Was the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the man known as the father of Western philosophy, murdered?
Descartes officially died in Stockholm, Sweden, from pneumonia. Sweden was the most powerful nation in Europe at the time, and its queen, Christiana, collected everything imaginable, including academics and philosophers. In 1996, based on a letter by the court physician, a German writer hypothesized that Descartes may actually have been poisoned.
But the natural causes for his death remained accepted.
In The Irrationalist: The Tragic Murder of Rene Descartes, author Andrew Pessin has written a fictional account of the philosopher’s death indeed being murder. And Pessin constructs a fascinating murder mystery with a very unlikely detective.
It’s a wonderfully intriguing story.
Adrien Baillet is sent from the Jesuit school where he serves the rector to Stockholm, to represent the school with the Swedish government. Baillet is not a Jesuit; in fact, he’s not much of anything except a servant to the rector. But the school decides it is him who must be sent. When he arrives, he discovers that his school’s most famous graduate, Rene Descartes, has died. The French ambassador and the Swedish ambassador decide between them that Baillet must investigate, to put the rumors about murder to rest.
And so Baillet bumbles and stumbles his way through the investigation. And he’s told, more than once, that he must know the dead man’s life to know how he died, and, if it’s murder, why.
The story unfolds in two primary narratives – the life of Descartes and the investigation by Baillet. Eventually they converge, and Baillet indeed discovers that what happened to Descartes is buried deep in the man’s past, a past that includes his education, his becoming a soldier, the Thirty Years War, and the contemporary politics of Europe, Sweden, and France in 1650.
And the murder investigator may just discover some of his own history. Baillet will find himself attacked, his rooms ransacked, and more than one knife at his throat. The stakes are high in the most powerful monarchy in Europe, and someone, perhaps more than just one, is playing for keeps. The tension continues to build until the very end.
Pessin, a professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, is also the author of The 60-Second Philosopher, Uncommon Sense: The Strangest Ideas from the Smartest Philosophers, The God Question: What Famous Thinkers from Plato to Dawkins have said about the Divine, and other works. The Irrationalist is his first work of fiction.
Well research and including real people as many of the characters, it’s a story that never flags. Here’s hoping Professor Pessin continues to write historical fiction.
Top photograph: Rene Descartes.