Birthday of a Troubled Philosopher: March 31, 1596

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.

René Descartes

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.

Burning for answers to his questions, Descartes shut himself up in what he called a “stove” (probably a small, well-heated room) and prayed for “light.” Throughout his life, he had found joy in the study of mathematics, for mathematics offered certain truth. And it was in contemplating how mathematicians come to their conclusions that, on November 10, 1619, Descartes said he found “light.”

Mathematicians, he knew, begin with very simple, clearly understood concepts and, by deduction, arrive at certain conclusions. In a flash of inspiration, Descartes thought he discovered that if a philosopher followed the mathematical method in any subject, he could find certain truth. In thanksgiving for this discovery, Descartes vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy House shrine of Our Lady at Loreto in Italy—a vow he fulfilled in 1624.

After visiting Loreto, Descartes remained in Italy for the Jubilee of 1625 and then returned to France. Upon settling in Paris, he found that city life distracted him from thinking; and so, in 1628, he moved to Holland. There, in solitude, he hoped he could continue to develop his philosophical ideas and pursue studies in mathematics and natural science. While in Holland, Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method—a book he finished in 1629 but did not publish for another eight years.

In the Discourse, Descartes described how, beginning in the darkness of doubt, he had come to the light of truth. The truths we think we know, he wrote, are nothing but “prejudices” we learn as children. Only when we realize this, he said, can we understand that we must doubt anything and everything we think we know. “All things must be doubted,” declared Descartes.

But how do we finally escape doubt? We escape doubt, said Descartes, by realizing that only a thinking being can have doubt, for doubt is a thought. Moreover, if I am a thinking being, Descartes continued, I must also exist; for, how could I think if I did not exist? This was the “light” Descartes was seeking—cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” He had proven his own existence. Everything was not an illusion!

Once he discovered that he existed, Descartes came to other conclusions. One of his thoughts, he noted, was of a perfectly good being, of God—and where does such an idea come from? Descartes knew that such a thought could not come from himself, for he was not perfectly good. But from what, then? Descartes concluded that the idea of God could come only from God himself and, therefore, God must exist. And if God exists and is perfectly good, he cannot lie. Therefore, said Descartes, everything I feel, hear, taste, and see must also exist. From understanding that he himself existed, and that God exists, Descartes concluded that the world outside himself also exists.

A depiction of an archangel revealing the nature of the physical universe to a group of natural philosophers. Descartes is pictured in the foreground, second from the left

Using his method, Descartes decided that the human soul is very different from the rest of the world. Only the human soul is free, said Descartes; only human beings have free will, because the human mind and will are not material. The material world, however, and the human body itself, are not free but operate according to fixed and eternal laws that cannot be broken or changed. The material world, said Descartes, is like a vast machine, set in motion by God. But once God set the world in motion, it continued like a machine without any help from God. Descartes said that God gave the universe its first push, but then left it to run on its own and all by itself.

Descartes thought his method would be helpful to the Catholic Faith by proving the existence of God. But his philosophy actually helped bring about a revolution in European thought. By describing the universe as a machine that operated without God’s help, Descartes undermined the Catholic belief in Divine Providence—that God not only created the world but continually keeps it in existence and cares for human beings and all creation. Descartes’s mechanistic view of the universe, too, did not offer any place for miracles. So it was that most Catholics came to reject Descartes’s philosophy. In 1663 (13 years after Descartes’s death), the Holy Office placed his works on the Index of Forbidden Books.

But the Church’s condemnation of Descartes’s works did not stop the spread of his ideas. They would continue to influence many in France and all Europe. Though Descartes did not wish it, his philosophy opened the way for rationalism and skepticism, two doctrines that would undermine the influence of the Catholic Faith and give rise to our modern world.

A Lament for Absalom

In 1629, the year Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method, the German composer, Heinrich Schütz, completed the first volume of his Symphoniae Sacrae (“Sacred Symphonies”), from which this setting of King David’s lament for his son, Absalom, is taken — Fili Mi, Absalon (“O, My Son, Absalom”).

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