RENÉ DESCARTES (1596-1650)



House in which Descartes was born


Family Background

René Descartes was born on the 31st of March 1596. He was born in his maternal grandmother's house in the town of La Haye, in the Touraine (area surrounding Tours), in France, to parents Joachim and Jeanne Descartes.


Statue of Descartes in Tours


He was named after one of his godfathers, René Brochard des Fontaines. In 1801 the town's name was changed to La Haye-Descartes, and in 1967 it was changed to simply Descartes. The house in which he was born is now a small museum.



His father Joachim Descartes, whose house was at nearby Châtellerault, was the son of a doctor, and was Counsellor at the Parliament of Brittany at Rennes. He was not a nobleman, but the rank of chevalerie was eventually granted to the family in 1668. His mother Jeanne Descartes (née Brochard) was the daughter of the lieutenant-general of the garrison of Poitiers.


René believed that his mother had died having him, but in fact she died giving birth to another son (who also died) the following year. He spent most of his childhood at La Haye, with his brother Pierre and sister Jeanne. His father remarried and René had a half-brother, Joachim, and a half-sister, Anne.



Education at La Flèche

René was of delicate health as a child. He claimed that he had an "infirmity of the lungs" which he inherited from his mother and which gave him a "dry cough and a pale complexion" that lasted until his twenties. This was possibly tuberculosis. He went to the college at La Flèche, which is due north of Tours, in Easter 1607, at the age of eleven (there is some dispute about this date however). La Flèche was a Jesuit college which had between twelve and fourteen hundred students.




René did not have to rise at 5.00 a.m. as the other students did. Instead he was allowed to have breakfast in his private room and emerge to attend mass at 10.00 a.m. because of his ill-health. This habit of staying in bed in the morning with the windows open remained with him for life.


At La Flèche in addition to grammar (three years), humanities (one year) and rhetoric (one year), he studied philosophy for three years, and also mathematics. Philosophy consisted of logic, scholastic physics, and metaphysics and ethics.


In 1611 a collection of poems was published by the humanities class of 1610-11, on the anniversary of the death of the college's founder, Henry IV, and Descartes may have written the sonnet that invoked Galileo's discovery in 1610 of the satellites of Jupiter, made possible by the first advances in the telescope: "For God has taken him wholly from the earth / And in Jupiter's sky he now shines / To serve mortals as a heavenly torch".



Training in Law

René finished at La Flèche perhaps in 1615. He studied law at Poitiers and passed with honours the two consequetive examinations for his baccalauréat degree and his licence in law on the 10th and 11th of October 1616. René had a dedication to his godfather, René Brochard des Fontaines, with his theses for the licence. His godfather, who was a councillor of the king at the presidial of Poitiers, and who was childless, paid for the graduation ceremony. René did not enter the practice of law, however. He probably rejoined his family, who lived at Rennes where his father worked, and at Sucé, near Nantes, the family home of his stepmother. During this time he rode horses, learned how to fence, etc. -- the sort of things that a young gentleman would learn how to do.



In 1618 René went to Breda, in Holland, and joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. In Holland in November he met Isaac Beeckman, newly graduated physician and scholar, who was impressed with his mathetical ability and encouraged him to devote himself to questions in mechanics and hydraulics. In that year René composed a short treatise on music, the Compedium Musicae (Summary of Music), at his request.

The following year, travelling in Germany, he wintered at Neuberg-on-Danube, and after a "marvellous discovery" that filled him with "enthusiasm" he had two nights of dreams on November 10th and 11th. He considered these dreams to be prophetic and decided to "devote all of my life to cultivating reason and advancing as far as I could the knowledge of the truth".




By 1622 René was back in Paris, where he fought a duel but showed mercy to his disarmed opponent. He travelled to Italy from March 1623 to may 1625, and afterwards became known to leading thinkers in France through his friendship with Marin Mersenne, a ploymath Catholic priest (also an alumnus of La Fléche).



Regulae and Le Monde

In 1628 left France for Holland, which became his home, although he made some return trips to France from time to time. About this time he composed the Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind/Native Intelligence). In 1629 he enrolled at the University of Franeker as "René Descartes, Français, philosophe". He was apparently working on a treatise concerning "the existence of God and of our souls when they are separate from our bodies – from which their immortality follows" (letter to Mersenne, 25th November 1630). He believed that he had what he needed to establish "the foundations of physics" (letter to Mersenne, 15th April 1630). However he became interested in more purely scientific matters, such as rainbows, at this time, as well as anatomy, and began work on a long scientific treatise entitled Le Monde (The World). He also enrolled at the University of Leiden as a mathematician on 27th June 1930.



René had completed work on his major project, Le Monde, which included a section known as Le Traité de l'Homme (Treatise on Man) that explained the workings of the human body in strictly physical and mechanical terms, by 1633, when he heard, when trying to buy a copy of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), that all copies had been burnt and that Galileo had been sentenced on the 22nd June 1633 by the Inquisition in Rome to house-arrest in the Palace of the Archbishop of Sienna.


"I was so astonished that I almost decided to burn all of my papers or at least to let no one see them. For I could not imagine that he – an Italian and, as I understand, in the good graces of the Pope – could have been made a criminal for any other reason than that he tried, as he no doubt did, to establish that the earth moves. I know that some Cardinals had already censured this view, but I thought that I had heard it said that all the same it was being taught publicly even in Rome. I must admit that if the view is false, so too are the entire foundations of my philosophy, for it can be demonstrated from them quite clearly. And it is so closely interwoven in every part of my treatise that I could not remove it without rendering the whole work defective. But for all the world I did not want to publish a discourse in which a single word could be found that the Church would have disapproved of; so I preferred to suppress it rather than to publish it in a mutilated form. I have never had an inclination to produce books, and would never have completed it if I had not been bound by a promise to you and some of my other friends; it was my desire to keep my word to you that constrained me all the more to work at it. But after all I am sure that you will not send a bailiff to force me to discharge my debt, and you will perhaps be quite glad to be relieved of the trouble of reading wicked doctrines." (Letter to Mersenne, November 1633)


Although he abandoned publication of Le Monde, and not all of it remains, he nevertheless used parts of it in his later work, the Discourse.



Personal tragedy

On 19th June 1635, in Deventer, a serving woman, Hélène Jans, gave birth to an illegimiate daughter fathered by René (on the 15th October 1634 in Amsterdam, as he recorded). The daughter's name was Francine. He passed her off as his "niece", and planned for her to be educated in France. However she died of scarlet fever on 7th September 1640.



Although he had abandoned his plan to publish Le Monde, René did have to hand three related scientific essays. He planned to write a "preface" to these essays that would take the form of a "history of [his] mind" and that would demonstrate his scientific method. This was to become the Discours de la Méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la véritee dans les sciences... ("Discourse on the Method of rightly conducting one's reason and seeking truth in the sciences..."), with three accompanying essays that were presented as essays in the method (La Dioptrique ("the Optics"), Les Météores ("The Meteorology") and La Géométrie ("The Geometry"), published in Leiden in June 1637.


It was in the Discourse that he wrote: "Je pense, donc je suis". This may be translated as "I think, therefore I am" or "I am thinking, therefore I am". (Note, however, that this is in French, not in Latin. The Latin expression "Cogito ergo sum", may be found in the Principles of Philosophy (1644)). His name did not appear on the Discourse.





In 1638 René decided to "clarify" what readers of the Discourse had not fully understood. He also set himself to complete his early unfinished metaphysics, and explain the source of error in us. This project became the Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), with Objections and Replies, published originally in 1641.


The Latin translation of his name, "Renati Des-Cartes", appeared on the cover. For this reason, his philosophy was known as "Cartesian". The orginal edition had the subtitle "In which the existence of God, and the immortality of the human soul, are demonstrated", and had six sets of objections with six sets of replies. However, the second edition of 1642 had the subtitle "In which the existence of God, and the distinction between the human soul and body, are demonstrated", and had an additional set of objections and replies, making them seven in total. A French translation was published in 1647.



It was René's ambition that his philosophy be taught at Jesuit colleges, and so in 1644 he produced essentially a textbook version of the arguments of the Discourse and Meditations, with more scientific material on the world, entitled Principia Philosophia (Principles of Philosophy), in 1644. The Principles offered as a hypothesis that Earth is a "planet" and that the sun is a "fixed star". For the French translation in 1647 Descartes composed a letter in which he compared philosophy to a tree: metaphysics was the roots, physics was the trunk, and medicine, mechanics and morals were the branches.


Princess Elizabeth and the Passions

By 1643 he had started to correspond with exiled Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Frederick, Count Palatine and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, who had been deposed from the throne of Bohemia after 1619. She pressed him on the subject of the union of the soul and the body, and encouraged him to develop his ideas on the subject of ethics and on the passions. A treatise that he originally wrote for her in May 1646 was eventually expanded into Les Passions de l'âme (The Passions of the Soul) in 1649.


Nature abhors a vaccum

According to Cartesian physics, matter is a "plenum", that is, it is full. This is true of, for example, the air around us, just as it is true of rocks: it is all completely full. Consequently, there can be no vacuum. Descartes learned that Blaise Pascal had managed to reproduce at Rouen an Italian experiment that showed that a vacuum could exist. When Pascal came to Paris Descartes visited him. Descartes argued that "subtle matter" was slipping through into the top of the tube; this was ridiculed by Roberval in Pascal's presence (Pascal was tired).


Final Work

René started work on a treatise on the formation of the human foetus (the body, at least), entitled Description du corps humain (Description of the Human Body) in 1648. On 16th April 1648 he had a long conversation about his works with a student called Frans Burman, the notes of which were kept and later published as Conversation with Burman. In September of this year his constant correspondent, editor and friend, Mersenne, died.


Final Days

René was invited by Queen Christina of Sweden to visit Stockholm in 1649. He decided to wait until the winter before travelling there, until he had finished the manuscript of the Passions. He may have begun his unfinished dialogue, La Recherche de la Verité (Search for Truth), essentially a dialogue version of his philosophy, there.


Because the Queen was often occupied with other business, and wanting to give full attention to philosophy, she arranged for her lessons to be at 5.00 a.m. René was staying at the French embassy opposite the Royal Palace, and had to take a carriage over the bridge to get to Palace each morning. He caught a cold, succumbed to a chill and died on the 11th February, 1650.


He was first buried in Stockholm, and then later after the Queen's abdication his corpse was brought to Paris and interred at the Abbey of Ste. Geneviève. In 1819 his remains were laid in the church of St. Germain-des-Prés, but it was noted at this point that the skull had gone missing. In 1821 (?) a skull turned up in Stockholm later bearing the inscription "René Descartes". It was bought by the Swedish chemist Berzelius, who offered it to be placed with the rest of the remains. However the skull was kept, and is often put on display at the Museum of Natural History in France.



Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève, "Descartes' life and the development of his philosophy", in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 21-58.

_________________, Descartes: His Life and Thought, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998)