Friday 15 October 2010

Meet René Descartes

Durham University have, in their wisdom, deemed me fit to teach some undergraduate seminars this year, which I'm looking forward to partly as an opportunity to feel cleverer than other theologians (a rare occurrence when you're a PhD student) and also as a chance to refresh my memory of or just, y'know, finally get around to reading some of the big names in the world of philosophy and theology.

One of the people I'll be teaching is René Descartes, one of the most important philosophers in the world, ever. Enrique Chavez-Arvizo, whose biography of Descartes is in the Wordsworth Classics Edition of Descartes' Key Philosophical Writing (the source of most of the information in this post) says that Descartes' acheivements 'rank second only to Plato's' and 'are the single most important source of our modern intellectual character'. Unlike poor Kant, Enrique thinks that Descartes' works 'display a lucid and rich literary style equalled by few', and over the course of his 53 years of life, he wrote important texts on geometry, algebra, physics, mechanics, cosmology, meteorology, optics, physiology, anatomy and medicine 'to name the principal ones' (!).

Descartes was born in 1596, in a town which was called La Haye at the time, but has since been renamed Descartes ('I think, therefore I've found myself a nice little cottage round the corner from the post office'?). His family were vaguely aristocratic, and rich enough for him to spend most of his life living off his inheritance. His mum died when he was three, so his grandmother raised him till he was ten, when he was packed off to study at a Jesuit-run school. He was a sickly kid, so he was given the privilege of being allowed a lie-in every morning, and he used these mornings in bed to, er, 'meditate'. He kept up the habit for most of the rest of his life.

After leaving school, he went and got a law degree in Poitiers, and wrote a Treatise on Fencing before setting off to travel round Europe because he wanted to study at the school of life instead of just reading books. Whilst in the Netherlands, he joined the army, and though he never actually got to see any action, he did have a mystical experience in a sauna on the Danube: three dreams which he interpreted as a message telling him to come up with a theory of everything. Afterwards, he went back to France and sold his family estate so he could set up as a full time philosopher, then off for some more travelling round Italy, before he settled in Paris for a couple of years. While there, he gave a speech which so impressed one of the cardinals listening to him talk that afterwards they cornered him and made him promise to dedicate his whole life to philosophy 'for the benefit of humanity'.

Next, Descartes moved to Holland, where he moved around a lot, trying to get away from people and be alone, though he kept getting embroiled in philosophical controversies with other people. In the early 1630s, he moved to a slaughterhouse district so he could learn about physiology. In 1629, a friend asked him to write something about the scientific phenomenon of parhelia (rings around the sun), so he wrote a scientific treatise, only to chicken out of publishing it when he found out how much trouble Galileo had recently gotten himself into for suggesting that the earth wasn't the centre of the universe. Around the same time, he knocked up a girl called Hélène, a servant in a house he'd stayed in, and she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Francine, who died aged five.

After writing various other treatises, Descartes published his most famous work, the Meditations on First Philosophy, which was basically an attempt to work out whether there is anything we can be sure that we really know. It proved to be a bit controversial. A theologian called Gisbertus Voetius (Gisbertus! What a name.) published an anonymous treatise attacking Descartes (I'd be keen on anonymity if I was called Gisbertus), and Descartes cheekily responded with an open letter entitled 'Letter of René Descartes to that Most Distinguished Man, Mr Gisbertus Voetius'.

Descartes' next bit work was The Principles of Philosophy, which was meant to be used as a university textbook. He dedicated it to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who'd been his penpal ever since he wrote the Meditations. At her request, he wrote his last major work, The Passions of the Soul, which was all about the passions (or emotions if you want to be all 21st century about it). But he kept getting himself into arguments with other philosophers and theologians, and eventually, getting a bit fed up with it all, he accepted an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden to join her court. Christina, evidently either a swot or an insomniac, made Descartes give her regular philosophy lessons at 5am. He eventually died of pneumonia when he was only 53, which just goes to show that early mornings are bad for you.

So, that's Descartes, philosopher extraordinaire. His example has much to teach us: primarily that the route to philosophical genius lies through plentiful lies ins, multiple gap years, and being able to live off your parents' money. So there's hope for as all: all we have to do is to be upper to upper-middle class. Oh. Crap.

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