Austin Community College Philosophy Discussion

Austin Community College Philosophy Discussion

Philosophy Discussion

Correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth
René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia
Copyright ©2010–2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett
[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as
though it were part of the original text. Occasional •bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations,
are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the
omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth. Longer omissions are reported
on, between [brackets], in normal-sized type. This version aims mainly to present the philosophical content of
the correspondence; though after the philosophical content stops, a continuing dramatic triangle—philosopher,
queen, princess—is too interesting to pass up entirely. But much material has been omitted; it can be found
in Lisa Shapiro’s informative edition (Chicago University Press, 2007). Titles and other honorifics are omitted;
and Descartes will be made to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ where in fact he always used ‘your Highness’ and ‘she’ and
‘her’. Also omitted: the signing-off flourishes—usually (from Descartes) ‘your very humble and very obedient
servant’ and (from Elisabeth) ‘Your very affectionate friend at your service’; and also, in some letters, a penultimate
sentence whose only role is to lead into the closing flourish.—Place: Elisabeth writes from The Hague in all her
letters (with one exception) through vii.1646, from Berlin through 5 xii.1647, and then from Crossen. All of
Descartes’ letters are written from Egmond (Holland) except for two from France in vii.1644, one from The Hague
in, one from Paris vi.1648) and one last letter from Stockholm. Strictly speaking, Descartes lived and
wrote at different times in two small towns called Egmond-something.
First launched: October 2009
Letters written in 1643 and 1664 1
Elisabeth writes on 6.v.1643: …………………………………………….. 1
Descartes writes on 21.v.1643: …………………………………………… 2
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
Letters written in 1643 and 1664
Elisabeth writes on 6.v.1643:
When I heard that you had planned to visit me a few days
ago, I was •elated by your kind willingness to share yourself
with an ignorant and headstrong person, and •saddened by
the misfortune of missing such a profitable conversation.
When M. Pollot [a friend of Descartes and of the Princess] took me
through the solutions you had given him for some obscurities
in Regius’s physics, that increased my regret at missing you,
because I’d have learned them better from you directly. And
direct contact would have given me something else. When
Professor Regius was here in The Hague, I put to him a
question that he said would be better answered by you. I am
shy about my disorderly writing style, which is why I haven’t
before now written to you asking for this favour.
[In her next sentence, the Princess relies on a theory about soulon-body according to which the soul’s thoughts are passed on to the
‘spirits’—components of the body—which then cause overt bodily movements. See also note after the end of this paragraph.] But today M.
Pollot has given me such assurance of your good-will towards
everyone and especially towards me that I have overcome my
inhibitions and come right out with ·the question I put to
the Professor, namely·:
Given that the soul of a human being is only a thinking
substance, how can it affect the bodily spirits, in order
to bring about voluntary actions?
·The question arises· because it seems that how a thing
moves depends solely on (i) how much it is pushed, (ii) the
manner in which it is pushed, or (iii) the surface-texture and
shape of the thing that pushes it. [That version of (1) is a guess,
based on the guess that pulsion should have been impulsion.] The first
two of those require contact between the two things, and
the third requires that the causally active thing be extended.
Your notion of the soul entirely excludes extension, and
it appears to me that an immaterial thing can’t possibly
touch anything else. So I ask you for a definition of the
soul that homes in on its nature more thoroughly than
does the one you give in your Meditations, i.e. I want one
that characterizes what it •is as distinct from what it •does
(namely to think). It looks as though human souls can exist
without thinking—e.g. in an unborn child or in someone who
has a great fainting spell—but even if that is not so, and the
soul’s intrinsic nature and its thinking are as inseparable
as God’s attributes are, we can still get a more perfect idea
of both of them by considering them separately. ·In writing
to you like this· I am freely exposing to you the weaknesses
of my soul’s speculations; but I know that you are the best
physician for my soul, and I hope that you will observe
the Hippocratic oath and supply me with remedies without
making them public. [She is referring to an oath traditionally
associated with Hippocrates, a pioneer of medicine in the 4th century
BCE, which includes this: ‘All that may come to my knowledge in the
exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought
not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.’]
[The French word for the bodily ‘spirits’ referred to in that paragraph
is esprit. That word can also mean ‘mind’, and is thus translated
wherever that is appropriate in this version, e.g. in Descartes’s reference to the Princess’s ‘incomparable mind’ on page 3. When he or the
Princess is writing about the mind in a weightily theoretical way—e.g.
discussing inter-action between mind and body—they use not esprit but
âme, usually translated by ‘soul’. The link between âme and ‘soul’ will
be preserved throughout this version; but remember that these uses of
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
‘soul’ have little if any theological content and are, nearly always, merely
high-flown ways of saying ‘mind’.].
Descartes writes on 21.v.1643:
[He starts by praising the Princess’s favour of writing to him.
When they have met, he says, he has been so dazzled by
her combination of intelligence and beauty that he couldn’t
converse well. He continues:] No doubt you have noticed
this, and have kindly wanted to help me with this by leaving
me the traces of your thoughts on paper. I have now read
them several times and become accustomed to thinking
about them, with the result that I am indeed less dazzled,
but am correspondingly more admiring when I see that
these thoughts seem ingenious at a first reading and appear
increasingly judicious and solid the more I examine them.
In view of my published writings, the question that can
most rightly be asked is the very one that you put to me.
All the knowledge we can have of the human soul depend
on two facts about it: (1) the fact that it thinks, and (2) the
fact that being united to the body it can act and be acted on
along with it.
[For ‘act’ French has agir and for ‘be acted on’ it has pâtir, for which
there is no equivalent verb in English. The verb-pair
is linked to the English noun-pair
in a now-obsolete sense of ‘patient’, and to the noun-pair
in a now-obsolete sense of ‘passion’, and to the adjective-pair
with meanings that are still current.]
I have said almost nothing about (2), focussing entirely on
making (1) better understood. That is because my principal
aim was to show that the soul is distinct from the body, and
(1) was helpful in showing this whereas (2) could have been
harmful ·clouding the issue, distracting the reader·. But I
can’t hide anything from eyesight as sharp as yours! So I’ll
try here to explain how I conceive of the soul’s union with
the body and how it has the power to move the body.
I start by focussing on the fact that we have certain basic
notions that are like templates on the pattern of which we
form all our other knowledge. There are very few of these. In
addition to the most general ones—
(1) the notions of being, number, duration, etc.
—which apply to everything we can conceive, we have for the
body in particular
(2) only the notion of extension, from which follow
the notions of shape and movement;
and for the soul alone
(3) only the notion of thought, which includes ·the
notions of· the perceptions of the understanding and
the inclinations of the will;
and finally, for the soul and the body together
(4) only the notion of their union, on which depends
the notion of the soul’s power to move the body and
the body’s power to act on the soul in causing its
sensations and passions.
I observe next that all secure, disciplined human knowledge consists only in keeping these notions well apart from
one another, and applying each of them only to the things
that it is right for. [Throughout this letter, phrases about a notion’s
being ‘right for’ x translate French uses of appartenir à, literally meaning
that the notion belongs to x.] When we try to explain some
difficulty by means of a notion that isn’t right for it, we
are bound to go wrong; just as we are when we try to explain
·or define· one of these notions in terms of another, because
each of them is basic and thus can be understood only
through itself. The use of the senses has made our notions of
extension, shapes and movements much more familiar to us
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
than our other notions, and just because of that the principal
cause of our errors lies in our commonplace attempts to use
these notions to explain things that they aren’t right for. For
example, when we try to use the imagination to conceive the
nature of the soul, or when we try to conceive how the soul
moves the body in terms of how a body moves a body.
In the Meditations, which you were good enough to read,
I tried to make conceivable (3) the notions that are right for
the soul alone, distinguishing them from (2) the ones that
are right for the body alone; so the first thing that I ought to
explain now is how to conceive (4) the notions that are right
for the union of the soul with the body, separately from (2)
and (3). It seems to me that what I wrote at the end of my
response to the Sixth Objections can help with that; for we
can’t look for these simple notions anywhere except in our
soul, which naturally contains them all, though it doesn’t
always (i) distinguish them from one another or (ii) apply
them to the objects to which they ought to be applied.
Thus, I think we have until now (i) confused the notion of
•the soul’s power to act on the body with •the body’s power
to act on other bodies, and have (ii) applied them (not to
the soul, for we haven’t yet known the soul, but) to various
qualities of bodies—weight, heat, and so on—which we have
imagined to be real, i.e. to have an existence distinct from
that of the body ·that has them·, and thus to be •substances
though we have called them •‘qualities’.
[Descartes here uses ‘real’—réelles, which comes from the Latin res =
‘thing’—as a way of saying that we have imagined these •qualities to be
•things. He is referring scornfully to a philosophical theory that implies
things like this: When cold x is placed on red-hot y, some of y’s heat
passes over into x. It’s not just that y cools by as much as x heats up,
but the very same individual instance of heat that y has is acquired by x.
This theory distinguishes three items:
a concrete particular: the red-hot plate y
an abstract universal: heat
an abstract particular: the heat of y.
Descartes always rejected this theory of ‘real qualities’, saying that in
treating an individual package (so to speak) of heat as being possessed
first by y and then by x you are treating it as a thing, a substance.]
Trying to understand weight, heat and the rest, we have
applied to them •sometimes notions that we have for knowing
body and •sometimes ones that we have for knowing the soul,
depending on whether we were attributing to them something
material or something immaterial. Take for example what
happens when we suppose that weight is a ‘real quality’
about which we know nothing except that it has the power
to move the body that has it toward the centre of the earth.
·How do we think that the weight of a rock moves the rock
downwards·? We don’t think that this happens through a
real contact of one surface against another ·as though the
weight was a hand pushing the rock downwards·! But we
have no difficulty in conceiving how it moves the body, nor
how the weight and the rock are connected, because we
find from our own inner experience that we ·already· have a
notion that provides just such a connection. But I believe we
are misusing this notion when we apply it to weight—which,
as I hope to show in my Physics, is not a thing distinct from
the body that has it. For I believe that this notion was given
to us for conceiving how the soul moves the body.
If I make this explanation any longer I’ll be doing an injustice to your incomparable mind, whereas if I let myself think
that what I have written so far will be entirely satisfactory to
you I’ll be guilty of egotism. I’ll try to steer between these by
saying just this: if I can write or say something that could
please you, I will always take it as a great honour to take
up a pen or to go to The Hague [where Elisabeth was living at this
time] for that purpose. . . . But I can’t find here ·in your letter·
anything that brings into play the Hippocratic oath that you
put to me, because everything in the letter deserves to be
seen and admired by everyone. ·Still, I will conform to the
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
oath·! Your letter is infinitely precious to me, and I’ll treat
it in the way misers do their treasures: the more they value
them the more they hide them, grudging the sight of them
to rest of the world and placing their supreme happiness in
looking at them. . . .
Elisabeth writes on
Your goodness shows not only in your (of course) pointing out
and correcting the faults in my reasoning but also in your
using false praise. . . .so as to make the faults less distressing
to me. The false praise wasn’t necessary: the life I live
here. . . .has made me so familiar with my faults that the
thought of them doesn’t make me feel anything beyond the
desire to remedy them.
So I am not ashamed to admit that I have found in myself
all the causes of error the you mention in your letter, and
that I can’t yet banish them entirely. That’s because the life
that I am constrained to lead doesn’t let me free up enough
time to acquire a habit of meditation in accordance with
your rules. The interests of my house (which I must not
neglect) and conversations and social obligations (which I
can’t avoid), inflict so much annoyance and boredom on this
weak mind ·of mine· that it is useless for anything else for
a long time afterward. [By ‘my house’ she means the semi-royal
family to which she belongs. Her father had been raised in 1620 from
his semi-royal status to the title of King of Bohemia, then in a matter of
months he lost his kingdom (to the Holy Roman Empire) and the other
lands he had ruled (to Spain). He and some of his family took refuge in
The Hague, where they were joined by Elisabeth and some of her siblings
in the late 1620s. Her father died in battle (fighting on behalf of the
King of Sweden) in 1632. The exiled fatherless family was in some ways
politically engaged and politically prominent; it was not wealthy.] I hope
that this will excuse my stupid inability to grasp ·what you
want me to grasp·. I don’t see how
(1) the idea that you used to have about weight
can guide us to
(2) the idea we need in order to judge how the (nonextended and immaterial) soul can move the body.
·To put some flesh on the bones of my difficulty·: I don’t see
why we should be persuaded that
(a) a body can be pushed by some immaterial thing
(b) the ·supposed· power to carry the body toward the
centre of the earth, the ‘power’ that you used wrongly
to attribute to weight which you ·wrongly· took to be
a ·real· quality;
rather than being confirmed in the view that
(c) a body cannot be pushed by some immaterial thing
by the demonstration, which you promise in your physics,
(d) the way weight operates is nothing like (b).
The old idea about weight may be a fiction produced by
ignorance of what really moves rocks toward the centre of the
earth (it can’t claim the special guaranteed truthfulness that
the idea of God has!). ·And if we are going to try theorising
about the cause of weight·, the argument might go like this:
No material cause ·of weight· presents itself to the
senses, so this power must be due to the contrary of
what is material, i.e. to an immaterial cause.
But I’ve never been able to conceive of ‘what is immaterial’ in
any way except as ·the bare negative· ‘what is not material’,
and that can’t enter into causal relations with matter!
I have to say that I would find it easier to concede matter
and extension to the soul than to concede that an immaterial
thing could move and be moved by a body. On the one side,
if the soul moves the body through information [French word],
the spirits would have to think, and you say that nothing of
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
a bodily kind thinks. On the other side, you show in your
Meditations that the body could move the soul, and yet it is
hard to understand that a soul (as you have described souls),
having become able and accustomed to reasoning well, can
lose all that because of some vaporous condition of the body;
and that a soul that can exist without the body, and that
has nothing in common with the body, is so governed by it.
But now that you have undertaken to instruct me, I
entertain these views only as friends whom I don’t expect to
keep ·as friends·, assuring myself that you will explain the
nature of an immaterial substance and the manner in which
it acts and is acted on in the body, making as good a job of
this as of all the other things that you have undertaken to
Descartes writes on
I am very obliged to you for your patient willingness to
hear me out on a subject which I presented so badly in
my previous letter, giving me a chance to fill the gaps in
that letter. The chief ones, it seems to me, are these two:
(1) After distinguishing three sorts of ideas or basic notions
each of which is known in its own special way and not by
a comparison with the others—i.e. our notions of the soul,
of the body, and of the soul’s union with the body—I ought
to have explained the differences among these three sorts
of notions and among the operations of the soul through
which we have them, and to have said how we make each of
them familiar and easy to us. (2) After saying why I brought
in the comparison with weight, I ought to have made clear
that although one may wish to think of the soul as material
(which strictly speaking is just to conceive its union with the
body), that wouldn’t stop one from realizing that the soul is
separable from the body. I think that those cover everything
that you asked me to do in your letter.
First, then, I notice this big difference amongst these
three sorts of notions: •The soul is conceived only by the pure
intellect; •the body—i.e. extension, shapes and motions—can
also be known by the intellect alone, but the knowledge is
much better when the intellect is aided by the imagination;
and finally the knowledge we get of •what belongs to the
soul’s union with the body is a very dark affair when it comes
from the intellect (whether alone or aided by the imagination),
but it is very bright when the senses have a hand in it. [‘Dark’
and ‘Bright’ translate adverbs related to the adjectives obscur and clair.
To translate the latter as ‘clear’ is often wrong: it makes poor sense of
many things that Descartes says using clair, most notably of his saying
that pain is always clair, this being his explanation of what clair means!
His famous emphasis on ideas that are claires et distinctes calls for ideas
that are vivid and clear (in that order).] That’s why people who never
come at things in a theoretical way and use only their senses
have no doubt that the soul moves the body and that the
body acts on the soul. They regard soul and body as a single
thing, i.e. they conceive their union. ·I equate those· because
conceiving the union between two things is conceiving them
as one single thing. Metaphysical thoughts, which exercise
the unaided intellect, serve to familiarize us with the notion
of the soul; and the study of mathematics, which mainly
employs the imagination (in thinking about shapes and
motions), accustoms us to form very clear notions of body.
But what teaches us how to conceive the soul’s union with
the body is •the ordinary course of life and conversation
and •not meditating or studying things that exercise the
Please don’t think that I am joking; I have and always
will have too much respect for you to do that. It really is
true that the chief rule that I keep to in my studies—the
rule that I think has helped me most in my gaining a bit of
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
knowledge—has been this:
I never spend more than a few hours a •day in the
thoughts involving the imagination, or more than a
few hours a •year on thoughts that involve the intellect
alone. I give all the rest of my time to the relaxation
of the senses and the repose of the mind.
[Descartes writes of giving time to the relâche des sens which could mean
‘resting the senses’ but probably means ‘resting in ways that involve the
senses’.] I count among imagination-involving activities all
serious conversations and anything that needs to be done
with attention. This is why I have retired to the country. In
the busiest city in the world I could have as many hours to
myself as I now employ in study, but I couldn’t make such
good use of them when my mind was tired by the attention
I’d had to give to everyday life’s bustling tangles. I take
the liberty of telling you this as an admiring tribute to your
ability—in the midst of all the business and cares that come
to people who combine great minds with high birth—to apply
your mind to the •meditations needed to appreciate the soul’s
distinctness from the body.
·I wrote as I did because· I judged that it was these
•meditations, rather than those other intellectually less
demanding thoughts, that led you to find obscurity in our
notion of their union; because it seems to me that the human
mind can’t conceive
the soul’s (a) distinctness from the body and its (b)
union with the body,
conceiving them very clearly and both at the same time.
That is because this requires one to conceive them as (b) one
single thing and at the same time as (a) two things, which is
contradictory. ·When I wrote my letter· I thought you still
had at the forefront of your mind the reasons which prove
that (a) the soul is distinct from the body; and I didn’t want
to ask you to push them aside so as to bring to the fore the
notion of (b) their union that everyone always experiences
within himself without philosophizing—·simply· by knowing
that he is a single person who has both body and thought
whose natures are such that this thought can move the body
and can sense what happens to the body. That is why in
my letter I brought in a comparison with weight and the
other qualities that we commonly imagine to be united to
some bodies just as thought is united to our own. It was
an imperfect comparison, because weight and those other
qualities are not ‘real’ though we imagine them as being so
[See note on page 3]; but I wasn’t troubled by that because I
thought that you were already completely convinced that the
soul is a substance distinct from body.
But since you remark that it is easier to attribute matter
and extension to the soul than to credit it with the capacity
to move and be moved by the body without having matter,
please feel free to attribute this matter and extension to the
soul—because that’s what it is to conceive it as united to the
body. Once you have formed a proper conception of this and
experienced it in yourself, you’ll find it easy to realize that
•the matter you’ll have attributed to a thought is not
the thought itself, and
•the extension of this matter is of a different nature
from the extension of this thought (because the former
is pinned to a definite location which it occupies so
as to keep out all other bodily extension, which is not
the case with the latter).
So you won’t find it hard to return to the knowledge of the
soul’s distinctness from the body in spite of having conceived
their union.
[Four points about the above indented passage. •The switch from ‘soul’
to ‘thought’ is Descartes’s; you might like to think about why he switched.
•The passage may explain why Descartes has spoken of ‘attributing
matter to the soul’ rather than, more naturally, ‘attributing materiality
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
to the soul’. Could the indented passage be rewritten so as not to need
the concrete noun ‘matter’? •What Descartes says about ‘the extension
of this matter’ is what he would say about the extension of any matter.
•Is Descartes implying that thoughts do have extension, though not the
Other extended things: Keep out! kind of extension that bodies have?]
I believe that it is very necessary to have properly understood the principles of metaphysics •once in a lifetime,
because they are what give us knowledge of God and of our
soul. I also think that ·someone’s· •frequently focussing his
intellect on them would be very harmful, because it would
unfit him for handling well the functions of the imagination
and the senses. The best course, I think, is to settle for
keeping in one’s memory and one’s belief-system the conclusions that one did once drawn from metaphysical principles,
and then employ the rest of one’s study time to thoughts in
which the intellect co-operates with the imagination and the
My great devotion to your service makes me hope that
my frankness won’t displease you. I would have written at
greater length, trying to clear up all at once the difficulties
you have raised, if it weren’t that. . . [and then he reports
on the distractions of a legal problem arising from a public
dispute he has had with Gisbertus Voetius, a Dutch theologian who had attacked Descartes and arranged for a formal
denunciation of his philosophy at the University of Utrecht,
of which he was the head].
Elisabeth writes on 1.vii.1643:
I gather that the high value I put on your teachings, and
my desire to profit from them, haven’t put you to as much
trouble as you have had from the ingratitude of people who
deprive themselves of your teachings and want to deprive
the human race of them. I wasn’t going to send you ·my
last letter·—new evidence of my ignorance!—until I heard
that you were done with those obstinate dogmatists; but
M. Van Bergen kindly agreed to stay on in town here until
he could have ·and take to you· a reply to your letter of
28 June—which gives me a clear view of the three kinds of
notions we have, their objects, and how we should make use
of them—and that obliged me to get on with it.
I find ·from your letter· that the senses show me that the
soul moves the body, but as for how it does so, the senses
tell me nothing about that, any more than the intellect and
the imagination do. This leads me to think that the soul
has properties that we don’t know—which might overturn
your doctrine, of which I was persuaded by your excellent
arguments in the Meditations, that the soul is not extended.
This doubt seems to be supported by the rule that you give
there for handling issues of truth and falsity, ·saying· that all
our errors come from our forming judgments about things
that we don’t perceive well enough. Although extension is
not necessary to •thought, it isn’t inconsistent with it either;
so it may flow from •something else that the soul does that
is no less essential to it ·than thought is·. [In that sentence,
‘flow from’ is a guess. The original has duire à, which isn’t French. The
great Descartes editors Adam and Tannery conjecture nuire à = ‘clash
with’, but that reverses what seems clearly to be the main thrust of what
the Princess is saying.] At least it—·the thesis that the soul is
extended·—pulls down the ·self·-contradictory doctrine of
the scholastics that the soul is entirely present in the whole
body and entirely present in each of its parts. As for the
thesis itself, I plead guilty to having confused the notion of
the soul with that of the body for the same reason that the
vulgar do; but this ·acknowledgment of error· still leaves me
with my initial doubt, ·i.e. my thinking that perhaps after
all the soul is extended·, and if you—who single-handedly
kept me from being a sceptic—don’t clear away this doubt
Correspondence René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia 1643–4
to which my first reasoning carried me, I’ll lose hope of ever
being certain of anything.
I owe you this confession. . . ., but I would think it very
imprudent if I didn’t already know—from my own experience
and from your reputation—that your kindness and generosity are equal to the rest of your merits. You couldn’t have
matched up to your reputation in a more obliging way than
through the clarifications and advice you have given to me,
which I prize among the greatest treasures I could have.
The letters of xi.1643:
[No reply by Descartes to the foregoing letter has been found.
[He sent to the Princess a certain problem in geometry;
she gave a solution to it that Descartes was told about; he
wrote at length, explaining why his own first solution was
less elegant than hers was said to be; she sent own solution,
which Descartes heralded as ‘very like the one I proposed in
my Geometry’; and he wrote at length about the advantages
of elegance and economy in mathematical proofs.
[This evidently all happened in November 1643; some of
the letters involved have been lost; the three that survive—
two by him, one by her—are omitted from this version of the
[The next letter that we have was written half a year later,
by Descartes. It responds to one by Elisabeth that we do not
Descartes writes on 8.vii.1644:
My voyage ·to Paris· couldn’t involve any misfortune when I
had the good fortune of making it while being alive in your
memory. The very flattering letter ·from you· that testifies to
this is the most precious thing I could have received in this
country. It would have made me perfectly happy if it hadn’t
told me that the illness you had before I left The Hague has
lingered on in the form of stomach troubles. The remedies
you have chosen—involving •diet and •exercise—are in my
opinion the best of all. Well, they are the best (all things
considered) after the remedies of •the soul, which certainly
has great power over the body, as is shown by the big
changes that anger, fear, and the other passions arouse
in it. But when the soul conducts the animal spirits to the
places where they can help or harm, it does this not by
directly willing the spirits to go in those ways but by willing
or thinking of something else. For our body is so constructed
that certain movements in it follow naturally upon certain
thoughts: as we see that blushes follows from shame, tears
from compassion, and laughter from joy. I know of no
thought more conducive to continuing health than a strong
conviction that our body is so well constructed that once we
are healthy we can’t easily fall ill—unless we engage in some
excess or are harmed by air pollution or some other external
cause. [In that sentence ‘a strong •conviction’ translates Descartes’s
double phrase ‘une forte persuasion et ferme créance; it isn’t obvious
what two concepts are involved in this.] Someone who is ill can
restore his health solely by the power of nature, especially
when he is still young. This •conviction is certainly much
truer and more reasonable than the view of some people—I
have seen this happen—who are influenced by an astrologer
or a physician to think they must die in a certain amount of
time, and are caused purely by this belief to become sick and
even, often enough, to die. I couldn’t help being extremely
sad if I thought that you were still unwell; I prefer to hope
that the illness is all over; but my desire to be certain about
this makes me eager to return to Holland.
I plan to leave here in four or five days, to go to Poitou and
Brittany where I must do the ·family· business that brought

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