Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–80)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 12, 2018, from

Article Summary

Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatine, exerted an influence on seventeenth-century Cartesianism via her correspondence with Descartes. She questioned his accounts of mind–body interaction and free will, and persuasively argued that certain facts of embodiment, the unlucky fate of loved ones, and the demands of the public good, constitute serious challenges to Descartes’ neo-Stoic view of the happy life of the autonomous will.

Eldest daughter of the exiled ‘Winter King and Queen’ of Bohemia, Princess Elisabeth was educated at the Prisenhof in Leiden. In 1644, Descartes dedicated his Principles of Philosophy to her, and two years later she attempted to introduce Descartes’ work at the German courts. In 1670, as Abbess at Herford, she provided a haven for her correspondent, Anna Maria van Schurman, and the persecuted Labadists. She corresponded and met with Quaker leaders William Penn and Robert Barclay. Near the end of her life, she was interested in the views of Malebranche and the mystical philosopher, Jacob Boehme; she corresponded with Leibniz via her sister Louise, Abbess of Maubuisson in France.

On 6 May 1643, Elisabeth began her correspondence with Descartes by arguing that voluntary motion is unintelligible in terms of Descartes’ mechanical philosophy. For, determination of movement is due to (1) the impulsion of the moved object, (2) the manner in which the mover impels the object, and (3) the qualification and figure of the surface of the moving object. (1) and (2) require contact; (3) requires extension. But souls are not extended and contact seems incompatible with their immateriality. Elisabeth urges that we need a more comprehensive definition of ‘the soul’ than simply a ‘thinking thing’; we need to know what other properties the soul has, if we are to make its causal powers intelligible. She notes that while we suppose thought to be essential to the soul, this is difficult to prove in the cases of foetuses and deep faints – a challenge to Cartesianism that the Empiricists subsequently developed. To Descartes’ rejoinder that we have a per se intelligible primitive notion, known by sense, of how an incorporeal soul can move a corporeal body, Elisabeth – prefiguring the position of Locke and Hume – responds that she has no such notion. She acknowledges that the senses show that the soul moves the body, but she denies that they, any more than imagination or understanding, show how this happens. She suggests that there might be unknown properties in the soul – even extension, which might belong to a faculty like sensation.

It is Elisabeth’s personal problems, especially ‘the weakness of my sex’ (poor health due to afflictions of the soul) and the suffering of her family, that lead to discussion of De Vita Beata (On the Happy Life) by Seneca. Descartes’ neo-Stoic solution requires that happiness depend only on what follows from the will guided by reason. But Elisabeth finds that her passions cannot be immediately controlled by her will and this often leads to her body becoming disordered. In addition, there are illnesses that diminish or deprive us of our reasoning power. Finally, regret, ‘one of the principal obstacles to happiness’, appears unavoidable when attempting to weight one’s own goals along with the competing goods of others in society: ‘To know all those [goods] about which one is constrained to make a choice in an active life, it would be necessary to possess infinite knowledge’ (13 September 1645). Descartes replies that while we cannot know everything, we need only follow certain neo-Stoic principles for a happy life. One such principle is: the infallibility of God’s decrees teaches us to accept in good spirit everything that happens to us, since it comes from God. Elisabeth replies that this principle does not help in the case of free decisions of the will; in such cases God’s predetermination is not intelligible. She remained puzzled by Descartes’ retort that the independence which we feel, which makes our actions sanctionable, is not incompatible with the dependence all things have on God. She argues that it is ‘as impossible for the will to be at the same time free and attached to the decrees of Providence, as for the divine power to be both infinite and limited’ (30 November 1645). Elisabeth’s focus is on the will’s liberty of indifference, which Descartes had stressed in his Principles, and its incompatibility with determination of any kind.

Some recent commentators have taken Elisabeth’s use of her own body and female social role in her criticisms of the privileged, disembodied will as prefiguring contemporary feminist critiques of Cartesianism (Bordo 1998; Harth 1992; Thompson 1983).

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Eileen. Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–80), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

Related Articles