Lot 617
  • 617

[Descartes, René (1596-1650)]

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  • [Descartes, René (1596-1650)]
Discours de la methode pour bien construire sa raison, & chercher la verité dans les sciences. Plus la dioptrique, les meteores et la geometrie qui sont des essais de cete methode. Leiden: Jan Maire, 1637


Dibner 81; Guibert, Discours 1; Horblit 24; Krivatsky 3114; Norman 621; PMM 129

Catalogue Note

first edition of Descartes' most famous work, in which he announced cogito, ergo sum. "He described in Discours de la méthode how, in a day of solitary thought, he reached two radical conclusions: first, that if he were to discover true knowledge he must carry out the whole program himself, just as a perfect work of art or architecture was always the work of one master hand; second, that he must begin by methodically doubting everything taught in current philosophy and look for self-evident, certain principles from which to reconstruct all the sciences" (DSB IV, p.51).

The Discours, like many important works such as Newton’s Opticks and Huygens’s De la lumière, was published anonymously. As his correspondence with Mersenne shows us, Descartes had originally thought to publish the work in Leiden with the Elzevir house, but Mersenne had suggested Paris. Descartes pointed out one difficulty about publishing it away from his eyes – his appalling script (‘my fair copy is no better written than this letter, that my attention to spelling and punctuation is equally badly observed, and that the diagrams are drawn in my hand, which is to say very badly, so that if you cannot interpret them for the engraver, he would be unable to understand them’). He further added that he would like the book printed with fine types and on good paper and that he would like at least 200 copies for distribution. So far we have an interesting demonstration of authorial involvement at various levels, from his own preparation of the fair copy to a choice of type and paper.

Early in 1637 various suggestions were made about obtaining a privilege in France from le chancelier Séguier through the medium of Jean de Beaugrand for the Dioptique. It was suggested that Le Maire’s Parisian facteur be awarded the privilege, having suitably promised that he would not use it, and then transfer it. The idea that the privilege be registered in Descartes’ name was rejected as he wanted to publish the work anonymously. Censorship at the time ‘has never been more particular’ and it was thought that the Discours itself would not be afforded permission without the text being seen. Mersenne therefore asked Descartes to send the text ‘if it be printed, together with the remainder of your traités, if they are finished’. He also said that a privilege would be granted, even if it took two or three months, and that such a delay would not allow sufficient time for any pirate to have the illustrations engraved or cut (letter 15 Feb. 1637). On 3 March 1637 Descartes wrote to Constantyn Huygens saying that he thought the book would be ready in three weeks, when he would send off the whole to le chancelier, and the sheets containing the Discours and Géometrie seem to have been sent off on 24 March 1637 (letter 598). By late April Descartes was able to write to Mersenne saying that a Latin translation was being prepared. On 17 May 1637 Descartes, still worried about the privilege, said that the publisher would not send any copies ‘hors de Leide’, and asking that if the privilege had been granted, it be sent as fast as possible to Le Maire, a copy being kept in Paris. When the book came out it had a Dutch privilege dated 20 December 1636, a French privilege dated 4 May 1637 and an achevé d’imprimer dated 8 June 1637.

Writing to Mersenne on 6 June 1637 (letter 616) Descartes mentions a packet containing the errata for the book, and the note with the famous passage from St Augustine: ‘Nam et sumus et nos esse novimus et id esse ac nosse diligimus' (De civitate Dei xi, 26) – ‘We exist, we know that we exist, and this being and knowledge pleases us’, a text adduced by Mersenne no doubt in response to ‘Et remarquant que cete vérité, je pense, donc je suis, estoit si ferme et si assurée que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des Sceptiques n'estoient pas capables de l’esbranler, je jugeay que je pouvois le recevoir, sans scrupule, pour la premiere principe de la philosophie que je cherchois’.

The book became a best seller. An erstwhile Leiden student Joachim Hübner wrote to Samuel Hartlib at the end of June 1637 about how it was an expensive book and ‘a treasurehouse of the most exquisite French language’. It is, of course, one of the most celebrated philosophical texts in any vernacular language, and one of the earliest.