Rene Descartes: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Learn about Rene Descartes' family, education, travels, and personal life. Descartes spent much of his life writing, thinking, and corresponding with his close friends like Marin Mersenne.

Birth and Childhood

Rene Descartes was a famous French philosopher and mathematician. He was born on March 31, 1596 in La Haye en Touraine, France to his parents Joachim Descartes and Jeanne Brochard. Descartes was the third of four children, his younger brother dying at birth. His mother died during the birth of his youngest brother as well, when Descartes was only one.

Descartes' family was financially comfortable, his father being a minor noble, a landowner, and a council member. The family was Roman Catholic, and Descartes was baptized into the Catholic Church, even though Protestants controlled the area where they lived.

After the death of his mother, Descartes went to live with his grandmother, Jeanne Sain Brochard, and stayed there even after his father remarried. Descartes was never very close to his father or his two older siblings, perhaps because he went to live with his grandmother at such an early age.

Education

As a child, Descartes was frequently sick, but he did well in school. He left home at age 11 for boarding school, where he studied Classics (ancient Greek and Roman literature), philosophy, logic, and math. At the time, subjects like astronomy and music were considered to be part of math, so they were included in Descartes' studies. After a few years, more advanced subjects such as ethics and natural philosophy were added to the roster. The school's curriculum also included physical education: dancing, horse riding, and fencing.

Descartes went on to law school, earning his degree in 1616, but he ultimately decided that he didn't want to become a lawyer. Instead, he went to the Netherlands, where he studied military engineering and briefly volunteered for military service under Prince Maurice of Nassau. He probably worked in the army as an engineer or mathematician. During his military service, Descartes met Isaac Beeckman, who became an influential mentor to him.

Travels and Writing Career

Although Descartes had spent years in school, he felt that he'd left with more questions than answers, and he thought that traveling would help him understand the world better. As he wrote in Discourse on the Method:

I still continued, however, to hold in esteem the studies of the schools…But I believed that I had already given sufficient time to languages, and likewise to the reading of the writings of the ancients, to their histories and fables. For to hold converse with those of other ages and to travel, are almost the same thing. It is useful to know something of the manners of different nations, that we may be enabled to form a more correct judgment regarding our own.

Descartes left the army around 1620 and embarked on an 8-year period of travel across Europe. During this time, he began to write about geometry and logic, and met people who shared his interests in science, philosophy, and math. These friends included Marin Mersenne, a deeply religious theologian, who also studied mathematics and natural philosophy. Mersenne, who kept in touch with many prominent scholars of the era, was one of Descartes' closest companions.

Descartes
Descartes

Although he lived in Paris briefly, Descartes eventually decided that the city was simply too busy for him - it didn't give him enough time to think. He moved to the Netherlands, where life was quieter. Here, Descartes lived alone, but continued to enjoy writing to Mersenne and his other friends. During this period of his life, Descartes published his famous writings about knowledge, epistemology, mathematics, optics, and astronomy.

Personal Life and Habits

For most of his life, Descartes was a late riser, getting up around 11 in the morning. This was a habit he developed as a child, as he experienced some bouts of illness that kept him in bed. Apparently it worked for him, and he kept it up as an adult. He liked to do most of his writing in bed in the mornings.

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