Early Modern Philosophy

René Descartes

Who was Princess Elizabeth?

This royal friend and student of Descartes was a powerful woman with an independent mind. Elizabeth, Electress Palatine and Queen of Bohemia (1596–1662), was the oldest daughter of James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark, his Queen consort. Her descendants, the Hanoverians, were to occupy the British throne. In 1613 she married Frederick V, the Elector of the Palatine, an alliance designed to strengthen her father’s ties to the Holy Roman Empire. Her husband was only briefly king of Bohemia, however, and after his exile, they lived in The Hague. In 1649, she entered a convent in Hertford in Westphalia, in what is now Germany, which she managed until her death.

Elizabeth’s interest in philosophy had a depth that was unusual for someone with her social and familial obligations. In 1643, she wrote Descartes:

And I admit 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 being. For, if the first occurred through “information” the spirits that perform the movement would have to be intelligent, which you accord to nothing corporeal. And although in your metaphysical meditations you show the possibility of the second, it is, however, very difficult to comprehend that a soul, as you have described it, after having had the faculty and habit of reasoning well, can lose all of it on account of some vapors, and that, although it can subsist without the body and has nothing in common with it, is yet so ruled by it.


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