Birth of a Troubled Philosopher:
March 31, 1596
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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…)