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Synopsis of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, ‘Quatre lettres sur Machiavel’

[‘Four Letters on Machiavelli’]

CpA 6.3:53–62

This text reprints four letters exchanged between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia in 1646. Along with the extract from Machiavelli’s Discourses (CpA 6.4), this extract accompanies François Regnault’s article ‘The Thought of the Prince’ (CpA 6.2), which discusses the letters throughout. Descartes and Elisabeth pursued a correspondence between 1643 and 1649, and discussed many philosophical matters, including the mind-body relation, the principles of mathematics and geometry, and ethics. The text published in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse contains their discussion of Machiavelli’s The Prince, but in his article Regnault also discusses the biographical background to the letters.

The references in this summary are to Charles Adam and Paul Tannery’s 11 volume edition of the Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913; abbreviated as AT). This pagination is reproduced in the most recent English translation of Descartes and Elisabeth’s correspondence.

Letter I. Elisabeth to Descartes, July 1646. AT 4: 447-449; CpA 6.3:53-54

This brief letter begins with an invitation by Elisabeth to meet Descartes in the Hague, before she departs with her family to Berlin. The reason for her departure, to which she alludes in the letter, is her brother Philippe’s killing of François d’Espinay (who had been courting her mother and her younger sister) in broad daylight in the Hague, an act which appears to have been carried out with her knowledge. She says that she will take with her the draft of the treatise on The Passions of the Soul that Descartes has given to her, but she remarks that previously it was his ‘presence’ that ‘brought the cure’ to her passions, ‘since neither your maxims nor my reasoning had been able to’ (AT 4: 449; CpA 6.3:53).

Letter II. Descartes to Elisabeth, September 1646. AT 4: 485-493; CpA 6.3:54-57

Descartes’ response to Elisabeth begins with a reference to a conversation they had recently had about Machiavelli’s The Prince, which Elisabeth had asked Descartes to read. Descartes says that he has found in The Prince ‘many precepts which seem very good to me’, but his main criticism is that Machiavelli ‘has not drawn enough of a distinction between princes who have acquired a state by just means, and those who have usurped power by illegitimate means’ (AT 4: 486; CpA 6.3:54). The latter are deprived of secure foundations, and their states will invariably lapse into tyranny. Descartes proceeds to criticise Machiavelli’s arguments about the prince’s relations to allies, enemies, prominent subjects and the common people. He criticises his recommendations that friendship should be feigned in order to secure one’s ends (‘friendship is something too sacred to abuse in this way’; AT 4: 488; CpA 6.3:55), and that the prince should sometimes break promises (which Descartes says would destroy the prince’s reputation), and insists that the prince should avoid the hatred and contempt of the common people. In a key passage for Regnault’s interpretation, Descartes tackles Machiavelli’s proposition, in chapter 15 of The Prince, that ‘since the world is corrupt, it is impossible that one will not ruin oneself if one always wants to be a good man, and that a prince, in order to maintain himself, must learn to be wicked when the occasion requires it’. Descartes disapproves of this maxim, ‘unless, that is, by a good man, he means a superstitious and simple man who does not dare to go to battle on the Sabbath, and whose conscience can be at rest only if he changes the religion of his people’; however, if we think that ‘a good man is he who does everything true reason tells him to, it is certain that the best thing is always to try to be one’ (AT 4: 490; CpA 6.3:56). In response to Elisabeth’s own quandaries, Descartes merely recommends that she ‘practice those maxims which teach that the felicity of each depends only on oneself, and that it is very necessary to carry oneself outside the rule of fortune so that, while one does not miss the occasions to take the advantages it can give, one does not let oneself become unhappy when it refuses them. Since in all worldly affairs there are some reasons for and some against, one should consider principally those that make one approve of what happens’ (AT 4: 492; CpA 6.3:57).

Letter III. Elisabeth to Descartes, 10 October 1646. AT 4: 519-524; CpA 6.3:57-60

Now installed in Berlin, Elisabeth begins her letter by remarking that ‘the friendship and caresses of those close to me’ cannot compete with the ‘truths’ that Descartes’ letters bring her, which are more permanent. She regrets not having brought her copy of The Prince to Berlin, which she read six years previously, but recalls that she approved of some of his maxims, ‘not because they are good in themselves, but because they bring about less evil than those used by a number of ambitious imprudent people I know, who tend only to stir things up and leave the rest to fortune. Those of this author all tend towards the [preservation of the] establishment [l’établissement]’ (AT 4: 520; CpA 6.3:58). Her problem with Machiavelli is that ‘he starts from the state which is the most difficult to govern, where the prince is a new usurper, at least in the opinion of the people’ (AT 4: 520; CpA 6.3:58). Similarly, ‘when the same author speaks of allies, he supposes them to be as evil as they can be, and matters to be in such an extreme state’ that the breaking of promises becomes necessary. However, if Machiavelli’s main error is to have made ‘general maxims from those cases which occur in practice on very few occasions’, in this regard he shares the company of all theologians and philosophers who conduct their teaching through ‘paradoxes’ (AT 4: 522; CpA 6.3:58). In response to Descartes’ criticism of Machiavelli’s claims about the impossibility of being a ‘good man’, she says that ‘I do not think he means that to be a good man it is necessary to follow laws of superstition. Rather he means this common law by which one should do unto others as one would like done to oneself: a law which princes are almost never able to observe with regard to one of their subjects, who must be sacrificed each time public utility requires it. Since, before you, no one has said that virtue consists in following right reason, but have only prescribed laws or more particular rules, one should not be surprised that they have failed to define it as well’ (AT 4: 522; CpA 6.3:59). She depicts Descartes as somebody who is well-placed, through his method, to ‘teach’ princes, and remarks that ‘for myself, who have only the title of prince’ (AT 4: 522; CpA 6.3:59), the best course of action is clearly to follow the rule that Descartes gives at the end of his previous letter. After commenting on the ‘fortunate success’ of her voyage, she informs Descartes about a visit she has recently made to a ‘miraculous spring’ at Cheuningen, which they had discussed together when she was in the Hague. She notes the spring has two kinds of therapeutic waters, a purgative and a refreshing one (Regnault discusses this passage in the ‘Latent Discourse’ that concludes ‘The Thought of the Prince’; CpA 6.2:50). She also makes remarks about a code Descartes and herself were contemplating using for their future correspondence.

Letter IV. Descartes to Elisabeth, November 1646. AT 4: 528-532; CpA 6.3:60-62

Descartes begins his letter by expressing his happiness at hearing about her safe voyage, adding some further reflections on maintaining a healthy attitude to fortune. He says that ‘I even dare to think that interior joy [la joie intérieure] has some secret power to make fortune more favourable … I have often noticed that things I have done with a happy heart and without any interior repugnance have usually succeeded well for me. Even in games of chance, where fortune alone reigns, I have always had more favourable experiences when I have come to the game with reasons for joy than when I have done so with reasons for sadness’ (AT 4: 529; CpA 6.3:60). He notes that ‘what is commonly called the “daimon” of Socrates was without doubt nothing else but that he was accustomed to following his interior inclinations and thought that the outcome of what he undertook would be happy when he had some secret feeling of gaiety’ (AT 4: 530; CpA 6.3:61). We have good reason, he says, when faced with difficult choices, ‘to follow the advice of our “daimon”’. In this regard, he says that it may be a good thing that she left her books in the Hague, ‘for reading them is not so likely to engender gaiety as to bring on sadness, especially reading that book by the Physician of Princes’ AT 4: 531; CpA 6.3:61). However, he notes that ‘I have since read his [Machiavelli’s] discourses on Titus Livy where I noticed nothing evil. His principal precept, which is to eliminate one’s enemies entirely or else to make them one’s friends, without ever taking the middle way, is without doubt always the surest’; even so, he qualifies, ‘when one has nothing to fear, this is not the most generous way to proceed’ (AT 4: 531; CpA 6.3:61). He concludes with some scepticism about the ‘miraculous spring’ at Cheuningen, stating that ‘there is no remedy at all which can be used for all maladies’; moreover, from her description, it sounds to him as if the spring contains antimony and mercury, so he advises her to keep clear of it.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • François Regnault, ‘La pensée du prince’, CpA 6.2:23-52.

English translation:

  • The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes, ed. and trans. Lisa Shapiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 138-150.

Primary bibliography:

  • Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, trans. George Bull. London: Penguin, 1975.
  • ---. The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, based on translation by Leslie J. Walker. London: Penguin, 1974.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Adam, Charles, Descartes et ses amitiés féminines. Paris: Boivin, 1917.
  • Atherton, Margaret. Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994, ch. 1.
  • Broad, Jacqueline, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Gaukroger, Stephen, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Godfrey, Elizabeth. A Sister of Prince Rupert: Elizabeth Princess Palatine and Abbess of Herford. London: John Lane, 1909.
  • Harth, Erica. Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
  • Néel, Marguerite. Descartes et la princesse Elisabeth. Paris: Éditions Elzévir, 1946.
  • Nye, Andrea. ‘Polity and Prudence: The Ethics of Elisabeth, Princess Palatine’, in Linda Lopez McAlister, Hypatia’s Daughters. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  • ---. The Princess and the Philosopher: Letters of Elisabeth of the Palatine to René Descartes. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
  • Shapiro, Lisa ‘Introduction’ to The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, ed. and trans. L. Shapiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 1-60.