More Than One
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
René Descartes never knew how his mother died. If he did, might he have loved women?
It was in childbirth, when he was fourteen months old. Henry IV was in the 12th year of his reign. Henry’s idea was to create the best school in the entire country, called La Flèche, to educate France’s brightest citizens. In 1606 Descartes arrived at the age of ten, a mere pupil in a class of 1200.
René’s instructors were the Jesuits, and a father there by the name of Charlet took an interest in the smartest boy at La Flèche. Descartes was afforded his own room — he did not have to sleep in the dormitory with the other children. He was afforded special dispensation to stay in bed until noon, and it was there he did much of his work.
Many of La Flèche’s faculty had joined the Jesuits for the academic freedom they offered. Science was an open subject and the latest theories were discussed. In the school’s library, René found books of the occult. At La Flèche he learned Greek and Latin. It was Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, who interested René most. Math gradually began to occupy the majority of the boy’s time.
In 1610, King Henry IV was stabbed to death. The King’s heart was excavated from his body and moved to the school, where it was buried in a ceremony by René and twenty-four other students. The entire campus draped itself in the black of mourning; candles lined the hallways. Father Charlet gave the eulogy in Latin.
The year before, Galileo produced his first telescope. Stores in Paris sold them later that summer. “If you had a year or two to equip yourself with everything necessary,” René wrote to an artisan friend, “I would wager that we’ll see if there are animals on the moon.”
At first René harbored a deep respect for the Jesuits who taught him so many different subjects. Eventually, he grew disillusioned. Half the time after he imbibed a particular lesson, he would learn later that the salient facts of the discipline were in fact wrong. “It seemed to me in trying to educate myself,” Descartes wrote, “I had done nothing more than discover my own ignorance at every turn.”
A short sojourn in law school was the end of his formal education. After leaving La Flèche, gambling appealed to him immediately. He could manage complex calcuations in his head, so understanding the odds was nor problem. He earned a law degree because it was what his father wanted.
René could not muster any interest in the women of Paris. He was more at ease with his scientist friends, but never quite comfotable with anyone. He was done with the city, so he went to Holland to join the army. A year of not fighting later, he left to join the other side, a sort of military tourist.
When diplomacy halted the conflict, René rented a heated room on the Danube in the city of Ulm. He stopped drinking his customary wine and tried to remember his dreams, which became evil, disturbed. Scholars later puzzled over the extensive descriptions of these nighttime sojourns. They were even presented to Freud, who did not think much of them on a symbolic level.
His visions caused Descartes to leave the army and continue to travel. In 1622 he returned home to sell the portion of his mother’s estate to which he was entitled. His father wanted him to find a wife, but this was the last thing on his mind. “His own experience — not to say his refinement of taste — led him to declare that a beautiful woman, a good book, a perfect preacher, were all the things in the world most difficult to find.”
His friends in Paris were Balzac and other scientists like Claude Hardy and Claude Mydorge. He moved to Holland, where he planned to finish his first book, the Discourse. Before completion, René found out that Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems was banned by the Catholic Church.
René was furious and reconsidered publishing the fruits of his labors. “I cannot imagine that an Italian, and especially one well thought of by the Pope from what I have heard, could have been labeled a criminal for nothing other than wanting to establish the movement of the earth.” He published Discourse anyway, and it was a sensation. Not only did it attack much of how scientific thought operated, the text had Galileo in its sights as well. “It seems to me,” René wrote, “that he lacks a great deal in that he is continually digressing, and never stops to explain one topic completely, which demonstrates that he had not examined them in an orderly fashion.”
During this time Descartes managed his first and only recorded romance. She was a servant girl of 24 in the house of his friend Thomas Seargent in Amsterdam. Helen was literate and somewhat beautiful, so they conceived a child. Because she was Protestant and he was ashamed, there was no talk of marriage. He moved her to Deventer where she gave birth to his only spawn, a girl named Francine.
René referred to Francine as his niece and never mentioned his daughter or the woman who bore her to anyone who might talk. He set up a situation where Helen and Francine could stay with him when he received no visitors. He began to worry about his physical health for the first time, turning his attention to the study of medicine.
When Francine hit five, he planned to send her to France for school. Instead she died suddenly from scarlet fever, her face covered in purple bruises, with her father hundreds of miles away. The year 1640 also recorded the death of Descartes’ father and his sister Jeanne. “I am not one of those who believes that tears and sadness belong only to women,” he remarked. He published a lot more before dying of pneumonia while he was tutoring the young Queen of Sweden.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording.
“The Other Side of Love” – Jack Savoretti (mp3)
“Nobody ‘Cept You” – Jack Savoretti (mp3)