René Descartes (1596–1650) has been called the Father of Modern Philosophy because of his work in philosophy, metaphysics, theology, and mathematics. Perhaps best known for the groundbreaking maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes lays out a method for creating solid foundations upon which he can build theoretical arguments—an epistemology known as Cartesianism. The Discourse moves from autobiography to philosophical tract and recounts how Descartes came to the thoughts and processes that redefined philosophy.
From René Descartes, A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Trans. Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 5–11, 28–30, 374.
Although most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe, Defoe (c.1660–1731) was also a prolific pamphleteer and journalist, focusing on issues such as English religious intolerance between Catholics and Anglicans and the political tumult around the 1706 unification of England, Wales, and Scotland into “Great Britain”—for which topics he was a frequent visitor to the pillory. In this work, Defoe narrativizes the Plague of London (1665) through the viewpoint of a fictional main character—though Defoe himself was a child when the pestilence hit and purportedly used his uncle’s journals to flesh out the chilling subject matter.
From Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year (revised edition). Ed. Louis Landa and David Roberts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 16, 49–50, 68–9, 105.
An Italian astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) made many significant contributions to science—such as improvements to the telescope and work with sunspots—but is remembered for his support of a heliocentric model of the solar system. His conviction led him into conflict with the Catholic Church; he was accused of heresy and finished his days under house arrest. Aside from his astronomical texts, Galileo also corresponded with leading figures of his day. This letter, to the Benedictine mathematician Benedetto Castelli, addresses one of the main articles of the problem with Galileo’s heliocentrism: how to reconcile observable scientific fact with the words of the Bible, held to be literal and inviolable in 17th-century Italy.
From Galileo Galilei, Selected Writings. Trans William R. Shea and Mark Davie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 55–61.
Mary Wortley Montagu
Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), who was born into the British aristocracy, sought out an acquaintance with the leading literary and scientific figures of her day, and traveled with her husband to Constantinople while he was ambassador to the Ottoman emperor. Although her husband was recalled to England within a year, Lady Mary had endeavored to learn as much as possible about Turkish customs and behavior, especially those concerning women and children. She frequently had paintings made of herself (and her son) dressed in Turkish costume, and she considered it patriotic to import Turkish customs that she thought could benefit her fellow Englishmen. Her introduction of the Turkish practice of inoculation against smallpox drew the great admiration of Voltaire, who praised her intelligence and her willingness to learn from others in his Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733).
Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters from the Levant during the Embassy to Constantinople, 1716–18 (New York, Arno, 1971), 124, 128–129, 146–148.