The Life of René Descartes
René Descartes was born at La Haye, a small town in Touraine, France. As a young man, Descartes received a good Scholastic education at the Jesuit college of La Flèche, one of the most famous schools in Europe. He admired his teachers greatly but was dissatisfied with the course of instruction, which centered on the received opinions of the ancients. Descartes believed that mathematics alone yielded certain knowledge. After attending La Flèche Descartes went on to attain a law degree and, with a family fortune to back him, began a series of travels. In 1618 he set off for Holland to serve as a soldier under Maurice of Nassau.
By 1628 he wrote the Rules for the Direction of the Understanding, which was unfinished and not published until after his death. The book laid out the rules of his method for science and philosophy. The same year he went again to Holland. In 1633 he had finished Le Monde (The World), a book on physics that presented the world as essentially matter in motion. He was eager to publish it but withdrew it when he heard of the condemnation of Galileo by the Inquisition for teaching, as Le Monde did, the Copernican system. Descartes sent his treatise away to a friend, to avoid the temptation to publish it. (It was eventually published in 1664, after his death.)
Four years later, in 1637, he rebounded with Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. It was the first great philosophical work written in French, and it created a style that became a model for expression of abstract thought in the language.
Descartes experienced a life-altering vision on November 10, 1619. Then twenty-three, he was shut in by a harsh winter in Holland and spent a day in intense philosophical reflection. That evening, the intellectual reverie of the day culminated in three vivid dreams. The dreams gave him a vision of his mission in life; to find the key to the mysteries of nature in a new philosophy based on mathematical reason.
In 1641 he published Meditations on First Philosophy, together with six sets of Objections, from various distinguished persons, including Hobbes and Pierre Gassendi, to whom Descartes had submitted the work, and Descartes's Replies to the Objections. Taken together, the text might well be Descartes's most important and famous work. In 1644 he wrote Principles of Philosophy, which contains, among other topics, his ideas on cosmology. He dedicated the book to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, with whom he was in correspondence.
Death in Sweden
In 1649 Descartes consented to the requests of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had read the Principles and the last work published in his lifetime, the Passions of the Soul, to instruct her in his philosophy. She had assembled a distinguished circle in Stockholm. Still, he was reluctant to go, writing to a friend that Sweden was the land of “bears, rocks, and ice.” Nevertheless, he did go and had the unpleasant task of meeting with her three times a week at five o'clock in the morning. Descartes had always been a late riser because of his frail health, and his constitution could not take the frigid cold and early hours. The climate and schedule wore him down until he caught pneumonia and died on February 11, 1650.