That the Earth is governed by natural laws hardly sounds original today, but when René Descartes first articulated the philosophy in the early 17th century, it was revolutionary — and dangerous. His mechanistic philosophy suggested that the universe might function fine without incessant divine intervention. But what else could be expected from the author of the statement, "I think, therefore I am"? In fact, debates about his unorthodox ideas prompted a philosophical passion fairly unfamiliar to modern academia, including an "outbreak of fisticuffs and hair-pulling at a disputation" in 1648.
Descartes was born in 1596 to a wealthy, well-educated family. His mother, however, was in poor heath, and she died when he was just a year old. The sickly little boy inherited his mother's cough and apparently earned his father's disdain for it. At the age of 11, Descartes began his education at La Flèche, an elite Jesuit college (akin to a modern-day prep school) in northern France. Although he would later declare that he was "going to war with the Jesuits," he also recommended his old school to friend who was looking for a place to educate his son. Due both to his frail health and family connections, he enjoyed special treatment at the school; he was allowed to sleep late, for instance, while his schoolmates rose early for morning classes. (Descartes was able to indulge himself with late mornings for most of the rest of his life, a habit he found hard to break in his final years.) At the school, his health improved considerably.
By the time Descartes moved to Paris as a young man, his health was excellent — and his tastes expensive. He was once described as "coiffed in curls, wearing crescent-pointed shoes, his hands covered with well-lined snow-white gloves." And always with a faithful valet in tow. Yet he wasn't too much of a cream puff to enjoy adventure. At a time when religious tensions raged throughout Europe, the Catholic Descartes served with the Protestant army of Maurice of Nassau just for the experience. In a similar spirit, he debated philosophy with all comers, but he had to tread carefully to avoid charges of heresy. (The Catholic Church was still willing to burn heretics in the 17th century.) To make matters worse, rumors linked Descartes with the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, or Rosicrucians, a shadowy society of savants, and a dangerous association at a time when established religions could hardly tolerate each other, much less secret clubs of free thinkers.
Descartes's relationship with religion was as ironic as it was tense. A devout Catholic, he feared persecution from the Church all his life, yet it was in Holland where he ultimately faced accusations of atheism — a charge that could at the very least destroy his reputation — from Protestant theologians. After his death, a number of Jesuits became devoted Cartesians.
Like other leading thinkers of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes convinced himself that the previous achievements of philosophy were minor. He set aside philosophical texts and started to build what he called a new foundation, explaining that he studied "the book of the world." In about 1630, he began writing his masterwork: Le Monde ("The World"), outlining how the Earth arose from initial chaos. Time was key to building the universe as Descartes explained it. He never said exactly how long creation took, but it would have taken longer than the accepted 6,000 years. Still, his greater legacy was not about when the universe was created, but how. He explained that rational processes could create the Earth, the sun, the planets, and all the universe (maybe even with life in other places besides Earth). Descartes didn't doubt a divine hand in creation; he simply maintained that God's relationship to creation was like that of a clockmaker to a clock — the parts had been set in motion and could run on their own.
Decartes's mechanical philosophy held that nothing was really alive; plants and animals were machines, once declaring that he could see "no difference between machines built by artisans and objects created by nature alone." Though he considered human bodies to be machines, however, he stopped short of saying as much for human beings. Human bodies and human brains exist in space; they have mass and dimension. Yet human minds exist outside of space. Descartes has been credited with discovering the mind-body problem — an issue philosophers continue to fret about in the 21st century.
Descartes didn't believe that human thought and behavior could be explained by the physical workings of the body. To explain the action of the human soul on the body, Descartes pointed to the pineal gland in the brain. The gland struck Descartes as being in the perfect spot — where the body's "animal" and "rational" spirits met. He claimed that the pineal gland twisted and turned in response to the soul's demands. Unfortunately, he didn't sufficiently examine enough human brains to see if this was possible. Later dissections by Niels Stensen showed that the gland is held fast by surrounding tissues and incapable of movement. Stensen remarked, "I do not reproach Descartes for his method, but for ignoring it." The meticulous experimenter Jan Swammerdam overturned some of Descartes's ideas about muscle contraction. Robert Hooke was another follower of Descartes who took issue with his occasional unfounded speculations.
Descartes was ready to publish The World in the early 1630s, but was stopped in his tracks by news of the arrest of Galileo. Like Galileo, Descartes had accepted and relied on the findings of Copernicus. Descartes was so afraid, he almost burned all his papers but his pride eventually overcame his fear, and in 1641, he published Principles of Philosophy, though it was a shadow of his original work. The World wasn't published until 1664 — 14 years after his death.
Late in his life, Descartes served as a private tutor to Queen Christina of Sweden. Christina was, by all accounts, unconventional. The short, stocky young woman didn't fuss much with her appearance and liked to go riding and shooting in a man's collar. Breathless rumors — perhaps driven by confusion over how to deal with a powerful woman — suggested she might not have been thoroughly female. She was bright, however, and so excited by Descartes's new way of thinking that she wanted to learn from none other than him, and she wanted her philosophy lessons to start no later than 5 a.m. each morning. In the coldest winter in living memory in an already frigid country the aging philosopher was obliged to give up his lifelong habit of sleeping in, and tutor the queen in an unheated library.
Though they likely remained polite, Christina and Descartes soon soured on each other. He came to think of her as a dilettante; she came to see him as a grumpy old man. Even worse, the rest of Christina's court seethed with resentment toward him. It was in this setting that Descartes was struck down with illness, perhaps pneumonia, and the court doctor was summoned to treat him. Accounts of his death differ, some historians saying he refused treatment, and others speculating that his appointed doctor, rather than curing him of the sickness, nudged him toward death.
Whispers of foul play may have been motivated by the belief that Descartes had been so successful in uncovering the workings of the body that he wasn't far away from achieving immortality. One admirer wrote that the philosopher "would have lived five hundred years, after having found the art of living several centuries."
The story of Decartes's remains is at least as complicated as the story of his life.
He was buried just north of Stockholm, but his Cartesian fans in France soon decided they wanted his remains buried on French soil. In 1666, 16 years after his burial in Stockholm, enthusiasts dug up his skeleton and carried to its new tomb in Paris. There his remains remained until the French Revolution. That is, his postcranial remains.
His skull wound up elsewhere, at one point confiscated from its temporary owner as he couldn't pay his debts and passed down within the creditor's family, at another point owned by a Swedish casino operator. Assuming all the accounts are true, Descartes's bones rattled around Sweden and France for centuries, dug up and reburied more than once. By the time the skull was relayed to Georges Cuvier for examination, it had been inscribed with a Latin verse, as well as the names of some of its owners. One claim even surfaced that part of him had been fashioned into jewelry, although that is probably not the case.
The brain within the skull decomposed long ago, but 21st-century technology facilitated a three-dimensional reconstruction of his braincase. A study published in 2017 characterized the overall size of his brain as within normal parameters, but described an unusually protuberant frontal cortex — the region of the brain tentatively associated with language.
His ideas endured even better than his remains. Although The World was not published in his lifetime, Descartes proved to be one of the most important philosophers in Western science, laying the foundations for the modern age. Historian Russell Shorto argues that the questions Descartes wrestled with, specifically how to balance faith and reason, are as relevant today as they were in the 17th century.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated April 9, 2022