KEYWORDS: Elisabeth of the Palatinate, Elisabeth of Bohemia, René Descartes, Mind-Body Problem, 17th Century, History of Philosophy, History of Ideas, mechanistic philosophy.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Elisabeth – the Princess of the Palatinate and later the Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey – influenced many of her contemporary intellectuals and philosophers, most famously the French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes dedicated his Principles of Philosophy to her, and his last work The Passions of the Soul was written at her request. The written correspondence of Elisabeth and René Descartes reveals mutual influence and an intellectual debate between two brilliant minds.1 Their correspondence is fascinating and important philosophical document, giving insight into the theoretical debates of the 17th century.2 Most notably she questioned Descartes’s idea of the mind-body dualism, pointing out that his account of causal interaction between a material body and a nonmaterial mind conflicted with the principles of his mechanical philosophy. Descartes seems to have taken this criticism to heart, but failed to adequately respond to it. Their correspondence covered other topics from geometry to Seneca’s stoicism, as well as the theological problem of the freedom of the will.1 After Descartes’ death in 1650, Elisabeth continued discussing his work with the German philosopher G.W. Leibniz.
Elisabeth did not publish any treatises or longer texts, and her correspondence with Descartes was, at her own will, not published during her lifetime. It only appeared in full in 1879, and was not translated into English until 2007. Her philosophical talents and contributions have thus largely been overlooked.1 During her life, Elisabeth was known not only for her intelligence and learnedness, but also for her caring nature, beneficence, and protection of protestants fleeing from persecution.
Elisabeth of the Palatinate (Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate, Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey) was born 1618 in Heidelberg as the eldest daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart. Frederick was installed as the King of Bohemia in 1619, but promptly lost his throne in 1620, and was also forced to abdicate the role of the Elector Palatine a few years later. Elisabeth spent her early years in Brandenburg with her grandmother, and later joined her parents in The Hague, where they were living in exile – albeit comfortably in the court of Maurice of Nassau, Frederick’s maternal uncle. While the exact details of Elisabeth’s education are unknown, we can infer that it was extensive. We know that she and her siblings were tutored in several languages – Greek, Latin, French, English and German – and most likely also in logic, mathematics, politics, philosophy and the sciences.2 Elisabeth was recognized as a clever and talented child, and was passionate about learning – so much so that she was nicknamed by her brothers and sisters as “La Greque” for being the most learned one of the siblings.3 The court in the Hague also housed intellectuals and thinkers,4 and she might well have been tutored by the composer and poet Constantijn Huygens.
Throughout her adult years Elisabeth engaged in written correspondence with renowned thinkers and intellectuals, and was also engaged in politics. While only the letters to Descartes contain substantive philosophical writings of her own,2 she also had exchange with the English mathematician and political agent John Pell, and is also known to have been connected to Francis Mercury van Helmont, Flemish alchemist and writer. She was, all her life, a devout Protestant and interested in theological matters.1 She was in contact with prominent with Quakers, including Robert Barclay and William Penn. The correspondence with Descartes reveals that she was engaged in the negotiations of the marriage of her sister Henrietta – a highly political matter – as well as in the negotiations of the Treaty of Westphalia, and the finances of her family after the end of the Thirty Years War.2
She received proposals of marriage from several prominent European rulers, among them the King Ladislaus IV of Poland, but chose not to marry citing her religious convictions and will to devote herself to her faith.3 In 1660 Elisabeth entered the Lutheran convent Imperial Abbey of Herford (Reichsfrauenstift Herford), and became its abbess seven years later. The abbey and the surrounding village were a religious as well as cultural centre, and as the abbess Elisabeth also governed the surrounding community of 7,000 people. She was renowned for her philanthropy, dutifulness and hospitality. Elisabeth, a Calvinist herself, was known as the protectress of Protestant groups facing prosecution, receiving them in Herford. She also welcomed more marginal religious sects including the Labadists and Quakers.2 Elisabeth was respected for her humility and piety; she influenced many key figures of 17th century intellectual landscape and her character was praised by them. Gottfried Leibniz visited her in 1678, and van Helmont was reportedly at her deathbed.2 Her friendship with Penn lasted until her death in 1680, who in his book No Cross, No Crown (1682) praised piety, virtue, justice, and humility.
SHE SAID IT
“I ask you please to tell me how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions. For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities and shape of the surface of the latter. Physical contact is required for the first two conditions, extension for the third. You entirely exclude the one [extension—i.e., spatial dimensions] from the notion you have of the soul, and the other [physical contact] appears to me incompatible with an immaterial thing.”
Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes. R, Shapiro L (ed. and transl.) (2007),
“The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes”,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 62
“Right now I feel the disadvantage of being a little bit rational! If I weren’t rational at all, I would find pleasures in common with those among whom I must live, taking that medicine
and getting some profit from it. And if I were as rational as you are, I would cure myself as you have done. In addition, the curse of my sex deprives me of the contentment I would Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1645 have received from a voyage to Egmond, where I might learn of the truths you draw from your garden. Ah well, I console myself with the liberty you give me to ask from time to time.”
Elisabeth to Descartes 22 June 1645. Bennett, J. (ed.) (2017) “Correspondence René Descartes
and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia”, Some texts from Early Modern Philosophy
[cited 2018 January 30] p.16
“After dealing with the letters that are to be written and the compulsory civilities towards the members of this household, I spend the little remaining time that I have on rereading your works, from which the development of my reason gets more help in one hour than I would get from a lifetime of reading other things. But there’s no-one ·else· here who is bright enough to understand them. I have promised this old duke of Brunswick, who is at Wolfenbüttel, to give them—·i.e. copies of your works·—to him adorn his library. I don’t think he will use them to adorn his clogged brain, as it is already crammed full of pedantry!”
Elisabeth to Descartes 29 November 1646. Ibid. p 54
THEY SAID IT
“Still, I’ll keep writing, in the belief that you won’t find my letters any more tiresome than
the books in your library… I shall regard the time I put into writing them as well spent if you give them only time that you feel like wasting.”
Elisabeth to Descartes 18 August 1645. Ibid. p. 21
Descartes’ replies to Elisabeth are less testy than his answers to other critics tended to be. She was incisive and brilliant: one biographer of Descartes judged that the middle-aged philosopher “learned much more from Elisabeth’s letters than she did from him.” Their correspondence sometimes wandered into personal matters as well as intellectual ones.
Gottlieb, A. (2018), “The Ghost and the Princess. The correspondence of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality”, Lapham’s Quarterly. https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/states-mind/ghost-and-princess
Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes. R, Shapiro L (ed. and transl.) (2007), “The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes. R, Bennett, J. (ed.) (2017) “Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia”, Some texts from Early Modern Philosophy. Available from: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1643.pdf
Godfrey, E. (1909), ”A Sister of Prince Rupert: Elizabeth Princess Palatine and Abbess of Herford”, London and New York: John Lane.
Shapiro, L. (1999) “Princess Elizabeth and Descartes: The Union of Mind and Body and the Practice of Philosophy”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 7(3): 503–520
Shapiro, L (2013), “Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Available from: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/elisabeth-bohemia/#EarIntPas
Gottlieb, A. (2018), “The Ghost and the Princess. The correspondence of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality”, Lapham’s Quarterly
Available from: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/states-mind/ghost-and-princess
- Gottlieb, A. (2018), “The Ghost and the Princess. The correspondence of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—a debate about mind, soul, and immortality”, Lapham’s Quarterly [cited 2018 January 30] https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/states-mind/ghost-and-princess
- Shapiro, L (2013), “Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [cited 2018 January 30] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/elisabeth-bohemia/#EarIntPas
- Pape, R. (2004), “Elisabeth, Pfalz, von der”, Internet Portal. Westpfälische Geschichte [cited 2018 January 30] http://www.lwl.org/westfaelische-geschichte/portal/Internet/finde/langDatensatz.php?urlID=1517&url_tabelle=tab_person
- Pal, C. (2012) “Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century”, New York/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.