The Stockholm Conspiracy


Gabriel Daniel, Histoire de la conjuration faite à Stokolm contre Mr. Descartes, Amsterdam, 1696

translated by Justin E. H. Smith

While Monsieur Descartes was living peacefully at the Court of Sweden, whither his virtue, his dedication to the truth, his great genius in the sciences, and the high reputation that he had acquired, had caused him to be called by Queen Christina, there formed against him one of the most dangerous conspiracies of which we have, perhaps, ever heard spoken.

As he rejected from his philosophy several Qualities and Accidents, of the existence of which no one had been accustomed to doubt, the Cold and the Dry, two of the four Primary Qualities, outraged with pain by the fact that he had made them out to be chimerical beings, resolved to take revenge for this affront, and to make their power felt by this proud philosopher (this is how they called M. Descartes). But before executing their plan, these Qualities deemed it appropriate to confer on the subject with all of those who, having been outraged by M. Descartes, were riled up against him.

The Substantial Forms of all kinds belonging to this group, as well as the Accidents, along with the Virtues and Occult Qualities, were called upon by Heat, who took the trouble to propose to them a conference, in order to deliberate on the way to retaliate against the audacity of their enemy, and in order to take the right measures in such an important affair. All of them promised to show up; they settled on a date, and chose a suitable place for this famous assembly, so that what had at the outset been nothing more than a little plot among a couple of Qualities, transformed into a general conspiracy.

They were so agitated against M. Descartes, that not one of them failed to show up to the meeting. However, as not all of them had been able to find a comfortable spot, in view of the darkness of the place, there was at first a great confusion. And several beings that have an antipathy the ones for the others, having unfortunately encountered each other, fell into furious combat, which seemed that it could only finish with the total destruction of the party who turned out to be the weakest. Already the Form of Fire, stern enemy of the other Forms, had reduced several of them to howling. Already sundry Accidents were feeling the effects of his violence, and there was only the Form of Water that dared to oppose him. Regrettably the whole place had been closed up, for fear that Sound, who has trouble keeping a secret, might escape, and tell the first person he might encounter what had happened at the conference. But as someone had opened the windows, Light entered, who by her agreeable aspect and brilliant shine brought joy to the whole assembly, and brought out what there was of beauty in that place. The combattants were separated, and each was put in the place that was suitable for him.

Everyone was not yet in his place when Heat declared to the whole company, with much vehemence, that no one knew any longer what to hold to since M. Descartes had published his Roman de la Nature, and had dared to remove from the categories virtually all beings that had been present there; that it was a shameful thing that they had suffered for such a long time, since a new philosopher, disdainful of the whole of wise antiquity, had the resolve to treat as chimerical everything that had been believed up until then about their being and their functions; that it would be necessary to punish this foolhardy man as soon as possible, who had called for their ruin, and to give him to know not only that they existed, but that they had the power to make him perish himself.

The assembly was applauding this plan, when Cold said, with a trembling voice, that we should not move so fast; that M. Descartes had not treated them as badly as they thought; that he had let all of them go on with the same privileges as before; that he was only trying to explain their nature in a more simple and easy manner than those who had preceded him; that he therefore did not understand what this philosopher was guilty of.

Barely had Cold finished speaking, when Heat, his mortal enemy, exposed his error. She maintained that, seeing the matter clearly, M. Descartes was absolutely destroying all the beings that constituted the assembly. For he did not give them any other existence than that of Modified Matter, and of Local Motion, while other philosophers granted truth to Substantial Forms and to the Accidents of material entities, even though they were distinct from Matter and Motion.

As this reasoning appeared decisive, the Occult Qualities stood up in turn, and complained that this new philosophy deprived them of their principal privilege, which consisted in being unknown by learned men. They said that they had always peaceably enjoyed this, and that the great men had never dared to examine the secret channels by which they produced so many wonders; that on the contrary they admitted their ignorance on this subject; that however M. Descartes, being more reckless, or rather less wise than his masters, pretended to discover what had been hidden for so long, and wished to make known and easy to understand everything that was most surprising in the actions of the Occult Qualities: which was properly to deprive them of the admiration that they had won for themselves.

As each one had their reasons for favoring the Occult Qualities, their complaint seemed just. But the one made by Light was judged to be more reasonable still. Who would have thought, she said, that a philosopher would dare to take me on, to deny my existence; can we open our eyes without recognising that I exist? And is it not surprising that there are men who are so ungrateful as to work towards destroying me, even as they are taking advantage of my benefits?

Interrupting Light, Darkness said to her: Descartes never doubted your existence. How could he deny it, since it is about you that he composed his most beautiful Traités de Physique? How then can you then be so indignant against him?

Light replied: It must be that you are very little enlightened, not to see that my complaint is just. I acknowledge that M. Descartes agrees that I exist. He also recognises how useful I am to men and to the other animals. But please, ask him what he thinks of me, and he’ll boldly tell you that I am nothing other than an inclination to motion, or an effort that is made, in order to move, by certain little balls that he imagines are spread around the sun, and in the whole vortex of which this star occupies the center. Is it not, I ask you, to banish me from the universe, when he has me exercise my functions by means of these little bodies, which only subsist in the brain of M. Descartes? Do I not have a being distinct from Matter, and from Motion? And of all the Qualities, is there one that could be compared to me? It is thus with reason that I complain of this new physicist, who does not see as clearly as he thinks, since his eyes are so bad as to attribute to Modified Matter what arises from a Quality as noble and indeed illustrious as I am.

The Colours, those lovable daughters of Light, which derive from their brilliant mother everything they have of radiance and beauty, joined their complaints to hers. They inveighed against M. Descartes for daring to exclude them from the society of beings, and even tried to turn his opinion into something ridiculous. He wishes, they said, that the grass of the fields should be green only during the day, and that the enamel of flowers no longer survive once the night has come. He imagines that the shine of gold, of diamonds, and other precious stones, and every individual colour, is nothing other than a certain sentiment caused by the stronger or weaker reflection of the matter of the second element, and a thousand other similar chimeras that this great philosopher spouts, as so many truths that he pretends to have thoroughly proven. It is in this way that the Colours rejoiced, at the expense of M. Descartes, and it is also here that they were able to turn the entire assembly to their favour, not so much by their reasons as by their liveliness and their agreement.

It was at this point in the conference that there suddenly arose a confused noise, which left everyone stunned. It was Sound, who, wishing to make his own complaint, was only able to groan. They asked him to speak more clearly; and then he said angrily that M. Descartes had caused him to lose his reputation with the philosophers; that among practically no one spoke any more of Sound as a Real Accident; that they attributed all of his actions to certain undulations of the air, or rather to the direct motion of its parts, caused by the agitation of the insensible particles of resonant bodies; and, finally, that everywhere he had been placed at the level of the useless things of nature.

With these words, the Smells, the Tastes, Lightness, Heaviness, and many other Virtues, Qualities, and Accidents rose up; and after having affirmed Sound’s complaint, one of them, speaking in the name of all the others, related the affront that had been done to them in several schools in which the new philosophy had been introduced, where, after having expelled them from among the categories, the philosophers dared to boast about it in their public declarations. He added that these continual encroachments upon their rights was leading to their total ruin, and that such a rebellion against the opinions of the ancients would undoubtedly have dangerous consequences if it was not repressed soon.

The Forms of the Elements, and those of the Mixtures, said that recently they had been treated with the deepest contempt, to the point where they had been relegated to imaginary spaces; that a defender of the ancient doctrine had well said, that what it is that brings it about that each thing resists its contrary, tends to maintain itself in its natural state, and to conserve the qualities that are proper to it, is the Substantial Form; that the others had paid no attention to his reasons, and had asked him, laughing, whether the Form of the magnet had been well instructed as to what it should do in order to conserve its admirable virtue; and that this philosopher, having responded that it knows very well, was asked to consult with it, in order to clarify a number of difficulties concerning this stone that they had proposed to him, and which he had never been able to explain adequately. As the Forms, who were speaking in this way, do not always agree amongst themselves when they meet in the same subject, they thought they might be falling out with one another once again, for the disgrace that they had endured had unconsciously induced them to argue over their privileges. But after a certain number of contestations they came together, and resolved to relinquish their particular interests to the good of the common cause.

The Vegetative Souls, whose party was very considerable, did not content themselves with complaining in their turn; they sought to prove their existence. How, they said, could one explain how a tree or a flower produces a being that is like it, without us? Imagine so many fibres in a plant, or tubes if that pleases you, for the circulation of the juices that ascend in it, you will never be able to conceive how, by this circulation, such a plant could be formed from a seed, if the Vegetative Soul had not taken care of this. This reasoning was found to be solid. And indeed, what could be said in response?

But of all the complaints that had been made up until then against M. Descartes, and against his doctrine, there was none that seemed better founded than that of the Substantial Forms of animals, which are commonly called Sensitive Souls. After these Forms had let loose against the philosopher, without sparing him insults, they mocked his opinion that animals are only machines: as if, they said, nature had made of the bodies of every animal so many marionettes, only moving about by springs. They made use of the reasoning that the Vegetative Souls had brought to bear, and maintined that a horse, for example, could not produce a being that is like it without the aid of the Form. They dilated next upon the industry of birds in making their nest, of the spider in making its web, on the skill of the hare in avoiding the hunter, of the cat in catching the mouse; on the faithfulness of the dog, on the generosity of the lion, and on a thousand other similar examples. Whence they concluded that so many marvellous actions could have no other principle than instinct, or the Substantial and Material Form of these animals.

This discourse was widely applauded. They spoke in the assembly only of the blindness of M. Descartes, and of his stubbornness in holding, with regard to the soul of beasts, to a paradox that is contrary to experience, and to the common view of all times and places. They regarded him as an enemy of the public good, who, in following only his own ideas, had contempt for those great philosophers whose authority alone was of equal weight to the best reasons, and they were on the point of taking up some violent resolution against him.

But Motion –who had been called to that assembly, since nothing could be done without him–, breaking the silence, felt it necessary to oppose the injustice they were about to commit. He said, to begin, that he had no interest in defending the doctrine of M. Descartes; that in any case all of his opinions would be rejected, as philosophy cannot do without Motion; that there was thus room to hope that they would listen to him the more favorably, as he had taken no side; that, moreover, as they were the judges and victims at once, their judgment would appear to have been delivered against all of the rules, if there was no one who had spoken for the accused; that, finally, they should not be offended by what he might say to them, since he was only attempting to give the reasons that had been alleged against their existence, in order to explain the truth. Next he took up in detail what diverse beings of the assembly had put forward in defense of their rights:

If men, he said, were obliged to attach themselves to the opinions of the ancients, it would be impossible for them to perfect the arts and sciences. As they are able every day to make new discoveries, nothing is more advantageous to them than to leave it to the liberty of each person to embellish or correct what their fathers left to them. Thus however guilty M. Descartes is of having abandoned the ancients when he believed them to be in error, he is to be praised, on the contrary, for having set out to scrutinise his reason in the aim of establishing philosophy on solid foundations. He appears to have had no other plan than to lead men to knowledge of the truth, and to provide them the means of finding it.

In this way he showed them the path of his method, and he then proposed an ingenious system for explaining all the phenomena of nature. It is without doubt by this means, and by the experiences that it would be necessary to do every day, as he did, that there are things we may be certain of in physics. And the Occult Qualities make fun, finding it bad that he wished to penetrate into the principles of natural things, without stopping at confused ideas or at the obscure terms that people were in the habit of using.

Why, this philosopher asks, should beings be admitted into the world of which we have no idea, and without which we can do perfectly well? Why do we bother with the Hot, the Cold, the Dry, and the Humid; with Light, Colours, Sound, Odors, Liquidity, Fluidity, Lightness, Heaviness, and an infinite number of other Qualities and Accidents, if all of the actions that we attribute to them can be explained, as it is easy to show, by the various movements and the different figures of the parts of Matter? Moreover who has ever conceived of the nature of these Qualities? What produces them in the body in which they had previously not been? What do they become when this same body acquires the contrary qualities, or is reduced to ashes?

It is a Form that gives rise to them, someone replies; it is another Form that causes them to die.

But what is this Form itself? Motion interjects. Is it a Substance? Is it an Accident? Is it a Mind? Is it a Body? Is it produced anew? What is it composed of? What is it to become? Let us extract ourselves from these difficulties, if we can. And if we cannot, let us admit that these Qualities, and these Forms of Elements, of Mixtures, and of Vegetables, such as they are ordinarily conceived, are fictions and chimeras.

Judging from the air of confidence with which you speak, replied Heat, we see very well that you are persuaded that we have nothing solid to reply to you in favour of Form. Know however that it is better known than you believe. And if you find obscurity in the definitions that are ordinarily given of it, you have only yourself to blame. Form, speaking in general, is the first act of the body that it informs; it is an imperfect substantial act; it is an incomplete substance drawn out of matter by eduction, maintained by this same matter, and essentially destined to constitute a substantial whole with it. The action of another Form brings about this incomplete substance in matter, where it previously was not in actu, but only in potentia. The matter that contained it in potency, received it in actuality, and conserves it after having received it, not by giving it being at each moment, as the First Cause does, but rather in sustaining and conserving the being that it already has. I do not know what happens to it when the composite is destroyed; one could say however that it goes to look for a place in some other portion of matter; or that it dissipates, that it evaporates, that it… in a word, that it ceases to be, since the whole of which it was a part no longer exists.

What light this explanation brings to the mind! shouted Motion. How clear and intelligible these terms are: first act of the body, imperfect substantial act, incomplete substance drawn from matter by eduction, etc. Of course one would be wrong to say that this doctrine of Forms, as well as that of Qualities, is pure gibberish, and a shadowy chaos in which one cannot make anything out.

It is true, Heat interrupted, that the defenders of the three elements, of vortices, of indefinite extension, and of automata, have the right to reject obscure and uncertain principles, those of which the hypothesis is so clear and so solidly established. Whatever the case may be, when we do not know the Form in itself, it is nevertheless plain that it exists. For, again, how do you want a tree to produce another tree if the Form, or the Vegetative Soul, is not involved?

And how is it that you yourself, Motion replied, want such an effect to be able to come from this pretended Soul? Does it know the disposition or the arrangement of the vesicles, the fibres, and the other little vessels of which the body of a plant is composed? Does it know the figure and the motion of the insensible parts of the juices that circulate there in order to nourish it? And if it should know this, does it have the power to move the body, and to arrange the parts as it finds pleasing? And do you take it to be so industrious as to wish to attribute to it the beauty and the inimitable artifice that we notice in the composition of certain flowers?

Do not tell me that one must at least have recourse to a Sensitive Soul in order to explain the propagation of species among animals, the conformation of their organs, and the various motions that they make with so much skill and subtlety. For do you not know that the body of man is formed in its mother, and he believes that it gains strength there, and becomes as perfect as it is when we see it, without the soul contributing anything, at least not directly, and without even knowing its secret springs, its proportions, or its symmetry?

I admit however, without going into any detail, that there is much wisdom and reason to be found in the admirable structure of the bodies of animals, and in many of the actions that they undertake to conserve themselves. But it is this very thing that, proving too much for you, does not prove anything: for it proves that if the Form is the principle that makes the bodies move, it must be reasonable, which the defenders of the Sensitive Soul would not dare, I believe, to maintain. The Form that you suppose is in animals is thus not the cause of their motions. One must agree that this can only be an intelligence that acts in them; I mean that it is the Author of Nature who has disposed the bodies of animals with such a marvelous artifice, that they execute, by the action of exterior objects and according to the laws of mechanics, these motions that are so correct and so ordered that one attributes them to an imaginary Form.

Motion wanted to continue, when someone of the company, outraged with anger from seeing him maintain with so much force the position of M. Descartes, replied that the philosopher, taking his imaginings for certain knowledge, promised more than he could give; that after having made us hope that he would explain everything in a simple and natural manner, he gave an account of physical effects only by certain elements, a certain assemblage of parts, certain motions and certain figures; that this was hardly different from certain Entities, certain Forms, certain Virtues, and certain Qualities. And that after all, by the right of seniority, the Scholastic je-ne-sais-quoishould win out over the Cartesian one.

What? replied Motion. Did M. Descartes not indicate in his system what the figure, the motion, and the order of the three elements is, the first being of which formed the universe? And would it not be better to explain the phenomena of Nature by the situation, the figure, the order, and the motion of the parts of matter, than to take recourse to unknown beings, which would never have had a name, nor a place in the categories, if the ignorance of the philosophers had not taken care to give them one? In the same way, he added, that he who does not know the springs of a watch nevertheless does not believe that there is in this little machine some other thing besides Matter and Motion, similarly one should not look for a principle of many surprising effects other than matter that is figured and disposed in a certain fashion. If we do not know the cause of the actions of animals as perfectly as we know the motions of a watch, this is because these natural machines are moved by a matter so subtle and so agitated that it escapes from the view of even the sharpest eyes; and moreover these machines are made by a hand that is infinitely more excellent than that of the artisan who is most able to make his skill and his invention the object of admiration in artifical machines.

All of Motion’s responses displeased the assembly very much. They could not stand the zeal with which he defended opinions that were so insulting to them. But in order to make him change his view, and to draw him to their side, they made the case to him that he did not know his true interests; that M. Descartes had spared him no more than the others; that he maintained that Motion was not a being distinct from Matter, but only a Mode that was accidental to it; that this was one of the principal points of his system, and that he would never change his view on this matter.

Motion was shaken by this objection that touched him so closely; he tried at first to elude it, but after arguing for a while, finding himself enthusiastically pressed by the others, he admitted that he indeed felt that M. Descartes’s great reputation had blinded him; that he had never really thought about the insult that he had received from this philosopher; that he finally understood the consequences of his doctrine; and that he did not claim to support it in public, nor to approve it in private.

Now that M. Descartes had no more defenders, his defeat was assured. And with their voices gathered together, this unfortunate philosopher was declared the founder and head of a sect in rebellion against the laws of the ancient and true philosophy; a disturber of the order of the Categories; an enemy of the Virtues and Occult Faculties, of Absolute and Non-Absolute Accidents; of Primary and Secondary Qualities; of the Forms of Elements and of Mixtures; of Material Souls either Vegetative or Sensitive, of the Instincts, Incomplete Substances, and in general of all of the Forms both Substantial and Accidental. And as such, he was condemned to endure the punishment that the assembly was to judge appropriate to impose upon him.

With this judgment solemnly pronounced, the only question that remained was the choice of the punishment that the criminal should undergo. The Forms of the most ferocious beasts in the land at first offered to tear M. Descartes to pieces, and to go and rip into him right inside the palace of the queen. But as this approach could have spun out of control, and proved fatal to the conspirators, they rejected this proposition, and resolved to avenge themselves in such a hidden manner that no one would be able to impute the deed to them.

It was at this point that Sound said that if Light wanted to work together with him, the two of them could easily bring it about that the so-called philosopher no longer be seen nor heard, and that he himself could no longer see nor hear.

But Heat did not go in for this idea, and in her impatience to appease her hate and her vengeance, she said to the conspirators: If you wish to permit me, I will act upon the body of M. Descartes with so much violence, and I will bring about such a disorder in his humours, through the combat that I will excite in him between contrary Qualities, that in no time I will be able to liberate you from this formidable enemy.

This was approved by the entire assembly, and it was decided that they would stick with this proposition. They asked Heat to execute this plan as soon as possible, after which each left in turn, according to his rank, and in careful order, so as to avoid further conflicts.

Heat could not have been more diligent. It was soon reported that M. Descartes had a high fever, with inflammation of the brain. And some hours later it was reported that he had died, and all the knowledge that he believed himself to have acquired was unable to prolong his life.

A terrible example, Monsieur, that should make you fear for yourself, if you dare to entertain any longer opinions for which their author paid such a high price. I hope that the story of this fatal conspiracy, about which you wished to learn in detail, has made an impression on your mind, and that it compels you to recognise that it is better to follow safely upon the path that the Ancients have carved out, than to expose ourselves to a thousand dangers in going down new roads.

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