In identifying certain historical persons involved with Rosicrucianism we need to keep in mind that because of various religious and political persecutions of centuries past, Rosicrucians, for obvious reasons, were sworn to secrecy regarding their membership. Even known Rosicrucian apologists such as Robert Fludd and Michael Maier never publicly verified their Rosicrucian affiliation.
And yet, we know that a number of historical figures were Rosicrucian, and if one looks closely there are various references suggesting Rosicrucian affiliation that are often overlooked by historians as being insignificant. For example, the Royal Society of today is derived from the efforts of a group of known Rosicrucians: Theodore Haak, John Pell, and Samuel Hartlib, to name but a few. The group was first known as the "Invisible College," later as the "Rosicrucian College," and finally as the "Royal Society" a name conferred by King Charles II in 1662.
In researching certain individuals and their associates or colleagues, a distinct pattern or trend can be observed as the result of association or affiliation with a particular movement. In the case of the Royal Society, there are definite Rosicrucian undercurrents involved.
Quite frequently today, individuals such as Isaac Newton or Rene Descartes are looked upon primarily from scientific or philosophical viewpoints and less so from biographical or historical points of view. Biographies of such historically prominent individuals often concentrate on their scientific or philosophical contributions to civilization, often ignoring other aspects of their lives.
In researching and discussing the Rosicrucian affiliation of someone, say, like Descartes, we must realize that the Confraternity of the Rose Cross is a modernized version of age-old Rosicrucianism, organized to meet the needs of today. In the time of Descartes, the Order was quite differently structured than it is now. In those historic times the Order was not centralized, and in those dangerous times there were no membership cards or outer signs of Rosicrucian affiliation. The necessity for those Rosicrucians to remain secretive about their membership has made it extremely difficult for today's historians to document personal Rosicrucian affiliation.
Also the term "Rosicrucian" has often been used generically. An individual might be considered to be "Rosicrucian" because of the nature of his or her ideals--which might happen to coincide with (and thus help perpetuate) the traditional ideals of Rosicrucianism. This is partially what is meant when we refer to the traditional history of Rosicrucianism.
However, I feel that much of the traditional history of the Order throughout the centuries can be documented, even though the research can be quite difficult and complex.
In reference to Descartes, much has been written about his association with the Rosicrucians; however nothing has really been resolved. Much of this confusion stems from Descartes' reclusive and somewhat contradictory nature. On the one hand he denied ever having contacted the Rosicrucians, while on the other hand he is said to have set out on a search for the Order. As a result, historians through the centuries have either supported Descartes' Rosicrucian association or emphatically denied it. Perhaps one of the most revealing works on the subject is Henri Gaston Gouhier's Les Premieres Pensees de Descartes ("The First Thoughts of Descartes"), published in 1958. Most of the book is devoted to the Rosicrucian subject and is a legendary research, in part, from a notebook kept by Descartes at the tender age of twenty-three (1619). Unfortunately, Gouhier does not tell us where he acquired the journal, or its present location.
It should be mentioned, however, that Gouhier's book is consistent with what is known about the accounts of Descartes' life, and the work is the last in a line of several works concentrating upon Descartes' Rosicrucian connection. The first published mention of the subject is in 1624 in Dr. Nicolaes Wassenar's Historich Verhal, where the author claimed that Descartes was indeed a Rosicrucian. It should be noted that Nicolaes Wassenar is thought to be the father of Jacob Wassenar, a member of the Rosicrucian Circle in Holland. Jacob Wassenar was also a close friend of Descartes.
The French historian Charles Adam believed that Descartes was a Rosicrucian, but states that it cannot be proven. However, Adam felt that what could be proven practically makes it certain that Descartes was indeed a member. To be more specific, Adam is referring to Descartes' associations with such known Rosicrucians as Cornelius van Hooghelande (whose father published works on alchemy), Jacob Wassenar, Isaac Beekman, and Johann Faulhaber, to name but a few.
Other historians have researched the above point, and it certainly was a popular topic in the Netherlands, France, and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. However, in more recent times such research has lost its appeal, and presently in England and the United States any mention made concerning Descartes and the Rosicrucians is only made in passing--mainly because the emphasis of research is placed upon Descartes' philosophical contributions rather than upon historical and biographical material. However, regardless of where the emphasis of research is placed, there remain certain aspects of Descartes' life which must be considered. By utilizing the various methods to prove Rosicrucian affiliation, written verification by Descartes is not conclusive at this time. We do know, however, that Descartes was preoccupied at an early age with Rosicrucianism, as were many other individuals influenced by the Rosicrucian manifestos that were published at that time. Descartes had set out in search of the Rosicrucians, and had made contacts with Beekman and Wassenar in Holland, Faulhaber in Germany, and a circle of others. Also, contact was made with Jan Baptista van Helmont, the famous Rosicrucian who tried to reconcile the differences between the mystical and naturalist Rosicrucians.
The friendships that Descartes made with various Rosicrucian at an early age were retained throughout his life. This fact alone leads one to believe that Descartes' interest in Rosicrucianism indeed remained alive. Cornelius van Hooghelande, a Dutch doctor who was one of Descartes' closest friends for many years, was actively involved in the study of alchemy, and both he and his father claimed to be Rosicrucians. When Descartes departed Holland for Sweden in 1649, he left for safekeeping with Hooghelande a trunk containing personal correspondence and private written material which Descartes wanted no one to read. It will be interesting to discover someday what it was that Descartes actually left behind in that mysterious trunk. Unfortunately, its whereabouts are presently unknown. We can only speculate as to its contents, but perhaps the written verification of Rosicrucian affiliation could be found there.
It should be noted that the German philosopher Leibnitz may have had access to some of Descartes' obscure works as he is known to have made some interesting remarks concerning Descartes' philosophy and beliefs. This is not surprising since Leibnitz seems to have had access to various hard-to-find manuscripts. Leibnitz was a close friend of, Francis Mercurius van Helmont, the son of Jan Baptista van Helmont.
In reference to lost manuscripts, in 1620 Descartes wrote a mathematical treatise dedicated to the Rosicrucians entitled "Polybiicosmopolitani Thesaurus Mathematicus." All that survives today is the title.
Another close associate of Descartes, Johann Faulhaber, a mathematics professor at Ulm, dedicated his work, Mysterium Arithmeticum (1615), to the "most enlightened and famous Brothers R.C." Other associates of Descartes included Jan Amos Comenius, a Czech theologian and teacher, and a circle of English followers, including John Pell, Samuel Hartlib, and Theodore Haak. This circle of friends has been credited with the original idea leading to the formation of the Royal Society the original idea actually coming from Theodore Haak. Descartes maintained considerable correspondence with John Pell and, on at least one occasion, had met with Comenius in Holland.
Other references concerning Descartes' Rosicrucian association are mentioned in a book by a Doctor Meyer, published in 1911. Also Pierre Daniel Huet, in his memoirs published in 1692, made many references concerning Descartes and his Rosicrucian connections. Huet also wrote that he felt Descartes did not die in 1650, but faked his funeral and went to northern Sweden where he devoted the remainder of his life to the study of occult subjects. Other writers have suggested the same theory, citing letters written in 1652 and 1656 between Descartes and his benefactress, Queen Christina of Sweden. These letters are supposedly published in Adam and Tannery's Oeuvres de Descartes ("Works of Descartes"). This work has never been fully translated into English.
It appears that Frances Yates bases her conclusions concerning Descartes on specific source material that can be traced to Haldane and Ross' work, The Life and Times of Descartes, first published in 1905. And that source is taken from the first biography of Descartes, written by Adrian Baillet in 1692, certainly the conclusions are the same. However, the subject of Rosic Tucianism still remains obscure in those writings since the authors were unfamiliar with it. Nevertheless, I believe that in keeping with Charles Adam's conclusions, the existing proof is that Descartes was indeed a Rosicrucian. Certainly in line with Adam and Tannery, Gouhier, and even Yates, the subject needs more extensive research utilizing all sources in considering the subject in more detail.
From the book "Awakened Attitude" by Gary L Stewart.