René Descartes is considered to be the founder of modern philosophy. This brilliant mathematician and scientist interwove theories about philosophy and religion at a time when, for example, the Roman Catholic Church found the Italian astronomer, mathematician, and natural philosopher Galileo guilty of heresy. Descartes’ brilliance enabled him to couch his theories about the relationship between God and humanity, and about the nature of the universe, in a philosophical language acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church. Stephen Gaukroger’s work retraces with acute detail Descartes’ intellectual formation and development against the backdrop of the philosophical and scientific worlds of seventeenth century Europe.
Little detailed information is available regarding Descartes’ early childhood. He was born in La Haye (later Descartes), in Touraine, on March 31, 1596, to Joachim Descartes, who came from a predominantly medical family, and Jeanne Brochard, from a family of merchants and later public administrators. Descartes was not to know his mother, for she died fourteen months later. The young child was reared with two siblings by Jeanne Sain, his maternal grandmother, until he entered the Jesuit collège of La Flèche in Anjou. This arrangement was necessary because his father’s position as a councillor in the Brittany parliament required him to spend some months every year in Rennes. After Joachim Descartes was remarried in 1600 and moved to Rennes, René did not seem to have much contact with his stepmother, who was never mentioned by him as an adult. Essentially, his family circle consisted of his maternal grandmother, his nurse, and his elder brother and sister.
In 1601, at the age of ten, a sickly Descartes left the house of Jeanne Sain to enter La Flèche. The French collège was a combination of secondary school and, in its senior years, university. This atmosphere provided the foundation of Descartes’ institutional education, one that would encompass eight formative years and would play a very important role in his personal and intellectual development. La Flèche, the most prestigious of the Jesuit collèges, was originally a palace and grounds, donated by the French king Henri IV. The rules governing everyday life in such a school encompassed the curriculum and the personal responsibilities of teachers as well as such details as the amount of salt to be used when cooking. Boarders such as Descartes were subject to the exclusive authority of the teachers and had little contact with family.
Descartes’ first five years at La Flèche included a year of preparatory classes, three years of grammar, and a final year of rhetoric. During this time, students studied Latin and Greek, acquiring familiarity with many classical texts. Natural philosophy, mathematics, metaphysics, and ethics were studied in Descartes’ later years.
Upon leaving La Flèche at the age of eighteen, he enrolled in a program in civil and canon law at the University of Poitiers. Following this, in 1618, Descartes went to Breda in The Netherlands to join the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau as a gentleman soldier. Here Descartes met Isaac Beeckman, seven years his senior, a student of theology and doctor of medicine who was to exercise a singular influence in Descartes’ intellectual life. A teacher-pupil relationship soon developed between the two. Beeckman was interested, for example, in combining physics and mathematics in a precise way, and was eager to learn from Descartes’ skills in mathematics.
One area of significant endeavor shared by Descartes and Beeckman was the treatment of free fall. The kinematic description of uniformly accelerated motion had preoccupied a number of natural philosophers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Up to this point, quantitative mechanics had been largely restricted to statics, or bodies in a state of equilibrium. Descartes’ method of determining the distance a stone will fall in one hour if one knows how far it will fall in two hours, assuming that a moving body will move eternally in a void and that there is such a void between the earth and the falling stone, is one of many in Gaukroger’s work that is documented in detail with figures and explanations.
Beeckman left Breda at the end of 1618, but he and Descartes exchanged regular correspondence until the early 1620’s. Extant letters indicate that Descartes viewed Beeckman as a wiser man than he, and perhaps as a father figure. The letters also tell of...
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