Girls Guide to City Life


Arnold Geulincx (or Arnout as his name occurs in Dutch) was nearly fifteen when he left his home town of Antwerp and registered as a student at Leuven University in January 1641. His college, the Lily, stood right at the heart of the old city of Leuven, where Bondgenotenlaan runs into Foch Square today.

Arnold was a very promising student. He obtained his licentiate in philosophy in November 1643, finishing second best among 159 students and leaving only Gijsbert Plemp, the brother of Descartes’ Amsterdam acquaintance and later Leuven adversary Vopiscus Fortunatus Plemp, in front of him. Apart from these few facts, which occur in university documents, our information concerning Geulincx as a student and lecturer in Leuven is scarce and must be distilled from his writings.

About his childhood in Antwerp too, we can only speculate. Visiting the site where he grew up today, we may still taste the atmosphere of Antwerp’s old and busy inner city. The lively surroundings of the famous harbour must have been even more exhilarating at the time when Antwerp’s port was situated right next to the city along the banks of the Schelde. Despite the domination of the Northern Netherlands, which had taken control of the river’s left bank in what is now known as Zeeuws Vlaanderen (the Dutch part of Flanders), trade and traffic was still quite strong in Geulincx’ days. The small alleys between Hendrik Conscienceplein and the Grote Markt, right next to the old Jesuit school which nowadays houses the City Library, have a particular charm of their own and suggest a peaceful and pleasantly parochial life within the more urban ambiance of the town.

Arnold’s father may not have been home very often. Jan Geulincx was the city’s messenger to Brussels, a postman to the municipality, who will no doubt have delivered letters and goods for individual customers as well. The family was quite well-off, but that did not hinder Arnold’s parents to come and join him in their old home town of Leuven once their son attained the post of professor of philosophy.

Geulincx’ first years as a lecturer in the Lily give us the impression the he felt at home in the university environment. What is certain, in any case, is that he developed a sportive taste for academic dispute.

The first of Geulincx’ published works is an Oratio together with a series of academic disputations, both held at the time when their author had just been appointed senior professor of philosophy at Lily College in 1652. The complete work was published twice, first in Antwerp in 1653 as Quæstiones Quod-libeticæ and then a second time, in 1665, in Leiden, as Saturnalia. In the Preface to the second edition, Geulincx informs us that he has, by then, developed a rather low opinion of its contents. He stresses that he was ‘young and hardly a man’ when he had first written the Quæstiones and that he now regards much of it as a form of enthusiastically inspired poetry, in which he had been ‘panting’ rather than ‘pleading’.

That, however, was more or less what he had been asked to do. In fact, the title of ‘Saturnalia’ refers to the original occasion for which the lecture and the disputations were held. As an end-of-the-year activity, the so-called Saturnalia formed a festive part of the academic program at Leuven University. Under the guidance of a professor especially appointed for this task, students were allowed to discuss frivolous matters. In 1652, the new primarius Geulincx was appointed for the job.

Frivolous as, indeed, both the style and the content sometimes are, the work nevertheless presents us with an extraordinary collection of original ideas. Geulincx evidently took the opportunity to put forward some views which, though very dear to him, he would probably not have been able to put forward in his everyday lectures on Aristotelian philosophy.

The first of Geulincx’ Orationes is a lecture in the late humanistic style which was the norm in Leuven, the city of Lipsius and, at the time, of his successor, Putanæus. Yet it is not so much the style, but rather the sheer vastness of the vocabulary that will dazzle the modern reader. Geulincx himself proclaimed that his Latin was as good as his Flemish and even better suited for academic work. We may well believe him, but we may also wonder how many of the young boys in his audience were really following what was said.

In the Oratio, Geulincx pictures the dramatic event of a lawsuit before the tribunal of Philosophy. The Love of Wisdom is to judge the fate of three ‘Geniuses’ who have led mankind into error. The first defendant brought before him is Pantomimus, a ‘genius’ of conceit. This spirit is a handsome dancer, an actor. His crime is to have seduced the public in going along in a play of pretense. The theater-genius is always dressing up things, and his specialty is to transform inanimate things into living creatures. Thus, he has convinced mankind that everything in the world is alive and animated. As a result of his efforts of make-believe, people have been led to think that rivers, seas and storms have personalities and minds, like humans have.

Geulincx gives various examples of this ‘El Niño’-type of personification, pointing out that not only Barbarians and Worshippers of Nature, but Romans, and even Greeks and Christians are prone to the same sort of superstition. Pantomimus’ trade, says Geulincx, is poetry, not truth. It is quite all right to depict objects as being animated if this is done for fun, but Pantomimus has really gone too far. He should have stayed in the theater. As the prosecutor points out to him: ‘Beautiful boy, you were born to play; which insane ambition has driven you to gain the position of a leader, for which you are not qualified?’

Pantomimus defends himself by saying that he has, indeed, misled the general public. But the public needs to be misled. It needs to be steered with a bit and a whip. So, Pantomimus argues, ‘What does it matter to this court? I have never misled philosophers!’

Geulincx’ reply to this is devastating. He argues that he will not discuss the genius’ silly Machiavellian politics. As for philosophy, however, Geulincx asks, ‘Do you want me to bring forward the Stoics, who regarded Justice, Mercy, and the other virtues as some type of living beings? Do you want me to bring to mind the old Pythagorases and Platos, or, from our own day and age, the Keplers and the Campanellas, some of whom devised a faculty of sense in the stars and in the planets, others in plants and others in the elements, and in stones and metals as well?

Philosophy is full of unwarranted anthropomorphisms. Even Aristotelian philosophers have allowed themselves to be deceived. For them, our playful genius has contrived many forms of ‘animation’: Determining and resisting factors in nature, high ranking and insignificant essences, sympathies, antipathies and intelligences. Moreover, form and matter are thought to strive after each other; water to demand coldness; stones to desire heaviness and to make a spontaneous effort to go downwards; they are only ‘thrusted upwards or kept there by violence.’

Geulincx argues that the Aristotelian view of nature is full of anthropomorphic projections. Even in his pre-Cartesian years, the young philosopher was well aware of the sharp divide between the mental and the physical. It was only in his later years, and under the influence of René Descartes, that Geulincx would draw ethical conclusions from this metaphysical insight. In 1665, the year in which he became professor of philosophy in Leiden, Geulincx published his first Treatise of Ethics, an extremely original work and a landmark in early modern western philosophy. He was to publish his own Dutch translation of the book only two years later, but never finished his Ethics as a whole. In the plagued that decimated the Leiden population in the fall of 1669, Geulincx died at the age of 45.

by Han van Ruler