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I’m slowly making my way through Malebranche’s magnum opus, The Search After Truth – so far its a super fun text. Malebranche spends a lot of time in the first two major sections on criticising his contemporaries for their lack of clear thinking. This quote is just a small sample – but there are many many others in the first two books of this text. Not long after this passage, he moves on to criticising some prior thinkers: Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne. He’s particularly strong worded about Montaigne, of whom he says that “He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so.” Malebranche is by no means an exception in his harsh words about other thinkers. We see this happen today as well – with some prominent philosophers having a reputation for just how mean they are about others. Personally, I think this sort of adversarial attitude hurts us more than helps.
I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the sometimes odd choices for the historical figures that adorn the currencies we use every day. The design of our legal tender is usually taken to be one of the ways of asserting our national identity and acknowledging those who made key contributions to our nations. This is why the US has its presidents on its money and why dictatorships and monarchies put their sovereign on theirs.
The other week I was having coffee with a friend who mentioned someone telling them about their list of philosophers who’ve made their way onto their national currencies, which made me curious to see who was deemed important enough.
I started with Wikipedia’s list of people on banknotes, and just searched for the term “philosopher”, which yielded some of the usual suspects (cough Descartes cough). It also presented me with a bit of a problem – the list didn’t count some philosophers as philosophers. The German political theorist Clara Zetkin (featured on East German marks from 1975 to 1990) is listed as a “Marxist theorist”, and not a philosopher. The Chinese philosophers Yi I and Yi Hwang are listed as “Confucian scholars”. There are more examples I could cite. The Wikipedia page is rather long, so there wasn’t a very good way of classifying these.
Besides the obvious issue with classifying who was a philosopher and who wasn’t, the second issue was my ignorance of so many of the people on the list. Thankfully, Twitter (shout-out to my friend Patrick for his help with some of these!) was a huge help.
One thing that is a mystery still is why these people were chosen. Descartes seems an obvious choice for France, given that he is without a doubt the most influential of her philosophers. But why Montesquieu as opposed to Émilie du Châtelet? (That’s a naïve question, I know – the only woman that is listed as appearing on the old French franc is Marie Curie – and she wasn’t even French, and she appears with her husband, Pierre; so there’s definitely a theme here…).
Putting the politics of choosing who gets to be on money aside, I find some of these portraits to be pretty interesting aesthetically. Some people are surrounded by some items relevant to their life. A good example is Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose portrait on the Mexican 200 peso note is set next to a book, an inkwell and part of the cloister where she lived. Are these objects the subject of the portrait would have chosen? De la Cruz was a nun – would she think any of these objects are fitting her memory?
The French 100 franc note featured a portrait of Descartes, and behind him was one of the muses holding a thick book and sitting next to an hourglass. Perhaps an allusion to his famous Olympica dreams, where he was presented with the book of knowledge. Really though, it seems an odd choice, given his other achievements are so much more prominent than his whacky story about how he had a bad dream and as a result became a philosopher.
I don’t feel it’s within my power to compile a full list of philosophers on national currencies, but it is nice knowing some have made the cut. I wonder if any contemporary philosophers would make it? I reckon Martha Nussbaum might be a good candidate – her work is wide ranging but at the same time accessible. Or maybe someone more niche would fit? It’s hard to see how any criteria proposed would be sufficient.
I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments – who do you think deserves to be put on a banknote? Why?
A little while ago I wrote on this blog about Descartes’ Olympica dreams. The three dreams he had one night in 1619. The then 23 year old philosopher reported nightmares and dreams which made him decide to become a philosopher. In my previous post I remarked that Freud supposedly interpreted these dreams in a letter, but that the library holding my university’s copy of the Collected Psychological Works of Freud was being renovated, and I had no easy way to access them. Well.. when I went to get vol.21, which contains the letter in question, it wasn’t on the shelf, and it seems that it indeed has been lost or worse! Perhaps some Jungian villain decided to abscond with the tome. I don’t know.
Thankfully a friend was able to deliver the Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy to me, and so I’m able to relay to you his interpretation of Descartes’ dreams.
Freud begins his letter by saying that usually he’d be reluctant to discuss or analyse dreams when the dreamer is unavailable to comment. This, according to him, is particularly true of historical figures. Presumably, not just because we are unable to confirm with them details that might link them to the real world, but because the real world as they knew no longer exists. With Descartes, however, Freud is happy to report the task is easier than expected. He describes the dreams like so:
Our philosopher’s dreams are what are known as ‘dreams from above’ (Träume von oben). That is to say, they are formulations of ideas which could have been created just as well in a waking state as during the state of sleep, and which have derived their content only in certain parts from mental states at a comparatively deep level. That is why these dreams offer for the most part a content which has an abstract, poetic or symbolic form.
Being “dreams from above”, Freud says, the dreams are a mystery to us, the interpreters, but to the dreamer they are easily decipherable because they are close to our waking thoughts already. And thus,
The philosopher interprets them himself and, in accordance with all the rules for the interpretation of dreams, we must accept his explanation, but it should be added that we have no path open to us which will take us any further.
I think Freud sheds a bit of light on the young Descartes. The idea of becoming a philosopher must always have been close to his thoughts. His education clearly steered him towards a life of contemplation.
Source: Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy, reprinted in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol 21
Given my ongoing obsession with seventeenth century world, it might come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve started looking to the cookbooks of the era for some recipes I could make myself. After all, I could probably make a convincing case that cooking 17th century recipes is studying. Especially if the author of the cookbook is one of the philosophers relevant to my thesis – Kenelm Digby. His The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby (year) is a trove of wonderful and bizarre recipes.
For starters, the first 130ish pages of the book comprises recipes for meath and metheglin (both types of mead, if I’m not wrong), various wines, ciders, ales… I think you get the picture. Digby was certainly a fun-time guy as a party host.
What I was looking for, though, was something heartier. Something, to feed the soul, not just make it lighter. What I found instead was Tea with Eggs. Digby attributes this recipe to a Jesuit who brought it back from China around 1664, and who then gave it to Digby’s friend, Mr. Waller. Here’s the recipe:
To near a pint of the infusion take two yolks of new laid eggs, and beat them very well with as much fine Sugar as is sufficient for this quantity of Liquor; when they are very well incorporated, pour your Tea upon the Eggs and Sugar, and stir them well together. So drink it hot.
Frankly, I feel this isn’t too far from stirring a raw egg into hot soup, which I think is pretty delicious. But, tea? I’m not sure I’d be game for that. Digby goes on to outline the circumstances and benefits where such a dish might be beneficial:
This is when you come home from attending business abroad, and are very hungry, and yet have not conveniency to eat presently a competent meal. This presently difusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, and flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly, and preserves one a good while from necessity of eating.
That’s a strong pitch. Ultimately, I think I’ll just order some pizza.
To lay readers of Descartes’ work, the fact that he’d worked on medicine might not come as a complete surprise, unlike the significance and depth of this work. Though he’d not published any of his works devoted exclusively to the study of human bodies in his lifetime, the posthumous publication of Treatise on Man (1664) and Description of the Human Body (1664), indicate that Descartes felt he had acquired sufficient expertise in the topic to devote the time it took to write these texts. What is particularly curious about Descartes’ engagement with medicine, though, is the reputation he had developed as a doctor, even before he’d published anything.
In a somewhat recent paper titled Descartes and the Bologna Affair, Gideon Manning, reports on an invitation Descartes received to take the chair of medicine at the University of Bologna . Manning traces this invitation to either late 1632 or early 1633, which places it about 5 years before Descartes published his Discourse on the Method (1637). What makes this even more interesting is that the earliest evidence we have of Descartes’ interest in medicine is in a letter to his friend Mersenne dated 18 December 1629, when he asserts he had begun studying anatomy.
By 1632, Descartes must have becomecomfortable with the typical concerns of both practical and theoretical medicine. In a letter to Mersenne from either November or December 1632 he mentions having read William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis. He claimed that it “differs slightly” from his own view, but he had only seen it after he’d finished writing on the topic. Given that Harvey was at the greatest medical innovator of the time, Descartes’ familiarity with the text, and perhaps more importantly, his feeling that he could argue against some of Harvey’s assumptions and claiming that he had arrived at some similar conclusions, it seems clear that his studies were robust enough to equip him with the mental apparatus to argue with the most learned physicians of the time.
Perhaps it is a loss that Descartes refused this invitation. It certainly was consistent with his character. In the Discourse he remarks that he was more grateful to those who offered him leisure to think than those who offered him honourable positions. Manning notes that it’s unclear whether Descartes was referring to the “Bologna Affair” here, but nonetheless, we know Descartes’ frequently avoided his friends, and he sought solitude. Nonetheless, it remains as a curious and relatively unknown part of his biography.
 Manning, Gideon. “Descartes and the Bologna Affair.” British Journal for the History of Science 47, no. 1 (2014): 1-13.