Rene Descartes was born on March 31, 1596, at La Haye in Touraine, France. His mother died of tuberculosis soon after his birth. The infant got the disease from her and there was no hope of his survival. But he did come back to life, and for that reason was named Rene - Renatius - reborn.
Rene Descartes was the fourth child in a family belonging to the social class of noblesse de robe, below the nobility itself, yet above the bourgeoisie. His father, Joachim Descartes, was a counselor at Rennes in the neighboring province of Brittany, and the young Rene hardly ever got to see him. It was his grandmother and a nurse who brought him up. Even as a child, Rene pestered his father with questions about the reasons of things and their causes. This precocious curiosity in Rene amused his father very much, and he fondly called him 'his little philosopher'.
Having completed his formal education, Descartes went to Holland in 1617 and joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau, then stationed at Breda, as an unpaid officer. This marked the beginning of his life as a wanderer. These were periods of undisturbed meditation for him, rather than of military adventures.
Once while walking through the streets of Breda, he saw placard in Dutch. He asked the first passer-by he came across to translate it for him. On the placard was a challenge to solve a certain mathematical problem. Descartes was able to solve the puzzle and this led to a close friendship with the stranger, who turned out to be Isaac Beeckman, the head of the Dutch College at Dort. Beekman introduced him to the latest developments in mathematics.
In 1619, with the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, he joined the army of Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria to fight against the army of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia. Later on one of his closest friends happened to be Frederick's daughter Princess Elizabeth.
In the morning of November 10, while he was stationed at the winter quarters of the Bohemian army at Neuberg, he shut himself in a 'stove' (a specially heated room in old-fashioned Bavarian houses) to escape cold. There he dreamt of a new philosophy, a unitary universal science that would link all possible human knowledge together into an all-embracing wisdom. This dream was a turning point for the way he envisioned knowledge.
In 1621, he joined the Imperial Army in Hungary as an officer and this was his last experience of military life. This was followed by travels in Germany and Holland. He returned to France next year to live in Brittany and Paris. He sold off the property he had inherited from his mother and invested the money in bonds. This, together with the money that he inherited from his father later, provided him with a sufficient and steady income to live on. He also spent a year in Italy.
Disturbed too often by friends who would call on him before he was up, he left Paris in 1628 to accompany the mathematician and military engineer Gerard Desargues to the siege of La Rochelle.
In the November of the same year, Descartes had a famous confrontation with Chandoux in Paris. Chandoux claimed that science could only be based on probabilities. This skeptical view was rooted in the religious crisis then simmering in Europe. Descartes argued with mathematical finesse that only certainty could serve as a basis for knowledge, and that he had a method for attaining certainty. This so impressed Cardinal de Berulle, the leader of the Catholic reaction against Calvinism, that he urged Descartes to fully develop his system.
Later in the year, Descartes moved to Holland because he had an inkling of the opposition that his ideas, still in their formative stage, would take shape. The freedom of speculation available in Holland made its intellectual climate electric with controversial ideas. Therefore, Holland had become the international refuge of rebellious minds. Though Descartes spent practically all the remainder of his life in Holland, he changed his residence twenty-four times in the next twenty years. He usually took up residence near a University or a library. Only during the last five years did he stay at one place, Egmond-Binnen.
Descartes never married. He took a Dutch servant girl, Helen, as his mistress in 1634. He had a natural daughter, Francine, by her. Francine died at the age of five in 1640. This was the greatest sorrow of his life.
In 1629, Descartes wrote an outline of his methodology in Rules for the Direction of Mind, but it was never published in his lifetime. He elaborated his revolutionary method of investigation in his most famous work Discourse on Method with three appendices Optics, Meteorology and Geometry published in 1637. This book was revolutionary not only in its contents, but also in the way it was written. It was written in readily intelligible French, and not in Latin, in a captivating, first person style. Earlier in 1633, Descartes had to abandon plans of publishing The World in which he tried to give a comprehensive theory of the universe using his new methodology due to the condemnation of Galileo by the Church. It was published only after his death. He made use of some of the material of this book in the appendices to Discourse on Method. A further elaboration of his philosophy was published as Meditations on First Philosophy with Objections and Replies in 1641. The most complete statement of Descartes' mature philosophy, The Principles of Philosophy, was published in 1644.
Descartes, in his search for a universal-mechanism, undertook the study of subjects as varied as mathematics, physics, astronomy, anatomy, physiology, psychology, embryology, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, theology and meteorology. He dedicated the last decade of his life almost entirely to science and came up with several brilliant ideas, though some of them were proved wrong later. It was he who suggested to the French mathematician Blaise Pascal the experiment that proves the pressure of air on all objects. But he did not believe in the existence of vacuum; he said it existed only in Pascal's head.
In doing his work, Descartes had no wish to antagonize the Church and play the role of a martyr. Yet, he could never compromise on what he considered to be the truth. Though he tried to present his ideas in a softened garb, he had to face severe criticisms from various quarters. The fear behind all the accusations against him was that once the supremacy of reason is established, it would not be long before the very existence of God is questioned.
In 1641, after the publication of Meditations on First Philosophy, the rector of the University of Utrecht, Gisbert Voetius, accused Descartes of atheism and tried to persuade the city magistrates to ban his philosophy. The city magistrates of Utrecht summoned Descartes to appear before them. Descartes refused, and a judgment was passed against him. Due to the intervention of the French ambassador and the Prince of Orange, the magistrates had to be satisfied with a decree forbidding any public argument for or against Descartes' ideas.
Descartes was accused of Plagiarism, the belief that the will is equally free to choose to do good and to do evil by the authorities at Leyden in 1647. It resulted in a decree forbidding the discussion of his philosophy.
Descartes published Notes against a Programme in 1648 in response to a pamphlet written anonymously by Professor Henricus Regius. When Regius published his Foundations of Physics, Descartes accused him of plagiarizing and distorting the material from his unpublished papers.
Though the Jesuits were tolerant of the iconoclastic ideas of Descartes in the earlier period, in fact they had even protected him at times, they withdrew their support later, and in 1667 they were the ones instrumental in having his works placed on the Church's Index of Prohibited books.
In spite of the barbs that he had to face, Descartes came to be recognized as one of the most profound thinkers of the century. The greatest minds of the period eagerly sought his company. He was interviewed by Frans Burman at Egmond-Binnen and Conversations with Burman was published in 1648.
King Louis XIV of France awarded Descartes a pension in 1647 in honor of his discoveries. But he never actually received the pension, probably because he never lived in France after that. In 1648, Montmor offered Descartes a country house near Paris with a revenue of 3000 to 4000 livres. Descartes refused the offer, as he was afraid this would make him Montmor's domestic.
Since 1643, Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia had been writing to each other, and they struck a close friendship. The questions raised by her in her letters, especially those concerned with the interaction between body and mind are dealt with in the book Passions of the Soul published in 1649.
Queen Christina of Sweden got into correspondence with Descartes through Chanut, the French ambassador at Stockholm. So impressed was she with Descartes' philosophy that she sent him forceful invitations to have him at her court. She even sent an admiral once to invite him over to Sweden, and later a warship to fetch Descartes. After initial reluctance, Descartes agreed and left for Stockholm in 1649.
The Queen wanted Descartes to teach her philosophy. Though this was the only obligation he had at her court, she could spare time for lessons only at five in the morning. He used to say 'Men's thoughts freeze during winter months'. His health deteriorated due to the unaccustomed early rising in the cold of Swedish winter.
In 1650, Chanut became seriously ill, and Descartes, in taking care of him, he himself became sick. Descartes caught pneumonia from him on February 1 and died on February 11.
Since Descartes was a Catholic, and Sweden a Protestant country, he was buried in a cemetery reserved for un-baptized children. In 1667, his remains were taken to Paris and buried in the Church of St. Genevieve-du-Mont. During the French Revolution, his remains were disinterred for burial in the Pantheon among the great French thinkers. His tomb is now in the church of St. Germain-des-Pres.
The inscription Descartes chose for his tombstone was
'Bene qui latuit, bene visit'
He who hid well, lived well.