Descartes never did a stroke of useful work in his life. At various times he described himself as a soldier, a mathematician, a thinker, and a gentleman. The last comes closest to describing his attitude toward life as well as his social status. His youthful inclination to a life of leisurely ease soon settled into a routine. He lived on his private income, rose at noon, and traveled when he felt like it. Such was his lifeâno dramas, no wives, no great public success (or failure). Yet Descartes was indisputably the most original philosopher to appear in the fifteen centuries following the death of Aristotle.
By the time Descartes arrived on the scene the Renaissance had brought a new humanistic outlook to Europe, and the Reformation had ended the hegemony of the Catholic church. Yet it remained for Descartes to launch the modern age of philosophy. From this period on, the primacy of the individual and the analysis of human consciousness became fundamental to philosophy, a focus that has only recently been superseded by the primacy of the dictionary and analysis of its contents.
René Descartes was born March 31, 1596, in the small town of La Haye, in the Creuse Valley thirty miles south of Tours, France. This spot has now been renamed Descartes, and if you visit it you can still see the house where he was born and the twelfth-century church of St. Georges where he was baptized.
René was the fourth child, and his mother was to die in childbirth the following year. His father Joachim was a judge in the High Court of Brittany. This met at Rennes, 140 miles away, which meant that Joachim was at home for less than half the year. He soon remarried, and René was brought up in the house of a grandmother. Here his main attachment was to his nurse, for whom he retained the fondest regard. He was to pay for her upkeep until the day she died.
Descartes spent a solitary childhood, accentuated by his sickly nature, and he quickly learned to do without company. From his early years he is known to have been introspective and reserved: a wan-faced child with thick curly black hair and large shadow-ringed eyes, wandering through the orchard in his black coat and knee breeches, a black wide-brimmed hat on his head and a long woolen scarf wound round his neck.