Dangerous Enthusiasm: An Aspect of the Clash between Cartesianism and Orthodoxy at Utrecht University
Henk van den Belt
The Utrecht Crisis
Reformed orthodoxy determined the identity of Utrecht University in the seventeenth century. Part of the confessionalization, the political and cul- tural embedding of Roman-Catholicism and Protestantism during the sec- ond half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries, was the forming of universities characterized by the prevailing confession in the country to which they belonged. Utrecht University was instituted at the end of this period and immediately faced a crisis, because its Reformed identity, intertwined with the philosophical tradition of Christian Aristotelianism was challenged by the rise of Cartesianism.1 The clash that resulted from the con- frontation of the old Aristotelian paradigm with the modern paradigm of the emerging Enlightenment rocked the young university.2
1 Christian Aristotelianism here stands for Christian philosophy from the late Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. It was not exclusively rooted in the historical philosophy of Aristotle, but it depended on the use of Aristotelian distinctions. Cf. Richard A. Muller, ‘Reformation, Orthodoxy, “Christian Aristotelianism,” and the Eclecticism of Early Modern Philosophy,’ in: Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis 81 (2001), pp. 306–325. 2 On the clash, commonly called the ‘Utrecht Crisis’, cf. Theo Verbeek, Descartes and the Dutch: Early Reactions to Cartesian Philosophy, 1637–1650 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992). For a discussion of skepticism and atheism in relation to the Utrecht Crisis, cf. Theo Verbeek, ‘From “Learned Ignorance” to Scepticism; Descartes and Calvinist Orthodoxy,’ in Richard H. Popkin and Arjo Vanderjagt (eds), Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 1993), pp. 31–45, and Theo Verbeek, ‘Descartes and the Problem of Atheism: The Utrecht Crisis,’ in: Nederlands Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis 71 (1991), pp. 211–223. Johan van Ruler offers a philosophical analysis of the conflict from the perspective of the idea of causality, depending on published materials by Verbeek and others. Johan A. van Ruler, The Crisis of Causality: Voetius and Descartes on God, Nature and Change (Leiden: Brill, 1995), p. 34. Andreas Beck discusses the Crisis from the per- spective of Voetius. Andreas J. Beck, Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676): sein Theologieverständnis und seine Gotteslehre (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), pp. 65–72.
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The controversy started over the teachings of Henricus Regius (1598–1679), an early admirer of Descartes and professor of medicine in Utrecht. In 1641 he held a series of disputations in which he also discussed philosophical issues, (1) claiming that the human mind and body are two distinct substances which are joined together in an ‘accidental union’, (2) advocating a Copernican cos- mology, and (3) denying the existence of so-called substantial forms. The first issue formed a problem for the Christian doctrine of the resurrec- tion, that presupposes the unity of body and soul, the second conflicted with texts in the Bible that implied that the earth does not move, and the third was rejected because—according to Christian Aristotelianism—every substance consists of form and matter and forms must be substantial, because matter cannot exist without form.3 The third issue, of course, had to do with the first, because orthodoxy saw the soul as the substantial form of the body. Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676) the rector of Utrecht University was dissat- isfied with Regius’s Cartesianism and asked Martinus Schoock (1614–1669) to write against Descartes.4 His anonymous work was titled ironically The Admirable Method of the New Philosophy of René Descartes.5 The attacked French philosopher responded with his Epistola ad Voetium, sharply criticiz- ing the Utrecht theologian who he thought to be the author of Admiranda methodus.6
3 Theo Verbeek, De wereld van Descartes: Essays over Descartes en zijn tijdgenoten (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996), 65–69. Descartes advised Regius not to reject the sub- stantial forms explicitly but to provide arguments from which could be concluded that they are superfluous. Desmond M. Clarke, Descartes: A Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 223–224. 4 On Martinus Schoock, cf. Henri Adriën Krop, ‘Martinus Schoock: scholasticus tegen wil en dank,’ in: Geschiedenis van de wijsbegeerte in Nederland 14 (2003), pp. 57–70, and Henri Adriën Krop, ‘Meer dan van Plato en Aristoteles een vriend van de waarheid: Martinus Schoock (1640–1666) een Groningse wijsgeer op het kruispunt van tradities,’ in: Arend Hendrik Huussen, Onderwijs en onderzoek: studie en wetenschap aan de academie van Groningen in de 17e en 18e eeuw (Hilversum: Verloren, 2003), pp. 127–159. 5 (Martinus Schoock), Admiranda methodus novae philosophiae Renati Des Cartes (Utrecht: Van Waesberg, 1643). Theo Verbeek has offered a French trans.: Martinus Schoock ‘L’Admirable Méthode,’ in: Martinus Schoock, Rene Descartes, La Querelle d’Utrecht: Rene Descartes et Martin Schoock, ed. Theo Verbeek (Paris: Impressions nouvelles, 1988), pp. 153– 320. Many important quotations from the Admiranda methodus are offered in the footnotes of the critical edition of Descartes’ Epistola ad G. Voetium, in: Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (eds), Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: J. Vrin, 1964–), VIII/2, pp. 3–198. 6 Descartes regarded the book as a work of Voetius and complained about it to the magistrate of Utrecht. Schoock testified under oath that he and not his colleague was the author. A year