This Week in History

Birth of a Troubled Philosopher:

March 31, 1596

The following comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For ordering information on this text and our other books, please click here.

File:Frans Hals - Portret van René Descartes.jpg

René Descartes

When the the terrible Thirty Years War had only just begun, a young man took up a private struggle, a fearful struggle, of his own. This young man, named René Descartes, had joined the army of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria. The duke was fighting on the side of the German emperor, Ferdinand I, against Protestant forces in Bohemia. A devout Catholic, Descartes was filled with doubt, but not about his faith. Instead, he wondered how he could know the truth about the world, whether what he sensed and experienced was really true or not. He even wondered how, apart from faith, anyone could know if God exists.

Descartes was born in 1596 at La Haye, in the region of Touraine in southern France. As a boy, he studied at the Jesuit school of Henri-Le-Grand at La Flèche. During his eight years at the school, Descartes studied Latin and Greek, mathematics, and other classical studies. But the subject he loved most was mathematics.

Though he was a sickly youth, Descartes’s physical weakness did not hinder him from continuing his studies. In 1613, at the age of 17, Descartes entered the University of Poitiers, where he earned his law degree three years later. But Descartes did not want to be a lawyer; instead, he longed for military glory and so became a soldier.

While serving as a soldier in Bavaria, Descartes continued to study mathematics and another subject he deeply loved, philosophy. But philosophy introduced him to some troubling questions. How can man come to the truth, he asked himself? How can man know he has come to the truth? These questions deeply troubled Descartes. Only by answering them could he hope to find peace. (more…)

This Week in History

Milan and Venice Expel the Austrians: March 22, 24, 1848

Why was the imperial government in Vienna powerless to stop the rebellion? [Please see our story on the Vienna rebellion here.] After all, it had a strong army that had crushed rebellions in Italy — why could it not do the same in its capital city, Vienna? Why were the rebels there able to do as they wished? Why did rebellion have its way?

A Milanese illustration from 1848: An Austrian soldier depicted as a pig

Perhaps the chief reason was that the Austrian army was busy elsewhere — in Italy. Anti-Austrian feeling had long been simmering in Habsburg-controlled regions of Italy — in Lombardy and Venezia (both ruled directly from Vienna) as well as Tuscany, Parma, and Modena, which were ruled by Habsburg princes. Anti-Austrian feeling was especially strong in Milan, the capital of Lombardy, where many citizens longed for independence and Liberal freedoms. The Austrians had been hard masters.

News of the Viennese uprising and the downfall of Metternich got the trouble going in Milan. On March 18, 1848, a crowd of about 10,000 Milanese gathered in front of Milan’s town hall. It was not a peaceful gathering (many were armed), and soon a large number of the demonstrators had broken into the government palace and forced the vice-governor to give in to their demands.


This Week in History

The Fall of Metternich: March 13, 1848

Revolutionary students in the streets of Vienna, March 1848

In only a few days, Kossuth’s speech to the Hungarian Diet made its way the 50 or so miles from Pressburg to Vienna. There it was copied and spread around the city. News of the Paris revolution had already created much excitement among students of the University of Vienna, and now Kossuth’s speech worked like a call to battle. Reform not only of Hungary, but of all Austria! Constitutional government! Religious freedom! Students were ready to take up arms to force Austria and her Habsburg rulers at long last to enter the 19th century.

It was March 13, 1848. Delegates representing the people of Lower Austria had been summoned to meet in Vienna. They were gathering in their assembly hall, the Landhaus, when they heard from outside a rumbling of voices. An immense crowd of students and poor workingmen had surrounded the Landhaus. A student had been proclaiming Kossuth’s speech to the great, enthusiastic mob. The delegates could hear the angry cries — “Down with Metternich! Down with Metternich!” (more…)

This Week in History

Uprising in the Vendée: March 10, 1793

The following comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. For ordering information on this text and our other books, please click here.

The dangers threatening the revolution were indeed grave. France was surrounded by foreign enemies. She was at war with Austria, Prussia, Holland, Great Britain, Spain, and the Italian kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Revolutionary armies were retreating before the enemy; Prussian and Austrian armies threatened to march on Paris. But threats to the revolution came not only from outside France. They came from within, and from people that few in France might have thought would become dangerous enemies.

Map of the Department of the Vendée

The peasants of western France (in Lower Poitou, Anjou, Lower Maine, and Brittany) had not benefited much from the revolution. Especially in the region falling within the department of the Vendée, the peasants were discontent because of the revolutionary government’s attacks on their religion. Both in the Marais (a seaside, low-lying, marshy area along the lower Loire River) and in the more heavily forested Bocage, the Vendeans protected nonjuror priests and resisted the new state Church. In these regions of the poor, the Middle Ages still lived and the Catholic Faith remained the center of life.