Alternate Title

Worthy of Throwing Richelieu Into Fits : Descartes’ Letter to Guez de Balzac

Document Type


Publication Date


Published In

Littératures Classiques


Descartes’ work reveals profound changes in seventeenth century concepts of knowledge, social relations, and language. Given that the advent of a metaphysical subject is, in the Cartesian system, bound with a definition of the social aims of philosophy, which entails a rhetoric capable of representing this philosophy to a larger, general public of individual subjects, my study of the optical tropes in a letter written to Guez de Balzac from Amsterdam, on May 5, 1631, suggests that the question of the autonomy of the subject with regard to the State – a State defined by the consolidation of Cardinal Richelieu’s power and a theory of Louis XIII’s sovereignty – is also central to the letter. Two other letters, one written by Richelieu, in which the cardinal strikingly describes Guez de Balzac’s rhetoric in terms of optics ; the other written by Descartes on the topic of Balzac’s rhetoric, in which one can sense great distrust towards an authority which seems to be political in nature, support this interpretation. Finally, in view of Descartes’ stated admiration for Dutch economic laissez-faire in his letter to Balzac, this paper suggests how to better understand the way Cartesianism, and its rhetoric, fit in the context of early modern capitalism.


This work is freely available courtesy of Armand Colin.