Study Guide

René Descartes Biography

Basic Information

Name

René Descartes

Nickname

"The Father of Modern Philosophy." I would have preferred "The Father of All Philosophy," but I admit it's a lot better than some of the other names I've been called. "The Father of Francine," for example, was one I never liked, given that Francine was my illegitimate daughter born to me by my servant, Helena Jans van der Strom.

In fact, I made sure that I was never, ever referred to by that name; I assured everyone that Francine was only my niece. I know it sounds bad, but come on—I had a whole career ahead of me. And, hey, I had every intention of paying for her education... if she hadn't died before I had the chance.

Then there were some other names Helena called me when she saw how I reacted to being a dad, but those are unprintable.

Sex

Male

Home town

I was born prematurely on March 31, 1596 in La Haye, France. But don't try to find La Haye on your map, since it's now called—what else?—Descartes. And the house I was born in? It's now a museum. (I tend to leave a mark wherever I go.) I spent most of my 20s and early 30s traveling around Europe. After that, I settled down in the Netherlands for the next twenty years, though even there I could never manage to stay in one house for very long. In 1649, Queen Christina invited me to Sweden. Big mistake. That cold was the death of me.

Work & Education

Occupation

I think my true occupation was best expressed early on by yours truly, when I described my life as one devoted to "cultivating reason and advancing as far as I could the knowledge of the truth" (source). Sure, I passed my bar exam, or the equivalent, and could have practiced law. And yes, when I was 22, I did do a brief stint in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau.

But look at this mind. Oh, wait—I proved that I alone can have access to my mind, so I guess you can't look at it. Take my word for it, then—it's a very brilliant mind, far too precious to waste on law or soldiering. In fact, except for a brief stretch at Utrecht University, I haven't even devoted any of my time to teaching. Instead, my adult career has been spent producing books on mathematics, science, and philosophy—lots of them, and very important ones, too.

But I know what you're thinking: "Yeah, right, René. You made your living as a writer, a writer of highbrow works of science and philosophy, no less. Admit it—you've been living in your mom's basement all this time." I get that all the time, but I assure you it is a totally false accusation. I once fought a duel with a man who tried to besmirch my honor, so you better be careful what you say to me.

Now, I will admit that I did not make a lot of money from sales of my books. Okay, I made hardly any, but I really did try to get my Meditations taught as a textbook at the Sorbonne. All right, so I got nearly all my income by selling some property when I was in my late 20s. So what? I definitely was not living in my mom's basement.

Education

When I was 11, I went to La Fleche, a Jesuit college pretty close to home. Like most 11-year-olds—okay, like most brilliant 11 year-olds—I studied philosophy and mathematics, in addition to grammar and the humanities. I graduated from La Fleche in 1614, at the age of 18. I then went to the University of Poitiers and received a baccalaureate and license in civil and canon law. I never wanted to be a lawyer, but getting the degree made my father happy, so why not? It's not like it was hard for me.

After that, I went into the army and spent my spare time studying mathematics with my friend and teacher, Isaac Beeckman. One of the fun little things I came up with was the idea for analytic geometry. Turns out this idea made possible the mathematization of physics and even the development of calculus. Who knew?

In 1629, I went back to college—first at University of Franeker, then at Leiden University—to study astronomy and mathematics. But I realized that the life of the professional student was not for me, since by this point it was clear to me that I knew a lot more than the guys who were supposedly teaching me. Actually, if truth be told, that's pretty much always been the case.

Beliefs

Political views

I've always played it extremely close to the vest when it comes to politics. I've written nothing on political philosophy and hardly anything even on ethics. In fact, I explicitly deny that there can be such a thing as a scientific study of politics (source).

When it comes to stating my own political principles, what you usually find is the kind of bland statement I make in my Discourse on Method: "The first [maxim] was to obey the laws and customs of my country" (source). Now who can disagree with that? Hmmm, maybe I should have gone into politics after all…

Still, no matter what you say or do, people will always insist that you have a political agenda. I'm no exception—people have attributed all kinds of crazy ideas to me. Some people think they've found the seeds of liberalism in my writing; they even say that I laid the groundwork for the French Revolution (source). People, du calme!

The truth is, if you insist on digging into my private views, you will find the few political beliefs that I espouse to be quite conservative. I hold that only the sovereign is properly qualified to address the complexities of politics. And even though our political institutions are far from perfect, my belief is that making any changes to the existing order is generally too risky to be worthwhile (source).

In short, my attitude toward political change is: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if it is broke—still don't fix it." Now, I'm sure you don't like hearing that. That's why I keep my views to myself.

Religious views

You wouldn't suppose I could have gotten into any trouble in the area of religion. Throughout my life I have been a devout Roman Catholic, and I state this in print. In my Meditations, I include not one, but two—two!—lengthy proofs of God's existence. I even appeal to the notion of God in my attempt to establish the existence of the external world (source).

You might think that would be enough, but nope. Predictably, I was criticized and accused—by Catholic and Protestant thinkers alike—of being an atheist, or at least a deist. I was constantly in danger for my views on astronomy, despite my best efforts to disguise the degree to which these views challenged Church dogma.

And it got worse—way worse. Beginning in 1539, a Calvinist theologian by the name of Gisbertus Voetius started criticizing my ideas as they were expounded by one of my admirers, Henricus Regius. Voetius claimed that I was secretly an atheist, and he banned professors at the University of Utrecht from teaching my philosophy.

So, I wrote a little piece exposing some of Voetius's errors. What else was I to do? All right, I shouldn't have implied that he was a dummy and was only out to cause trouble. But my arguments were valid.

In any case, Voetius' dislike of my ideas turned into a vicious hatred. He sued me for defamation. I feared I might even be on my way to the slammer. So I swallowed my pride and wrote a letter "apologizing" to Voetius (I still get nauseated thinking about that). But I still had to get out of the Netherlands, so in 1649, when Queen Christina of Sweden offered me a position in her court, I gratefully accepted.

Nice place, Sweden, but did I mention it's cold there?

Activities & Interests

Likes

Truth (especially when discovered by myself)
Absolute certainty
Casting aside long-held belief systems
My own startlingly original intellect
Lengthy discussions of my startlingly original intellect
Traveling
Dueling
Dalliances with servants
Existing (as an immaterial substance, in particular)
Tangents—but only of the mathematical variety
Being alone
Making enemies
Manipulating friends

Dislikes

Aristotelian Scholastic philosophers
Having to accept the beliefs of others, especially those of Aristotelian Scholastics
Religious authorities
Staying at the same address for more than a year
Getting up before 11 a.m.
Cold weather
Fatherhood
Commitment (at least to other human beings)
The prospect of being burned at the stake for my philosophical views
Being criticized
Conceding a point in an argument
Being unappreciated for my discoveries

Interests

Metaphysics
Mathematics
Astronomy
Physics
Optics
Psychology
Physiology

Groups

Continental Rationalists
All-Time Top 10 Mathematicians
Founders of the Modern Age
Natural Philosophers
Philosophers with Highly Unappealing Personalities