Elisabeth of the Palatinate and Her Influence on Descartes

Elisabeth of the Palatinate and Her Influence on Descartes

            Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate (also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia) is remembered as the woman who challenged the French philosopher René Descartes to re-examine his assertions on the separation of mind and body. While she never received a satisfying answer to all of her questions, she inspired him to reconsider some of his positions and to revise his view on human passions.

            She was born on December 26, 1618 in Heidelberg, in today’s Germany. It was the first year of the devastating Thirty Years War, and her life was marked with troubles from the start.

            Her parents, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and Elisabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, were at that time struggling as rulers of Bohemia. In 1620, they were forced to exile to the Netherlands, leaving Elisabeth and her older brothers, Henry Frederick and Charles, with their paternal grandmother, Louise Juliana of Nassau (daughter of the legendary William of Orange). By this time, Louise had found refuge with her daughter Elisabeth Charlotte, married to George William of Brandeburg.

            Louise raised the children according to the Reformed convictions and gave them a solid early education. When Elisabeth joined her parents at age nine, she found that her family had increased by eight more children. Four more followed later, for a total of thirteen.

            Troubles continued. In 1629, her brother Henry Frederick died in a drowning accident. Three years later, her father died unexpectedly of a plague, leaving the family poverty-stricken. Her mother took bravely the helm, leading the family for thirty more years, while never dismantling the black drapes of mourning from her rooms.

Religion and Education

            All the children in the household received a thorough education, both religious and secular. They rose at dawn to pray, read the Bible, and memorize the Heidelberg Catechism, then spent the rest of the day learning a great variety of school subjects. Young Elisabeth was exceptional in her passion for learning. Her sisters nicknamed her “La Grecque” because of her love for ancient Greek. According to an early 20th-century writer, her mother’s comments were even sharper, “Look, I pray you, my lord,” she quipped to Lord William Craven, “at Elizabeth settling the world by a theory! Alack! but her deep thoughts have made her nose red, and yet they cannot assuage her sorrow at this unwelcome colouring!”[1]

            We don’t know if the last comment is accurate (the author defined her book “a romance”), but the problem of Elisabeth’s nose is attested by her sister Charlotte, who said it was “rather apt to turn red,”[2] causing the princess to stay in her room until the color had subsided.

            Religion continued to be of uttermost importance to Elisabeth. In 1633, when the Roman Catholic King Ladislas IV of Poland asked to marry her, she firmly refused, in spite of family pressures.

Mind and Body

            She met Descartes during one of his visits to The Hague. They discussed mathematics and philosophy. She surprised him by providing an answer to an intriguing geometrical problem, and expressed her interest in his metaphysical theories. As she examined these more thoroughly in the context of her daily life, however, she began to question his sharp dualism between mind and body.

            For Descartes, this dualism was a logical consequence of his Cogito ergo sum argument. We can doubt everything, he thought, except the fact that we are thinking. We can doubt the existence of our body (physical senses could be an illusion) but not the existence of a thinking mind. Therefore, the thinking mind is not the same as the body.

            If, at this point, your thinking mind is raising a swarm of objections, you are not alone. Descartes’s theory received much criticism. In some ways, it was a recent issue. Previous discussions focused on body and soul rather than the mind.

            Elisabeth was one of the first to express doubts. “How can the soul of man,” she wrote in 1643, “determine the spirits of his body so as to produce voluntary actions (given that the soul is only a thinking substance)?”[3] If, as Descartes stated, the mind is a separate, immaterial substance, how can it affect the body?

            It was a tough question. The interaction of mind and body in daily tasks is hard to deny, and the whole concept of dualism cannot stand without dealing with this reality.

            Descartes’s initial response was dismissive, as he assumed that she had misinterpreted his words. But she hadn’t. After apologizing for her “stupidity in being unable to comprehend,” she confessed she had never “been able to conceive of an immaterial thing as anything but the negation of matter which cannot have any communication with it.”[4]

            “It would be easier for me to concede matter and extension to the soul, than the capacity of moving a body and of being moved, to an immaterial body.”[5]

            Since then, philosophers have proposed several answers, ranging from a strict dualism depending on the direct intervention of God on every possible interaction, to a rigid materialism that eliminates the soul altogether. The traditional Christian answer, however, remained based on the biblical union of body and soul (only temporarily and unnaturally disrupted by death), which had found resonance in Aristotelian philosophy.

            Elisabeth never received a satisfactory answer from Descartes. He could only suggest the pineal gland as the site of connection between the mind and the body, evading specific explanations. He also told her to think what she wanted. If she wanted to think of a material soul, she could do so. But maybe she should ease up on philosophical quests. “Though I believe it is very necessary to have understood well once in one's life the principles of metaphysics, since it is these that give us knowledge of God and of our soul,” he said, “I also believe that it would be very harmful to occupy one's understanding often in meditating on them.”[6]

The Emotions

            In spite of philosophical disagreements, Elisabeth and Descartes remained good friends, and he was often concerned for her health. Once, when she was plagued by a persisting low-grade fever, he suggested melancholy as a possible cause. As a remedy, he recommended reading Seneca’s De Vita Beata, a stoic classic on mastering emotions.

            Elisabeth was not impressed by what she read. First of all, she didn’t think contentment depended entirely on willpower. Besides, while it’s true that the mind can restrain emotions, some bodily ailments can impair the mind. Finally, the fact that an emotion disturbs one’s serenity doesn’t make it antithetical to virtue. For example, regret, as upsetting as it is, is good and useful, because it moves to repentance.

            She encouraged Descartes to write more about this subject to remedy the deficiencies in Seneca’s writings.


            In 1660, at 42 years of age, Elisabeth entered the Lutheran convent at Herford (even if she maintained her Reformed convictions). Seven years later, she became its abbess, presiding over the surrounding community.

            By this time, the Thirty Years War had ended, leaving in its wake an unprecedented devastation. As a reaction, many people, including Elisabeth, became advocates for religious toleration. Her convent became a refuge from religious persecution, even for sects such as the Labadists and Quakers.

            She died on February 12, 1680 after a long and painful illness (most likely a form of internal cancer). Today, she is mostly remembered as the woman who caused Descartes to question his theories.

[1] Mary Hay, The Winter Queen, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910, p. 381

[2] William Lilly, Autobiographers of the Seventeenth Century (1630-1690), National Alumni, 1927, p. 275

[3] Andrea Nye, The Princess and the Philosopher, Letters of Elisabeth of the Palatine to René Descartes, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999.

[4] Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, René Descartes, The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe), transl. Lisa Shapiro, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 68

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 93


Simonetta Carr