queen kristina and rene descartes -- 10/20/20

Today's selection -- from Scandinavians by Robert Ferguson. Queen Kristina of Sweden and René Descartes:

"[One of] the most intriguing of Sweden's monarchs ... was Queen Kristina, the only child of Gustavus Adolphus. She reigned under a regent from the time of her father's death in 1632 to 1645, and in her own right thereafter until her abdication in 1654. If her own father and the male relatives who succeeded her took care of the military responsibilities involved in the creation and maintenance of this northern European empire, it fell to Kristina to provide it with the cultural identity and attributes proper to a country that had, almost overnight, announced itself as a Great Power. An occasional actress herself, she cultivated the theatre, the arts, music and literature, and she worked consciously to makes hers a sophisticated European court. As a woman of questing intellect, with a deep interest in religion, philosophy and Greek antiquity, she was culturally ambitious for Sweden and keen to mark its new-found status. She must have been delighted when René Descartes, the most celebrated and controversial philosopher of the age, accepted her invitation to join her as resident philosopher at the court in Stockholm.

"Hesitant at first, wary of finding himself reduced to a role as the queen's tutor, Descartes was relieved to discover, once he arrived in Stockholm, that Kristina was genuinely interested in hearing his response to the profoundly existential questions she had already raised with him in the correspondence that had preceded the appointment. They included: 'Which is worse, the abuse of love or the abuse of hatred?', 'What is love, and what are the effects of love and of its opposite, hatred, on a human life?' and 'What is the nature of the relationship between ordinary commonsense and religious revelation?' She also wanted to know whether a 'natural understanding' was sufficient for someone to love God; even before his arrival in Stockholm, the deeply modest Descartes had assured her that indeed it was.

Kristina, Queen of Sweden
David Beck, c. 1650

"By the time he arrived in the Swedish capital late in 1649 Descartes was, at sixty, already an old man by the standards of the day; but he was still pleased to wear a curly wig, embroidered gloves and the long, thin pointed shoes fashionable at the time. For much of his life it had been his habit to spend his mornings in bed, thinking, reading and writing, but this routine became brutally swamped beneath Kristina's own. As a queen in waiting, she had been disciplined from her childhood to spend ten hours a day in the study of religion, philosophy, Greek, Latin and several modern languages, including German, French and Italian. Happily for her, such discipline suited her temperament, and despite the wealth of new responsibilities that came with her coronation, these habits of study continued into her adult years. Poor old Descartes had to be fitted in somewhere, and that turned out to be 4am daily, in her library -- unheated, in what was even for Stockholm an unusually cold winter.

"There it was his duty to be brilliant and revelatory in discoursing on matters that were, as it turned out, of quite exceptional importance to the queen. Descartes had no doubt been hoping for a more comfortable and less demanding sinecure, but he was sufficiently impressed by Kristina's obvious sincerity not to mention his personal discomforts. His passionate advocacy of doubt as the only intellectually honourable position possible for an individual in search of answers to the most profound questions changed her life and dramatically reshaped her destiny. As a queen, though, it ruined her and caused consternation and confusion among her countrymen, for as things turned out the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, Lion of the North, Defender of the Protestant Faith, had somehow survived the childhood indoctrination of her Protestant tutors to find herself increasingly attracted to Roman Catholicism, a faith now so severely proscribed under Swedish law that conversion entailed the loss of all civil rights and automatic expulsion from the country.

"These prohibitions meant that Kristina's journey to Catholicism was undertaken largely in secrecy, and the progress of her convictions is hard to plot. What is certain is that a crucial earlier influence was the French ambassador to Sweden, Pierre Chanut, a rational, civilized, learned and tolerant man, whose very attributes suggested to her that most of what her Protestant tutors had told her about Catholics was exaggeration, prejudice and propaganda. It was through her friendship with Chanut that she first came into contact with Descartes. Whether or not those icy early-morning encounters in the queen's library took the form of some kind of instruction or intellectual soundings of the queen's curiosity about Catholicism is an issue that has been much debated; but whatever it was they talked about, there must have been a peculiar intensity to their discussions, as the queen struggled with a growing realization of the impossibility of being the Catholic ruler of a Protestant people. Descartes must have impressed her in the same way as Chanut, exhibiting a brilliant intellect suffused with enough honourable doubt to concede that even rationalism has its limits, and that left him free to adhere rather than cling to his Catholic faith.

"If indeed Descartes did have a crucial influence on the queen's thinking it was a final personal triumph. He suffered dreadfully from the rigours of Kristina's routine during their first full month as teacher and pupil, that bitterly cold January of 1650. By the time he arrived for their meetings, he would already be frozen to the bone by the coach drive to the palace, and as he walked the last few metres of the way across a little bridge, it seemed to him that in such extreme cold even men's thoughts must freeze like the water. Protocol required that he remain standing throughout their sessions, his head bare. By early February he was fevered, showing symptoms of pneumonia, and experiencing congestion of the lungs, which he gamely tried to treat with a medication of his own devising: liquid tobacco suspended in heated wine. As February dragged on, his strange concoction appeared to be having some effect, and one day he expressed a desire to get up from his bed and, with the assistance of his manservant Henry Schluter, sit for a while in an armchair. But even this mild exertion proved too much, and he fainted.
It seems he realized the end was close after regaining consciousness, and on 10 February a priest who had arrived to administer the last rites was given permission to proceed by a blinking of the eyes. The following morning, Descartes passed away."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Robert Ferguson


Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North


The Overlook Press


Copyright Robert Ferguson, 2016


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