Rene Descartes was the man responsible for the catchphrase ‘I think therefore I am’ - Not quite as good as ‘Am I bovvered’ or ‘I’m a Laydeeee’ perhaps, but infinitely better than ‘Shut that Door.’ In many respects, Descartes was a bit of an oddity. Born into the lower ranks of the French nobility in 1596, he made it his business never to get up before noon, he smoked tobacco that was cut with dope and when he’d done that, he laid down the blueprint for all modern day thinking on any given subject for the next 400 years. Whilst sitting in an oven. Yes, an oven.
In this latest edition of his BAFTA nominated series of lectures, writer and broadcaster Mark Steel sifts through the life and times of a philosopher whose radical thinking resulted in one University banning his work and forbidding its students and teachers to even mention his very name…
To appreciate the sheer genius of Descartes work, we need to look at it in context: He was establishing his pioneering ideas at a time when philosophical thinking wasn’t really encouraged by the church, to such an extent that one philosopher, Vanini had his tongue cut out, was strangled and then burnt at the stake for daring to try and explain how miracles work. Nice.
Join the award winning comedian Mark Steel as he charts Descartes course through scientific history; his stint as a card shark in the dutch army, his invention of the little 2, the symbol used to signify a squared number, his invention of the x and y used in algebra. Not to mention his numerous biological experiments that gave us first clear idea that the senses were linked to the central nervous system and his seminal work, ‘The Meditations’ in which he constructed a theory of the universe which instead of beginning with blind faith, insisted on the prominence of doubt as a starting point.
Not bad for a bloke with a rubbish catchphrase.
First broadcast: Tuesday 7 Oct 2003 on BBC Four