17
$\begingroup$

The year before he died, mathematician Rene Descartes accepted an invitation to tutor the brilliant 19-year old Queen Christina of Sweden (some thirty years younger). He apparently died from the Swedish cold and long hours on the job.

I find it surprising that he would accept such an offer, since as a young military man, Descartes had served as an officer in the army of Maximilian of Bavaria, an enemy of Christina's father, Gustavus Adolphus. (On the other hand, his native France was an ally of Sweden).

It is believed by some (as cited in the Wikipedia article), that he was "very close" to Queen Christina, e.g. perhaps converting her to Catholicism, and that this may have contributed to his death.

Are there any records or published contemporary accounts about how he felt about Queen Christina, Sweden, or other factors that would have motivated him to take a job that ultimately killed him?

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Remember that at such time, the concept of "national army" (or the modern concept of nation) did not exist. It was more King of France vs King of Sweden, which each one recruiting an army to fight for them, not for their nations. Typically, the King of France would mainly recruit French people, but only because the were more available to him; mercenaries and foreign units were common. Wars were usually "nothing personal" for officer and rank and file. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Nov 13 '14 at 13:11
7
$\begingroup$

According to the Oregon State University webpage RENE DESCARTES (1595-1650), part of your question is explained by

Two months before the publication of the Passions Descartes set sail for Stockholm, Sweden, at the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden. Descartes' death in Stockholm of pneumonia, has regularly been attributed to the rigours of the Swedish climate and the fact that Descartes (no early riser) was sometimes required to give the Queen lessons as early as five in the morning. However unpleasant these conditions may have been, it seems plain that Descartes acquired his fatal malady as a result of nursing his friend the French ambassador (who had pneumonia) back to health.

Similarly, according to the Washington and Lee University webpage RENÉ DESCARTES (1596-1650),

Because the Queen was often occupied with other business, and wanting to give full attention to philosophy, she arranged for her lessons to be at 5.00 a.m. René was staying at the French embassy opposite the Royal Palace, and had to take a carriage over the bridge to get to Palace each morning. He caught a cold, succumbed to a chill and died on the 11th February, 1650.

So, why did Descartes accept the offer from the Queen of Sweden and move to Stockholm? A possible answer is included in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy webpage Descartes' Life and Works which suggests that the offer from Sweden came at a right to to allow him to get away from a situation that he felt was increasingly threatening his way of life. From the section of the Stanford website about Descartes The Passion, it becomes clear that a very tense and very public academic challenge to Descartes work was happening.

For many reasons, which would certanily include those related to his concerns about Voetius, Descartes accepted the offer

and went to Sweden. A decision, according to the Stanford document linked above, he began to have reservations about.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.