René Descartes: French Philosopher, Mathematician, and Writer

René Descartes was born in 1595 in La Haye en Touraine (now known as Descartes), France. He contracted tuberculosis from his mother, who died a few days after he was born, and remained weak for the rest of his life.

From the age of eight, he was educated at the Jesuit college of La Flèche, Anjou, where he began the habit of spending each morning in bed, due to his poor health, doing “systematic meditation” — about philosophy, science, and mathematics.

He followed the usual course of studies, which included five or six years of grammar school, including Latin and Greek grammar, classical poets, and Cicero, followed by three years of philosophy curriculum. By rule, the Jesuit curriculum was based on the philosophy of Aristotle, and divided into the then-standard topics of logic, morals, physics, and metaphysics. The Jesuits also included mathematics in the final three years of study.

Descartes later claimed that his education gave him little of substance and that only mathematics had given him certain knowledge. In this lament he joins a chorus of seventeenth century philosophers including Bacon, Hobbes and Locke.

His family wanted Descartes to be a lawyer, like his father and many other relatives. To this end, he went to Poitiers to study law, and obtained a degree in 1616. But he never practiced law or entered into the governmental service such practice would make possible. Instead, he became a gentleman soldier, moving in 1618 to Breda, to support the Protestant Prince Maurice against the Catholic parts of the Netherlands (later, Belgium), which were controlled by Spain — a Catholic land, like France, but at this point an enemy.

In 1649, he was invited to teach Queen Christina of Sweden, but her early-morning demands on his time, combined with a harsh climate, worsened his health; he died on 11 February 1650. Officially, the cause of death was pneumonia, but some historians believe that he was poisoned to stop the Protestant Christina converting to Catholicism.

Key works:

  • 1637 Discourse on the Method
  • 1662 De Homine (written 1633)
  • 1647 The Description of the Human Body
  • 1649 Passions of the Soul

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