philosophy, and in particular his Discourse (1637) and Meditations (1641), is flawless."--Jerry Brotton, Literary Review

"[B]y situating him firmly in his time and place, [Nadler] makes clear what made Descartes the intellectual superstar of his day. . . . [A]n original, intriguing set-up. . . . [A]s an introduction to Descartes' philosophy, it is excellent."--David Wolf, Slate

"[A] landscape (or at least a well-turned charcoal sketch) of religious, artistic, and economic life in the Netherlands during the first half of the 17th century. . . . Nadler's book . . . takes us back upstream a ways--beginning, rather than exempting us from, a dialog with the dead."--Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed

"[A]bsorbing."--France Magazine

"Nadler is appealing to a wider audience that is looking less for hard-nosed scholarship and more for a story to follow, some intrigue to pique the mind while telling the reader something interesting and informative about the life and work of Descartes. Insofar as the work is meant for a general audience, it accomplishes its aims well enough and should be well-received and enjoyed by those readers."--Aaron Massecar, European Legacy

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