René Descartes is best known for coining the philosophical phrase cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Although this is what he is known for, this is obviously not his only significant thought, Descartes dedicated a majority of his life to his motto “he who lives hidden lives well.” Harold J. Cook, a History professor at Brown University, in a lecture on Monday night, tried to blow open the Secret Life of René Descartes.
René Descartes was much more than a French philosopher, even though it is hard for historians to really call him French at all, because he spent the majority of his life away from France. Born in Paris, Descartes was raised by his grandmother’s family from 1607-1615. Licensed to practice law in 1616, Descartes left France for the Netherlands in 1617. Instead of staying in France and following the civil service path his father and elder brother took, Descartes moved to the Netherlands to learn about the art of war. From then until 1628, Descartes spent his life abroad, not being held down in a specific place for too long. In 1628, when Descartes was about thirty-four years old, he returned to the Netherlands to work on a secret project that was extremely important to him. The Netherlands was a perfect place for Descartes to work on his project, for in it he found the peace, quiet, and reclusion he needed.
The interesting thing about Descartes is that, although he is revered for his philosophy, his life is not that well known or studied by those that study his philosophy. Descartes was a dynamic person, fascinated in alchemy, dabbling in science and medical engineering to the point where he was offered teaching jobs at medical school but declined..Descartes circulated on the fringes of the court in Paris and gained many well-acclaimed friends, he fathered a Dutch child out of wedlock, earned his money through gambling, and constantly moved around because he didn’t want to be found by people he knew.
Descartes’s moved, spoke, and listened very carefully, and everything that he produced was extremely manicured. He never wrote about religion, ethics, or politics because he was so careful about what came out into the open from the depths of his mind.
Surprisingly enough, for someone relatively quiet with their views, Descartes gained his philosophical fame by deriding someone else’s philosophy. He and his friends attended a lecture and, at the end, Descartes disproved the lecturer’s philosophy by using the lecturer’s own methods of reasoning. The crowd was so shocked and amazed they insisted that Descartes transcribe his philosophical thoughts and ponderings. Consequently Descartes became the philosopher we know today. However, this is not significant to historians such as Cook, who strive to focus on what is unknown about Descartes.
The mystery of Descartes’s life is a result of a lack of written evidence. When Descartes moved to Sweden in 1649, he brought with him a Dutch friend, a box of letters he transcribed, and instructions for what to do with said box when he passed away. When Descartes passed, his Dutch friend followed the instructions, which were to keep whatever letters he wanted and burn the rest. The letters the Dutch friend kept were sent to Paris on a boat, which sunk. By time the box of remaining letters was discovered, the letters were soaking wet and completely illegible. As a result, the majority of the things Descartes wrote are missing, meaning there are many gaps when piecing together Descartes’ life. Historians and those interested in Descartes are unsure about who Descartes was due to this lack of material. However, the information we do have gives us brief insight into the interesting and dynamic person Descartes was, allowing him to be seen as more than the man who said, “I think, therefore I am.”