Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.
When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.
This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.
Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.
Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.
Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.
He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.
It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.