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René Descartes

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Born in France1596René Descartes was born into a world where religious conflict had been the primary source of exceedingly violent warfare for ¾ of a century (and the entirety of his life). Also, cultural conditions were more robust than before. An ancient philosophical tool called Skepticism was increasingly accessible, meant for looking at dogmatic beliefs of any kind.
Boarding school1607Descartes went to a boarding run school run by the Jesuits, the most important Roman Catholic religious order. At their school he had the best possible education of his day. While he was a student there, in 1610 the French king Henri IV was assassinated by a religious fanatic. Descartes would have been quite conscious of this.
Law Studies1616His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, so he left for another city to study law. However, he did not like it.
Thirty Years' War1618The War began in 1618 and Descartes became an army soldier. He was based on the United Provinces (Netherlands), Poland and Germany.
Epiphany1619In Germanyhe had a life-changing event: a dream in which he felt certain things had been revealed to him, giving his life a very clear direction. For the next ten years he worked on a project about mathematics, geometry and algebra, intending them to be a master system that would elucidate other areas.
Galileo condemned1623The most famous scientist alive, Galileo Galilei, was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Italy and put under house arrest. The reason was that in 1610 he has been the first person to effectively use the telescope to study the planets. His observations led him to definitely and convincingly conclude that the traditional planetary model (with the earth at the universal center) was incorrect. Rather, he convinced Europe that the earth and other planetary bodies orbited the sun, and that there could be many other solar systems. Galileo had been very careful about how his views might conflict with religion, such as in the Book of Joshua when a command is given -- "Sun, stand thou still." This condemnation horrified Europe's intellectuals, as Galileo was an enormous cultural authority comparable to Einstein in the 20th century. Descartes observed these events and decided in 1623 that he would not publish his work -- it was too dangerous. Descartes was a celebrity in his own lifetime. His years-long correspondences with the famous scientists and philosophers across Europe had earned he and his work tremendous fame, and he was urged to publish it, but he refused.
1628He abandoned his project, but this early-career deep thinking would shape his later Rules.
NetherlandsFor the rest of his life, Descartes would live in the United Provinces (Netherlands). His thinking led him to challenging, even provocative, pathways concerning god, the universe and god's relationship to humans. France was much more risky and oppressive than the United Provinces in that respect.
Discourse on the Method1637Descartes published a short work, the Discourse on the Method. Though philosophers had slowly started publishing in vernaculars, it was still a deliberate choice to reach a wider audience that Descartes published his Discourse in French rather than Latin.
Meditationes de prima philosophia1641Descartes released the Meditations, a longer work that had somewhat overlapped the Discourse. It was in Latin, addressed to those most informed about philosophy.
Passions1644Descartes released his Passions, a larger project on natural science in general.
Swedish Patronage1644Descartes accepted an invitation by Swedish queen Christina to receive her and the royal court's full patronage. He fell ill in Sweden.