Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: Descartes—His Life and Writings . - The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes
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I.: Descartes—His Life and Writings . - Réné Descartes, The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes 
The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes, translated from the Original Texts, with a new introductory Essay, Historical and Critical by John Veitch and a Special Introduction by Frank Sewall (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901).
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The life of Descartes is best read in his writings, especially in that choice and pleasing fragment of mental autobiography, the Discours de la Méthode. But it is desirable to give the leading facts and dates of a career as unostentatious and barren of current and popular interest, as it was significant and eventful for the future of modern thought.
René Descartes was born on the 31st March, 1596. His birthplace was La Haye, a small town in the province of Touraine, now the department of the Indre et Loire. His family, on both sides, belonged to the landed gentry of the province of Poitou, and was of old standing. The ancestral estates lay in the neighborhood of Châtelleraut, in the plain watered by the Vienne, as it flows northward, amid fields fertile in corn and vines, to the Loire. The manor, called Les Cartes, from which the family derived its name, is about a league from La Haye. It is now embraced in the commune of Ormes-Saint-Martin, in the department of Vienne, which represents the old province of Poitou.
The mother of the philosopher was Jeanne Brochard, and his father was Joachim Descartes, a lawyer by profession, and a counsellor in the Parliament of Bretagne. This assembly was held in the town of Rennes, the old capital of the province, and there the family usually resided during the session. René was the third child of the marriage. The title of Seigneur du Perron, sometimes attached to his name, came to him from inheriting a small estate through his mother. His elder brother followed the father's profession, and became in his turn a counsellor of the Parliament of Bretagne. He seems to have been a proper type of the conventional gentleman of the time. So far from regarding it as an honor to be connected with the philosopher, he thought it derogatory to the family that his brother René should write books. This elder brother was the first of the family to settle in Bretagne, so that it is a mistake to represent Descartes as a Breton. He was really descended from Poitou ancestry.
In 1604, at the age of eight, he was sent to the recently-instituted Jesuit College of La Flèche. The studies of the place were of the usual scholastic type. He mastered these, but he seems to have taken chiefly to mathematics. Here he remained eight years, leaving the college in 1612. After a stay in Paris of four years, the greater part of the time being spent in seclusion and quiet study, at the age of twenty-one he entered the army, joining the troops of Prince Maurice of Nassau in Holland. He afterward took service with the Duke of Bavaria, then made a campaign in Hungary under the Count de Bucquoy. His insatiable desire of seeing men and the world, which had been the principal motive for his joining the army, now urged him to travel. Moravia, Silesia, the shores of the Baltic, Holstein, and Friesland, were all visited by him at this time. Somewhat later, in 1623, he set out from Paris for Italy, traversed the Alps and visited the Grisons, the Valteline, the Tyrol, and then went by Innsbruck to Venice and Rome. In the winter of 1619-20, when, after close thinking, some fundamental point in his philosophy dawned on his mind, he had a remarkable dream, and thereupon he vowed to make a pilgrimage to Loretto. There can be little doubt that he actually fulfilled his vow on the occasion of this visit to Italy, walking on foot from Venice to Loretto. He finally settled to the reflective work of his life in 1629, at the age of thirty-three, choosing Amsterdam for his residence. Holland was then the land of freedom—civil and literary — and this no doubt influenced his decision. But he also, as he tells us, preferred the cooler atmosphere of the Low Lands to the heat of Italy and France. In the former he could think with cool head, in the latter he could only produce phantasies of the brain.
Here, professing and acting on the principle, Bene vixit bene qui latuit, he meditated and wrote for twenty years, with a patience, force, and fruitfulness of genius which has been seldom equalled in the history of the world. His works appeared in the following order: Discours de la Méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences; plus la Dioptrique, les Météores et la Géométrie, qui sont des Essais de cette Méthode. Leyden: 1637. This was published anonymously. Etienne de Courcelles translated the Method, Dioptrics, and Meteors into Latin. This was revised by Descartes, and published at Amsterdam in 1644. The Geometry was translated into Latin, with commentary, by Francis von Schooten, and published at Leyden, 1649. The Meditations were first published in Paris in 1641. The title was Meditationes de prima Philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstrantur. In the second edition, published under the superintendence of the author himself at Amsterdam in 1642, the title was as follows: Renati Descartes Meditationes de prima Philosophia, in quibus Dei existentia et animæ a corpore distinctio demonstrantur. His adjunctæ sunt variæ objectiones doctorum virorum ad istas de Deo et animæ demonstrationes cum responsionibus auctoris. The Meditations were translated into French by the Due de Luynes in 1647. The Principia Philosophies appeared at Amsterdam in 1644. The Abbé Picot translated it into French, 1647, Paris. The Traité des Passions de l'Âme appeared at Amsterdam in 1649.
Regarding the Method of Descartes, Saisset has very well said: “It ought not be forgotten that in publishing the Method, Descartes joined to it, as a supplement, the Dioptrics, the Geometry, and the Meteors. Thus at one stroke he founded, on the basis of a new method, two sciences hitherto almost unknown and of infinite importance — Mathematical Physics and the application of Algebra to Geometry; and at the same time he gave the prelude to the Meditations and the Principles — that is to say, to an original Metaphysic, and the mechanical theory of the universe.”
The appearance of the Discours de la Méthode marked an epoch not only in philosophy, but in the French language itself, as a means especially of philosophical expression. Peter Ramus, in his violent crusade against Aristotle, had published a Dialectic in French, but it was the Discours de la Méthode of Descartes which first truly revealed the clearness, precision, and natural force of his native language in philosophical literature. The use, too, of a vernacular tongue, immensely aided the diffusion and appreciation of the first great movement of modern thought.
Descartes, though a self-contained and self-inspired man, of marked individuality and a spirit of speculation wonderful for its comprehensiveness, had not the outspoken boldness which we are accustomed to associate with great reformers. He was not one, indeed, who cared to encounter the powerful opposition of the Church, to which by education he belonged. This is obvious from many things in his writings. He avoided, as far as possible, the appearance of an innovator, while he was so in the truest sense of the word. When he attacked an old dogma, it was not by a daring march up to the face of it, but rather by a quiet process of sapping the foundations. He got rid also of traditional principles not so much by direct attack as by substituting for them new proofs and grounds of reasoning, and thus silently ignoring them.
One little incident of his life shows at once the character of the man and of the times in which he lived, and the difficulties peculiar to the position of an original thinker in those days. He had completed the manuscript of a treatise De Mundo, and was about to send it to his old college friend Mersenne in Paris, with a view to arrange for its printing. In it he had maintained the doctrine of the motion of the earth. Meanwhile (November, 1633), he heard of the censure and condemnation of Galileo. This led him not only to stay the publication of the book, but even to talk of burning the manuscript, which he seems to have done in part. Descartes might no doubt have taken generally a more pronounced course in the statement of his opinions; but, looking to the jealous antagonism between the modern spirit represented by philosophy and literature on the one hand, and the old represented by theology on the other, during the immediately preceding period of the Renaissance and in his own time, it is doubtful whether such a line of action would have been equally successful in gaining acceptance for his new views, and promoting the interests of truth. An original thinker, with the recent fates of Ramus, Bruno, and Vanini before his eyes, to say nothing of the loathsome dungeon of Campanella, may be excused for being somewhat over-prudent. At any rate, it is not for us in these days to cast stones at a man of his character and circumstances. In these times singularity of opinion, whether it imply originality and judgment or not, is quite as much a passport to reputation with one set of people as the most pronounced orthodoxy is with another.
Even in Holland, however, he was not destined to find the absolute repose and freedom from annoyance which he sought and valued so highly. The publication of the Method brought down on him the unreasoning violence of the well-known Voët (Voëtius), Protestant clergyman at Utrecht, and afterward rector of the university there. With the characteristic blindness of the man of theological traditions, he accused Descartes of atheism. Voët allied himself with Schook (Schookius), of Groningen. The two sought the help of the magistrates. Descartes replied to the latter, who, in a big book, had accused him of scepticism, atheism, and madness. The influence of Voët was such that he got the magistrates to prepare a secret process against the philosopher. “Their intention,” says Saisset, “was to condemn him as atheist and calumniator: as atheist, apparently because he had given new proofs of the existence of God; as calumniator, because he had repelled the calumnies of his enemies.” The ambassador of France, with the help of the Prince of Orange, stopped the proceedings. Descartes is not the only, nor even the most recent instance, in which men holding truths traditionally cannot distinguish their friends from their foes.
Queen Christina of Sweden, daughter of the great Gustavus Adolphus, had come under the influence of the writings of Descartes. She began a correspondence with him on philosophical points, and finally prevailed upon him to leave Holland, and come to reside in Stockholm. He reached that capital in October, 1649. The winter proved hard and severe, and the queen insisted on having her lecture in philosophy at five in the morning. The constitution of the philosopher, never robust, succumbed to the climate. He died of inflammation of the lungs, on the nth February, 1650, at the age of fifty-four. In 1666 his remains were brought to France and interred in Paris, in the church of Sainte-Geneviève. “On the 24th June, 1667,” says Saisset, “a solemn and magnificent service was performed in his honor. The funeral oration should have been pronounced after the service; but there came an order from the Court [in the midst of the ceremony] which prohibited its delivery. History ought to say that the man who solicited and obtained that order was the Father Le Tellier.” A finer illustration of contemporary narrowness before the breadth and power of genius could not well be found.
In 1796, the decree made by the Convention three years before, that the honors of the Pantheon should be accorded to Descartes, was presented by the Directory to the Council of the Cinq-Cents, by whom it was rejected. It was thus that the national philosopher of France was treated by ecclesiastic and revolutionist alike.
In 1819, the remains of Descartes were removed from the Court of the Louvre, whither they had been transferred from Sainte-Geneviève, to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. There Descrates now lies between Montfaucon and Mabillon.