Helpful Helena

René Descartes struggled to find something that he could know for certain was real, and not a deception created by his senses. He never married, but he did have a daughter by a maid in the home where he was staying. I’m sure she must have been aware of his mental turmoil, and would have tried to help. From listening to him, she would have got the hang of deep philosophical reasoning, like “I am alive, therefore I am living”. They say that behind every great man there stands a woman, so I wondered whether this lady had anything to do with his most famous thought. (The maid, Helena Jans van der Strom, was actually Dutch, but I reckon she thought in English . . .)

Poor René Descartes
Had got in a stew
Trying to work out
What things must be true.

But his lady friend liked
To help out her great man,
So she wrote down her thoughts:
I think,” she began.

“But now what?” she thought,
“My mind’s in a jam!”
But after a moment
She wrote, “Therefore I am . . .”

(She’d intended to write:
Therefore I am thinking”,
But her quill had run dry
For she’d not put much ink in.)

That last word had still
To be scribed on her pad
When René came in saying,
“I’m going quite mad!”

But when René read
What his mistress had writ,
He jumped in the air, crying
“Yes! That is it!

“Just because I can think,
Therefore I exist!”
And René went out
And got very drunk.

For the background to another Cartesian concept, see “René’s fly”.

[Image of Descartes: Wikimedia Commons]
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