René Descartes was born in La Haye en Touraine (now Descartes, Indre-et-Loire), France, on 31 March 1596. His mother, Jeanne Brochard, died soon after giving birth to him, and so he was not expected to survive. Descartes' father, Joachim, was a member of the Parlement of Brittany at Rennes. René lived with his grandmother and with his great-uncle. Although the Descartes family was Roman Catholic, the Poitou region was controlled by the Protestant Huguenots. In 1607, late because of his fragile health, he entered the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche, where he was introduced to mathematics and physics, including Galileo's work. After graduation in 1614, he studied for two years (1615–16) at the University of Poitiers, earning a Baccalauréat and Licence in canon and civil law in 1616, in accordance with his father's wishes that he should become a lawyer. From there he moved to Paris.
In Discourse on the Method, Descartes recalls,
I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it.:20–21
Given his ambition to become a professional military officer, in 1618, Descartes joined, as a mercenary, the Protestant Dutch States Army in Breda under the command of Maurice of Nassau, and undertook a formal study of military engineering, as established by Simon Stevin. Descartes, therefore, received much encouragement in Breda to advance his knowledge of mathematics. In this way, he became acquainted with Isaac Beeckman, the principal of a Dordrecht school, for whom he wrote the Compendium of Music (written 1618, published 1650). Together they worked on free fall, catenary, conic section, and fluid statics. Both believed that it was necessary to create a method that thoroughly linked mathematics and physics.
While in the service of the Catholic Duke Maximilian of Bavaria since 1619, Descartes was present at the Battle of the White Mountain outside Prague, in November 1620.
According to Adrien Baillet, on the night of 10–11 November 1619 (St. Martin's Day), while stationed in Neuburg an der Donau, Descartes shut himself in a room with an "oven" (probably a cocklestove) to escape the cold. While within, he had three dreams and believed that a divine spirit revealed to him a new philosophy. However, it is likely that what Descartes considered to be his second dream was actually an episode of exploding head syndrome. Upon exiting, he had formulated analytical geometry and the idea of applying the mathematical method to philosophy. He concluded from these visions that the pursuit of science would prove to be, for him, the pursuit of true wisdom and a central part of his life's work. Descartes also saw very clearly that all truths were linked with one another, so that finding a fundamental truth and proceeding with logic would open the way to all science. Descartes discovered this basic truth quite soon: his famous "I think, therefore I am".
In 1620 Descartes left the army. He visited Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, then visited various countries before returning to France, and during the next few years spent time in Paris. It was there that he composed his first essay on method: Regulae ad Directionem Ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). He arrived in La Haye in 1623, selling all of his property to invest in bonds, which provided a comfortable income for the rest of his life. Descartes was present at the siege of La Rochelle by Cardinal Richelieu in 1627. In the fall of the same year, in the residence of the papal nuncio Guidi di Bagno, where he came with Mersenne and many other scholars to listen to a lecture given by the alchemist Nicolas de Villiers, Sieur de Chandoux on the principles of a supposed new philosophy, Cardinal Bérulle urged him to write an exposition of his own new philosophy in some location beyond the reach of the Inquisition.
, Descartes lived at Westermarkt 6 (Descarteshuis, on the left).
Descartes returned to the Dutch Republic in 1628. In April 1629 he joined the University of Franeker, studying under Adriaan Metius, either living with a Catholic family or renting the Sjaerdemaslot. The next year, under the name "Poitevin", he enrolled at the Leiden University to study mathematics with Jacobus Golius, who confronted him with Pappus's hexagon theorem, and astronomy with Martin Hortensius. In October 1630 he had a falling-out with Beeckman, whom he accused of plagiarizing some of his ideas. In Amsterdam, he had a relationship with a servant girl, Helena Jans van der Strom, with whom he had a daughter, Francine, who was born in 1635 in Deventer. She died of scarlet fever at the age of 5.
Unlike many moralists of the time, Descartes did not deprecate the passions but rather defended them; he wept upon Francine's death in 1640. According to a recent biography by Jason Porterfield, "Descartes said that he did not believe that one must refrain from tears to prove oneself a man." Russell Shorto speculates that the experience of fatherhood and losing a child formed a turning point in Descartes' work, changing its focus from medicine to a quest for universal answers.
Despite frequent moves, he wrote all his major work during his 20-plus years in the Netherlands, initiating a revolution in mathematics and philosophy. In 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Italian Inquisition, and Descartes abandoned plans to publish Treatise on the World, his work of the previous four years. Nevertheless, in 1637 he published parts of this work in three essays: "Les Météores" (The Meteors), "La Dioptrique" (Dioptrics) and "La Géométrie" (Geometry), preceded by an introduction, his famous Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method). In it, Descartes lays out four rules of thought, meant to ensure that our knowledge rests upon a firm foundation.
The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.
In La Géométrie, Descartes exploited the discoveries he made with Pierre de Fermat, having been able to do so because his paper, Introduction to Loci, was published posthumously in 1679. This later became known as Cartesian Geometry.
Descartes continued to publish works concerning both mathematics and philosophy for the rest of his life. In 1641 he published a metaphysics treatise, Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (Meditations on First Philosophy), written in Latin and thus addressed to the learned. It was followed in 1644 by Principia Philosophiæ (Principles of Philosophy), a kind of synthesis of the Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. In 1643, Cartesian philosophy was condemned at the University of Utrecht, and Descartes was obliged to flee to the Hague, settling in Egmond-Binnen.
Descartes began (through Alfonso Polloti, an Italian general in Dutch service) a long correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, devoted mainly to moral and psychological subjects. Connected with this correspondence, in 1649 he published Les Passions de l'âme (Passions of the Soul), which he dedicated to the Princess. In 1647, he was awarded a pension by King Louis XIV of France, though it was never paid. A French translation of Principia Philosophiæ, prepared by Abbot Claude Picot, was published in 1647. This edition Descartes also dedicated to Princess Elisabeth. In the preface to the French edition, Descartes praised true philosophy as a means to attain wisdom. He identifies four ordinary sources to reach wisdom and finally says that there is a fifth, better and more secure, consisting in the search for first causes.
By 1649, Descartes had become one of Europe's most famous philosophers and scientists. That year, Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to her court to organize a new scientific academy and tutor her in his ideas about love. She was interested in and stimulated Descartes to publish the "Passions of the Soul", a work based on his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth. Descartes accepted, and moved to Sweden in the middle of winter.
He was a guest at the house of Pierre Chanut, living on Västerlånggatan, less than 500 meters from Tre Kronor in Stockholm. There, Chanut and Descartes made observations with a Torricellian mercury barometer. Challenging Blaise Pascal, Descartes took the first set of barometric readings in Stockholm to see if atmospheric pressure could be used in forecasting the weather.
His memorial, erected in the 1720s, in the Adolf Fredriks kyrka
Descartes apparently arranged to give lessons to Queen Christina after her birthday, three times a week at 5am, in her cold and draughty castle. It soon became clear they did not like each other; she did not care for his mechanical philosophy, nor did he share her interest in Ancient Greek. By 15 January 1650, Descartes had seen Christina only four or five times. On 1 February he contracted pneumonia and died on 11 February. The cause of death was pneumonia according to Chanut, but peripneumonia according to Christina's physician Johann van Wullen who was not allowed to bleed him. (The winter seems to have been mild, except for the second half of January which was harsh as described by Descartes himself; however, "this remark was probably intended to be as much Descartes' take on the intellectual climate as it was about the weather.")
E. Pies has questioned this account, based on a letter by the doctor van Wullen; however, Descartes had refused his treatment, and more arguments against its veracity have been raised since. Descartes might have been assassinated as he asked for an emetic: wine mixed with marijuana.
As a Catholic in a Protestant nation, he was interred in a graveyard used mainly for orphans in Adolf Fredriks kyrka in Stockholm. His manuscripts came into the possession of Claude Clerselier, Chanut's brother-in-law, and "a devout Catholic who has begun the process of turning Descartes into a saint by cutting, adding and publishing his letters selectively." In 1663, the Pope placed his works on the Index of Prohibited Books. In 1666 his remains were taken to France and buried in the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. In 1671 Louis XIV prohibited all the lectures in Cartesianism. Although the National Convention in 1792 had planned to transfer his remains to the Panthéon, he was reburied in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1819, missing a finger and the skull. His skull is on display in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.