TRAINED for eight years at the Jesuit college of La Fleche, France, Rene Descartes -- known for his tireless questioning of classmates and teachers as regards mathematics and philosophy -- later shook the academic world with his important discovery of the solid and certain foundation for all sciences, namely, “I think, (therefore) I am” (Cogito[ergo]sum). * This Cartesian clear and distinct idea as basis for all knowledge, and another form of “Eureka,” made his star rise among intellectuals.
Like Galileo, he loved criticizing Church authorities in his writings, some of which ended up in the Index or List of Forbidden Books.
Listless, he enlisted as a soldier and even became a diplomat. Though never married, Descartes had a daughter, Francine, by a Dutch servan girl named Helena Jan van der Strom. To inquisitive visitors he introduced Francine as his “niece.” His having a mistress -- despite his Catholic upbringing -- made bishops and priests angrier.
Feeling the heat of his opponents’ anger, Descartes accepted an invitation from Sweden’s Queen Christina for tutoring in philosophy. However, the queen’s strange habit of learning philosophy at 4 or 5 a.m. proved very hard on Descartes’ health; he loved to lull in bed till late in the morning. Besides, tongues started wagging that Descartes supposedly was “teaching philosophy” to the queen at such ungodly hours.
The bitter winter cold of Sweden proved too much for Descartes as he passed away in Stockholm on February11, 1650. He was only 53. May he rest in peace.
To this day, the world treasures Descartes’ revolutionary ideas in philosophy.
*Centuries earlier, St. Augustine had stated, “Even if I err, still I am” (Si fallor, sum).