Saturday, October 10, 2020

Rene Descartes: Final Days

Rene Descartes

It was very cold and he was shivering as he stumbled through the halls of the dark, damp and drafty castle. He could not get warm, despite the fact that he had wrapped himself in as many clothes as he could find in his closet.  His name was RenĂ© Descartes, and he was on his way to give an early morning tutorial in philosophy to Christina, the queen of Sweden.

The year was 1650.  At the age of 53, the acclaimed French philosopher had accepted an invitation from Christina to come north to Stockholm to take a position as court scholar.   Four years earlier,  the highly educated 40-year-old queen had started a correspondence with Descartes through the mediation of the French ambassador to Sweden. Their long letters explored the nature of love, the question of the universe’s infinity, and the nature of the sovereign good.   Christina wanted to meet Descartes.  She offered him a position on the court and urged him to come north.

Descartes accepted the invitation, but not because he had enthusiasm for Sweden or for the court of Queen Christina.  He was more concerned about what life was going to be like for him in the Netherlands during a never-ending, five-year long campaign of a Dutch theologian to suppress Descartes’ writings and damage his reputation.  He decided that he needed to leave his home in the Netherlands, at least temporarily.

After getting settled at Court in September of 1649, Christina ordered Descartes “to put all of his papers in order, and secondly, to put together designs for an academy.” (Gaukroger, p. 415) There is no evidence that this was done.  However, in early January of 1650, Christina required  Descartes to give her lessons in philosophy.  He could not complain – she was the queen after all.  But added to the pain of freezing in the long halls and rooms of an ancient stone castle, Descartes learned that the lessons started at 5 a.m. The lessons would conclude five hours later at 10 a.m.  (Descartes’ usual waking hour was 11 a.m.)

The other problem confronting Descartes’ tutorials was that Christina did not want to hear about his latest work in philosophy.  Instead, she had a new interest in learning the language of ancient Greece, a topic about which he had no interest at all.  As a consequence of this stand-off, Descartes had tutored Christina only four or five times by the end of January.  Things were not going well.  In a letter to a friend, dated 15 January 1650, Descartes expressed reservations about his decision to come to Sweden. He sees himself to be “out of his element,” the winter so harsh that “men’s thoughts are frozen here, like the water” (Adam and Tannery, V 467; Cottingham, et al, III 383).

The lesson he was to teach on that freezing morning was the last.  Descartes caught a head cold on February 1, 1650.  The tutorials were cancelled.  Descartes took to bed.  He had a history of respiratory problems since childhood. In the harsh cold of northern Sweden in winter, his cold soon turned into pneumonia.  RenĂ© Descartes died on 11 February at the age of 53.


From Laurence Houlgate, Understanding Rene Descartes: The Smart Student's Guide to Meditations on First Philosophy.  Now available as an eBook or paperback, at B08M8DS3BX