Descartes’ Odd Geometry

Rene Descartes was an unlikely candidate to revolutionize geometry. He began his career as a mercenary soldier, his mind wrapped around things like war and women, which are far from problems of existence and geometry. Descartes’ strange conversion from a life of action to a life of mind occurred on the night of November 10-11 in 1619 while he was bivouacked in an army encampment in Bavaria as a mercenary early in the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648). On that night, Descartes dreamed that exact rational thought, even mathematical method, could be applied to problems of philosophy. This became his life’s work, and because he was a man of exceptional talent, he succeeded in exceptional ways.

Even Descartes’ footnotes were capable of launching new fields of thought.

Descartes left his mercenary employment and established himself in the free-thinking republic of the Netherlands which was ending the long process of casting off the yolk of Spanish rule towards the end of the Eighty Years War (1568—1648). In 1623, he settled in The Hague, a part of the republic that had been free of Spanish troops for many years, and after a brief absence (during which he witnessed the Siege of Rochelle by Cardinal Richelieu), he returned to the Netherlands in 1628, at the age of 32. He remained in the Netherlands, moving often, taking classes or teaching classes at the Universities of Leiden and Utrecht until 1649, when he was enticed away by Queen Christina of Sweden to colder climes and ultimately to his death.


Descartes’ original curve (AC), constructed on non-orthogonal (oblique) x and y coordinates (La Géométrie, 1637)

Descartes’ years in the Netherlands were the most productive epoch of his life as he created his philosophy and pursued his dream’s promise. He embarked on an ambitious project to codify his rational philosophy to gain a full understanding of natural philosophy. He called this work Treatise on the World, known in short as Le Monde, and it quite naturally adopted Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the solar system, which by that time had become widely accepted in learned circles even before Galileo’s publication in 1632 of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. However, when Galileo was convicted in 1633 of suspicion of heresy (See Galileo Unbound, Oxford University Press, 2018), Descartes abruptly abandoned his plans to publish Le Monde, despite being in the Netherlands where he was well beyond the reach of the Church. It was, after all, the Dutch publisher Elzevir who published Galileo’s last work on the Two Sciences in 1638 when no Italian publishers would touch it. However, Descartes remained a devout Catholic throughout his life and had no desire to oppose its wishes. Despite this setback, Descartes continued to work on less controversial parts of his project, and in 1637 he published three essays preceded by a short introduction.

The introduction was called the Discourse on the Method (which contained his famous cogito ergo sum), and the three essays were La Dioptrique on optics, Les Météores on atmosphere and weather and finally La Géométrie on geometry in which he solved a problem posed by Pappus of Alexandria in the fourth century AD. Descartes sought to find a fundamental set of proven truths that would serve as the elements one could use in a deductive method to derive higher-level constructs. It was partially as an exercise in deductive reasoning that he sought to solve the classical mathematics problem posed by Pappus. La Géométrie was published as an essay following the much loftier Discourse, so even Descartes’ footnotes were capable of launching new fields of thought. The new field is called analytical geometry, also known as Cartesian or coordinate geometry, in which algebra is applied to geometric problems. Today, coordinates and functions are such natural elements of mathematics and physics, that it is odd to think that they emerged as demonstrations of abstract philosophy.

Bibliography:  R. Descartes, D. E. Smith, and M. L. Latham, The geometry of René Descartes. Chicago: Open Court Pub. Co., 1925.