Early Modern Philosophy
Did Malebranche lead an exciting life?
If he did, it was in his inner life. To all outward appearances, Nicolas Malebranche was a scholar with the temperament of a religious recluse. He was born and died in Paris and throughout his life liked solitude.
Malebranche was sickly as a child, born with a deformed spine and prone to respiratory problems. He was educated at home by a tutor until the age of 16. His father, Nicolas, was a royal counselor who managed the finances of five farms. His mother was sister to the viceroy of Canada.
Malebranche entered the College de la Marche of the University of Paris, receiving an M.A. in two years, after which he studied theology at the Sorbonne in Paris for another three years. He was ordained as a priest in 1665 at Faubourg St. Jaques. His family contributed to his support by the Church, and he had no official duties beyond teaching mathematics in 1674. In 1690 the Church put his Traité de la nature et de la grace (1680) on the Index of books that Catholics were forbidden by the Church to read because his claim that all of our ideas are in God was controversial and because he’d been successful in spreading René Descartes’ (1596–1650) mathematics. (Descartes’ writings were on the Church’s index of forbidden books, so Catholics were forbidden to read them and they could not be taught in Church schools.) Although his most important work, The Search after Truth (1674), won him wide acclaim, his students, such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), were considered of greater ability; Malebranche encouraged their research.
In 1871, Alexander Campbell Frasier, a biographer of philosophers, wrote this account of how the young philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1783) was the “occasional cause” of the death of Malebranche:
[Berkeley] found the ingenious Father [Malebranche] in a cell, cooking, in a small pipkin [an earthenware cooking pot that was positioned directly over a flame], a medicine for a disorder with which he was then troubled—an inflammation on the lungs. The conversation naturally turned on [George] Berkeley’s [(1685–1783)] system, of which he had received some knowledge from a translation just published. But the issue of the debate proved tragic to poor Malebranche. In the heat of the disputation, he raised his voice so high, and gave way so freely to the natural impetuosity of a man of parts and a Frenchman, that he brought on himself a violent increase of his disorder, which carried him off a few days after.