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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: January 2016

Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia (1618–1680)


Princess Elisabeth (Elisabeth Simmern van Pallandt) was born in Heidelberg to Fredrick V, elector of Palatine, and Elizabeth Stuart. Fredrick would become the “Winter King” of Bohemia, and after his short reign in 1620, the family lived exiled in The Hague. After Fredrick's death in 1632 while fighting on behalf of King Gustave of Sweden in the Thirty Years’ War, the family fell into financial difficulties. We know very little about Elisabeth's education, but we do know that she studied languages – Latin, Greek, French, English, and German – along with mathematics and natural philosophy. Elisabeth never married, although she received a proposal from King Wladislav of Poland in 1633. The king was a Catholic, and Elisabeth refused to convert from her Protestant faith in order to facilitate the marriage. In 1660 Elisabeth entered the Lutheran Convent at Herford, and she became abbess in 1667. As abbess she sheltered various religious persons who faced persecution, such as Labadists, including Anna Maria van Schurman, and Quakers. Elisabeth had long suffered from illness and died in 1680. It is reported that Francis Mercury van Helmont and Leibniz were present at her death.

Elisabeth's only extant philosophical work is the correspondence with Descartes. She insisted that the correspondence be kept private, although Descartes did circulate some of it during his lifetime (most notably to Queen Christina of Sweden). Although Descartes’ part of the correspondence was published soon after his death, Elisabeth's letters were not published until 1879. Elisabeth had a reputation for intelligence and philosophical and mathematical acumen that was unusual for a woman at the time. It is clear from her correspondence that she was known at the university of Leiden and may have studied there. In addition to her correspondence with Descartes, it is believed that she had contact with Henry More and Nicolas Malebranche, as well as Gassendists such as Samuel Sorbière.

The correspondence with Descartes covers a wide range of issues: mind-body interaction, the passions, free will and God's providence, the sovereign good, political rule, mathematics, and medicine. However, the correspondence is best known for the discussion of the mind-body problem. Elisabeth presses Descartes to give an account of how an immaterial mind can move a material body. Like Descartes, Elisabeth subscribes to the mechanical view of matter, according to which body is moved by impulsion or by the quality or shape of bodies.

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The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
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