“…if we conceive the world in that vast extension you give it, it is impossible that man conserve himself therein in this honorable rank, on the contrary, he shall consider himself along with the entire earth he inhabits as in but a small, tiny and in no proportion to the enormous size of the rest. He will very likely judge that these stars have inhabitants, or even that the earths surrounding them are all filled with creatures more intelligent and better than he, certainly, he will lose the opinion that this infinite extent of the world is made for him or can serve him in any way.”( Queen Christina to Rene Descartes )
Yet, it was in the uncompromising surroundings of Sweden that Christina ( 1626-1689 ) set out to create for herself a court life which would dazzle and allure the best minds of Europe. In an age of patronage she would be the greatest patron of them all. In carrying out her design she enjoyed, and exploited to the full, certain important advantages. The victorious Swedish armies, campaigning in Central Europe, had sent back to Stockholm, at the queen’s insistent request, a stream of valuable trophies; books and objets d’art and paintings, culminating in the greatest prize of all, the magnificent picture collection assembled at Prague at the end of the sixteenth-century by Emperor Rudolph II.
”Other parts were hurriedly transferred to Vienna to avoid their confiscation by the Bohemian Parliament. However the mayor losses occurred in 1631 during the occupation of Prague by the army of the Protestant Prince Elector of Saxony, Johann Georg I. He personally came to make a selection and left for Dresden with more that 50 ox wagon loads of bounty. The next pillage occurred at the end of the 30-year war in 1648, when Swedish troops occupied the Hradschin and left with 150 wagon loads for the court of Christina of Sweden. The queen was however not very enthusiastic and complained in letter to the Count of Bracciano that she had now this big and beautiful collection but would have exchanged it gladly for just two paintings by Rafael.” ( friendsofjade.org)
As the castle of the Three Crowns at Stockholm became filled with these precious articles, Christina required curators and librarians to study and classify them. Revolutions in England and France had eliminated, the first permanently, the second temporarily, two of her principal rivals in the international patronage stakes, Charles I and Cardinal Mazarin, part of whose library she managed to acquire. As surprising reports of the brilliance and erudition of the young Swedish queen percolated southward, scholars for the first time turned their gaze toward an almost unknown North.
Christina was quick to seize her chance. Distinguished European men of letters, Isaac Vossius and Claudius Salmasius from Holland, and, above all , the great Rene Descartes, received flattering invitations to assist, enlighten, and instruct the queen. She set up an academy, in the proper manner of her age. She patronized the arts and sciences, brought stage designers from Italy, and commissioned court battles with novel choreography and scenic apparatus. She discussed difficult philological and philisophical problems with learned European corrspondents and thrilled as some newly acquired Greek manuscript was laid before her at court. Her enthusiasm and erudition soon brought her the universal reputation to which she aspired. Pascal, who had never met her, in 1652 sent her his calculating machine, with an accompanying letter which eloquently testifies to Christina’s fame among men of letters; ”I know, my lady, that I might well be judged presumptuous in offering this calcualting machine to Your Majesty. I was moved thereto by the union in your person of two qualities both of which fill me with wonder and reverence, namely absolute sovereignty and sound learning… Mankind, being led by nature to desire that which is most complete, had till now hoped in vain for the spectacle of such a ruler above all others….That degree of completeness, which men could not attain, has been realized through a young Queen,…”
Perhaps, if Pascal had met her , his raptures would have been more moderately phrased. It was true that men of letters, at their first meeting, were captivated by her gaiety, the quickness of her wit, and the liveliness of what the English ambassador, that cultivated Puritan, Bulstrode Whitelocke, called her ”pleasant intermixed discourses”. But by the second or third meeting, it became apparent that the discourses were a good deal too intermixed. Christina’s quick mind would dart here and there, picking up and dropping again some point which momentarily engaged her attention, but which she never had the patience to examine and probe. At heart, the scholar queen remained a dilettante.
When Descartes was installed in Stockholm, the twenty-year-old Queen had him spend a depressing autumn during which he was employed in writing a pastoral comedy and composing verses to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. There was a great deal of antagonism than may have been more profound than intellectual differences.Christina’s preference for Greek manuscripts was criticised by Descartes when he visited Stockholm in 1650. Christina said in reply that she thought his ideas were already formulated by the sceptic Sextus Empiricus and by St. Augustine. She also read a copy of Iamblichus’ De mysteriis aegyptiaca, a text that uses Platonic and Hermetic sources in itsriptions of theurgy and divination, methods of coming into contact with gods and demons.
Nor was Pascal entirely correct in his assumption that Christina had achieved a perfect union of ”the liberty of study with the burdens of kingship.” The liberty seemed increasingly restricted , the burdens increasingly intolerable. Christina was always a woman at war both with herself and her surroundings. The brilliance and sophistication of her court seemed ill-attuned to the more prosaic background of contemporary Swedish life. The free-ranging philosophical discussions jarred with the stiff, dogmatic Lutheranism which the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus and the queen of Protestant Sweden was expected to uphold.
Some of her most stimulating intellectual companions and correspondents were members of the Roman Church and she gradually became convinced that she would find in Catholicism that intellectual freedom which her own brand of Protestantism seemed to deny her.
”Beginning in 1639, the Netherlands became distinctly less hospitable. Descartes became the target of abuse from one Gisbert Voetius, a professor of theology at the University of Utrecht, who, as Mr. Gaukroger observes, “set out to destroy Descartes” in a campaign of insinuation and slander that was to last for more than five years. At one point, Descartes was in danger of being expelled from the city and having his books burned. So it is not perhaps surprising that when Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to come to Stockholm under her protection he (after some hesitation) decided to accept. Descartes arrived in Sweden in October of 1649. At first, he had almost no duties. But in January—the most bitterly cold in many years—he began tutoring the Queen, whom Bertrand Russell aptly describes as “a passionate and learned lady who thought that, as a sovereign, she had the right to waste the time of great men.” The tutorials commenced at 5:00A.M. three days a week and lasted for some five hours. For Descartes, who was accustomed to sleep late and preferred working in bed, the regime was too much. After nursing a sick friend to health, he himself came down with pneumonia and died in February 1650.” ( Roger Kimball )
”At first Descartes was unwilling to go, but Salvius and his masters threatened him and he finally accepted the offer and travelled to Sweden. After a short time in the country he died on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm, The cause of death was initially said to be pneumonia – accustomed to working in bed until noon, he may have suffered a detrimental effect to his health due to Christina’s demands for early morning study. Others believe that Descartes may have contracted pneumonia as the result of nursing a French ambassador, ill with the aforementioned disease, back to health. However, letters to and from the doctor Eike Pies have recently been discovered which indicate that Descartes was poisoned by arsenic. Certainly, this is correct; however, the secret of his murderers’ identities and motives must go with me to the grave. Certain it is, however, that the Brotherhood was implicated.”