Most of us have heard the famous words of René Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), though perhaps without knowing who said them or their significance to our everyday lives. “The modern world is Cartesian to the core,” says Richard Watson, author of Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes. The world we know now—the sciences and technologies we take for granted, the medical arts we depend on, the reasoning that supports many of our moral beliefs—are, to a great extent, the result of the legacy of Descartes. For good or ill, his philosophy, introduced with the promise “that with his method we could become masters and possessors of nature,” is more deeply ingrained in us today than Descartes could ever have imagined.
Richard Watson, a Cartesian scholar, and recently-arrived Missoula resident, explained in a recent interview that most biographies of Descartes have been written by philosophers. They tend to describe the texts that Descartes wrote, giving only passing mention of the world in which he wrote them. Watson says his intention with this biography was to place Descartes within the context of his times.
Seventeenth-century Europe was rife with religious violence. The period of Descartes’ adult life was dominated by the Thirty Years’ War, a religious war in which the Protestant rulers of the United Provinces in Northern Europe and Sweden allied with Catholic France against Catholic Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. From the blasé, ahistorical perspective of many Americans today, this may seem about as important as a soccer match, but between 1619 and 1648 the number of northern Europeans fell from about 20 million to seven million—or more than two-thirds of the population. Not all of the deaths were the direct result of the war. Many died of plague as well as crop failures and famine caused by the Little Ice Age, when, as Watson points out, “the average annual temperature of Europe fell as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and there were years without summer.”
The world Descartes lived in was a dangerous place, especially for a man who believed he had found a method to discern “the truth” in the mathematical certainty of material existence. As early as 1620, at the age of 24, it is believed Descartes had already discovered his method of “universal mechanics,” which would eventually replace the Aristotelian foundation of the old world, and begin to seriously erode the power of the church over science. His method, “in which mathematical representations can be given of how everything works and is related to everything else…provided the foundation for the notion of unified science.” Though Descartes rejoiced over his discovery in 1620, it would be 17 years before he published his analytical method.
In the meantime, Descartes was a young man growing into his prime years. As a member of the minor aristocracy of France, he was expected to take on certain obligations, to buy himself a lucrative position in order to increase his family fortune. Descartes did earn a law degree in 1616, yet, when in 1625 he was offered the opportunity to buy a post formerly held by his great uncle, as lieutenant general in his hometown of Châtellerault, he begged off, telling his worried father that he was not experienced enough to take on a judgeship. Descartes seems to have known he could only have gotten himself into trouble by trying to fit into his preordained position in society and avoided it all his life. He took as his motto “A man lives well, who lives well hidden.” To that end, he seems to have devotedly kept his most sincere thoughts, and eventually his whereabouts, a mystery, especially from his family, who came to look upon him as a failure and a parasite.
Descartes has become such an immense figure in European history that his biography has taken on a life all its own. Not many decades elapsed following his death, in 1650, before even the Catholics, whose immediate power his methods threatened the most, began to create a myth of their own. In 1691, Adrien Baillet published a biography in France that described Descartes in terms that would certainly have made him eligible for sainthood, if he had been dead long enough, and if all the alleged facts were true.
Baillet’s biography was based on firsthand materials—letters, journals, and a large collection of official documents—most of which have since disappeared. His contribution to the known facts of Descartes’ life is, thus, invaluable, however skewed.
There is a touch of the iconoclast in Watson’s refutations, often jocular, of Baillet’s ridiculously pious fantasies of Saint Descartes. Watson, in trying to separate what he believes is the truth from the smoke and mirrors of Baillet’s almost archetypal representations, explores specific circumstances, both historical and personal, surrounding the major events in Descartes’ life. The biography is rich in details that develop slowly, as in a photo bath, into perhaps the first postmodern, Technicolor revision of Descartes and the world he longed so much to change. The gaps existing in what is known about Descartes are wide enough to encourage endless speculation, and Watson takes full advantage. It is evident that Watson, a soon-to-be-retired professor of philosophy, is skilled in the art of encouraging imaginative discussion and debate.
Author Richard Watson reads from Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes and other works this Tuesday at Shakespeare & Co. 7 PM. FREE.