(Roughly) Daily

“Cogito, ergo sum”*…

Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia

Rene Descartes (and here), who laid the foundation for modern rationalism and ignited the interest in epistemology that began to grow in the 17th century, been called the father of modern philosophy. Erik Hoel argues that he had very influential help…

Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—the first person to fully understand the paradoxical nature of the mind-problem, a mathematician, the possible romantic interest of Descartes, and an eventual abbess—was born in 1618, and lived in exile with her family in the Netherlands, a political refuge after her father’s brief reign. Her father’s rule had ended after he lost what was called the “Battle of the White Mountain,” for which he would be known via the sobriquet “the winter king,” having been in power for merely a season.

Elisabeth was a great philosopher in her own right—whip-smart and engaged by the intellectually stimulating times, she maintained numerous correspondences throughout her life on all manner of subjects. For her learning, within her family she was known as “the Greek,” and this was in a set of siblings that included an eventual king, another brother who was a famous scientist in addition to being a co-founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company, another sister who was a talented artist, and a further sister who was the eventual patron of Leibniz. Mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and politician, Elisabeth was, in her day, an important hub in that republic of letters that would become science.

The princess and Descartes only met in person a few times, but maintained a long correspondence over the years, exchanging a total of fifty-eight letters that have survived (more may not have). The correspondence began in 1643, and would last, on and off, until Descartes’s surprising death in 1650 (he died of pneumonia after being forced to wake early in the morning and walk through a cold castle to tutor a different and far more demanding queen). In the princess and the philosopher’s letters, Descartes usually signed off with “Your very humble and very obedient servant” and Elisabeth with “Your very affectionate friend at your service.”

Their letters are vivid historical reading—the two’s repartee is funny and humble and courteous, intimate and yet respectful of the difference in their classes (Elisabeth’s far above Descartes’s); but they also dig deep into Descartes’s philosophy, with Elisabeth always probing at holes and Descartes always on the defensive to cover them…

Philosophical letters from a possible Renaissance romance: “The mind-body problem was discovered by a princess,” from @erikphoel.

For more, see: “Princess Elizabeth on the Mind-Body Problem” (source of the image above) and Elizabeth’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

And for the likely inspiration for Descartes’ most famous phrase– St. Teresa of Ávila– see “One of Descartes’ most famous ideas was first articulated by a woman.”

* Rene Descartes


As we duel with duality, we might spare a thought for Buddhadasa (born Phra Dharmakosācārya). A Thai ascetic-philosopher, he was an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs who fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country and abroad.

Buddhadasa developed a personal view that those who have penetrated the essential nature of religions consider “all religions to be inwardly the same,” while those who have the highest understanding of dhamma feel “there is no religion.”


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