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  • The Princess and the Philosopher: Letters of Elisabeth of the Palatine to Rene Descartes
  • Richard A. Watson
Andrea Nye . The Princess and the Philosopher: Letters of Elisabeth of the Palatine to Rene Descartes. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Pp. xiii + 187. Cloth, $57.95. Paper, $18.95.

Princess Elisabeth was an acute, persistent critic of Descartes's philosophy. Because he liked her and she was a princess, Descartes did not dismiss her criticisms as he did those of Gassendi and Hobbes. How can an immaterial mind interact with a material body? How can God determine all our actions and yet give us free will? Elisabeth was dissatisfied with Descartes's answer that an all-powerful God can do anything even if we cannot understand how.

Andrea Nye analyzes the correspondence between Elisabeth and Descartes to support the thesis that Elisabeth developed and defended a worldly philosophy of life in opposition to the unworldly rules Descartes offered for living a tranquil and happy life. Descartes said she should focus on the separation of the mind from the body to avoid disturbing the intellect with sensory matters. Think positively about such nice things as birds and flowers and not of bad things that happen to one. Descartes told Elisabeth that "there are no events so dreadful, nor so absolutely bad in the judgments of people, that a person of spirit cannot look on them with a bias that makes them appear favorable" (48). If we do our best to find out the right course of action and act accordingly, then even if the results are bad, we have no reason for remorse or recrimination, but can be happy that we have done the best we can. Descartes even says that a person who follows his rules can view everything that happens to him, even the worst, as though these events were taking place in a theatre, for in the end they do not impinge upon the ultimate happiness of one's immortal soul.

Elisabeth, earnestly. sardonically, and sometimes with annoyance responds that this is perhaps possible for a single man of independent means with few civil and personal relationships, but for someone engaged in family affairs, royal politics, and social interaction with other human beings, Descartes's philosophy of life is both impossible and wrong. One never knows what is best; even if one did know, it is difficult to carry it out; and finally, if the results are bad, then one is after all responsible. One would be inhuman to deny fault, monstrous to deny moral responsibility. Above all, Elisabeth says, one should not view one's own life as theatre. One must be responsible for oneself and others.

Nye casts this as a difference between Descartes's abstract and Elisabeth's particularist approaches to life, but also as a contrast between those who can live a disengaged life and those who cannot. Some of the amusement in Nye's perceptive discussions comes from her showing how Descartes's passions often run away with him, and how Elisabeth gently turns his own rules back onto him. [End Page 277]

Nye's analyses of the correspondence are excellent, but she makes some mistakes about the lives of Descartes and Elisabeth. Nye explains Descartes's coolness by his having suffered from a "motherless infancy" (129), even speaking of "the mother's milk denied him as a child" and calling him an "orphan" (156), which he was not. His mother died thirteen months after his birth, but he had a wet nurse. Descartes may never have tasted his own mother's milk, but he was never deprived of nursing. Children were often sent to live with wet nurses for as long as four years, although Descartes is traditionally said to have been raised by his grandmother. In any event, such psychoanalyzing is off the mark.

Nye also says that Descartes was asked by Queen Christina to write a ballet. She cites the wrong ballet and attributes a verse from the right ballet incorrectly, but beyond that, there is no evidence either that Descartes wrote verses for a ballet or that Christina asked him to.

Then Nye speaks of Descartes's daughter Francine...


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