Thursday, 28 February 2013

Week 5. Descartes and Elisabeth

(This post is by Minna Koivuniemi.)

Descartes starts to converse with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680) on the 6th May 1643 when Elisabeth sends him the first letter through their common friend Alphonso Pollot. She also sends him the last letter to Sweden on the 4th December 1649. The correspondence begins after Elisabeth’s having read Descartes’ Meditations and being puzzled about the mind-body interaction. So thanks to Elisabeth Descartes needs to clarify his account on the mind-body relationship, and in general she is the initiator concerning Descartes’ views on emotions and moral psychology. They also discuss variety of other issues, like complex mathematical problems that Elisabeth does not have big difficulties to solve. 

Nevertheless there is a distinctive feature in the correspondence we had read. Namely it was not – at least Elisabeth’s letters – were not ever meant to be but their eyes only. Already in the first letter Elisabeth asks Descartes to observe Hippocratic oath. She considers him the best doctor of her soul. Nevertheless Descartes sends her letters 1647 to Pierre Chanut, a French ambassador in Sweden without her permission. After Descartes’ death Chanut wants to publish them, but Elisabeth still refuses. Claude Clerselier who compiles Descartes’s correspondence respects this and does not publish them. They are however in Adam’s and Tannery’s edition of Descartes’ works but not in the English edition the Philosophical Writings of Descartes I-III. Then in 2007 Lisa Shapiro publishes in English the whole correspondence (cf. Shapiro’s edition The Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, also for further information on Elisabeth’s life, education and the discovery of her letters).

Due to Elisabeth’s persistent refusal to publish her letters, it is difficult to avoid from feeling intrusive when reading them. Nevertheless they provide us with lots of information on the way how emotions are often discussed in Western world, on the progress in Descartes’ views on emotions and on directions towards which Elisabeth might have taken us if she had written herself more on emotions.

I shall here mainly underscore two issues in their dialogue as regards the passions: the role of imagination and the attempt to relate to them as if they were scenes on the stage. Descartes does not often show his indebtedness to his predecessors, but it seems that these issues bear some resemblance between him and the Stoics or the Neo-stoics.

The Good Use of Imagination

The correspondence shows that emotional distress also makes Elisabeth physically ill. We learn for instance in Descartes’ letter to Elisabeth on the 18th May 1645 that she has had a low-grade fever accompanied by a dry cough that lasted three or four weeks. She recovered for five or six days but then they returned. Descartes thinks that causes of such state are sadness and “the stubbornness of fortune in persecuting [her] house continually”. As far as purely physical remedies are concerned diet and exercise that doctors had recommended her are good according to Descartes. However remedies of the soul are the best. Then he utters the great opening line as regards the power of the soul over the body that:

it is not by its will directly that the soul conducts the animal spirits to the places where they can be useful or harmful; it is only in willing or thinking of some other thing (on the 8th July 1644).

In a later letter to Elisabeth in May or June 1645 Descartes expands this a bit more. He considers unpleasant passions that Elisabeth is so often going through as “domestic enemies”. He says that one cannot oppose them directly or chase them away. According to him, there is only one remedy for this. It is to “divert one’s imagination and one’s senses as much as possible and to employ only the understanding alone to consider them when one is obliged to by prudence”

Imagination - or actually an active use of the imagination - therefore is the opening key in Descartes’ mastery of the passions. Why is it something that Descartes thinks that really works? Passions are, as Descartes then later defines them in the Passions of the Soul “perceptions, sensations or emotions of the soul which we refer particularly to it, and which are caused, maintained and strengthened by some movement of the spirits” (PS, art. 27). They inhabit the realm of third primitive notion, the mind-body union, to which Descartes refers the interaction between the mind and the body. As he explains it in a letter to Elisabeth on the 21st May, on the union depends “the power the soul has to move the body and the body to act on the soul in causing its sensations and passions”. This interaction results in an experience of being one thing with the body, but it is about two things, the mind and body, interacting with one another. The union is thus, as Henri Gouhier had stressed, inherently a dynamic concept.

In this Cartesian framework, then passions are thoughts caused by body. Their most proximate causes are animal spirits that are bodily entities. According to Descartes imagination brings us to the state that is emotionally charged. By thinking of pleasant or disagreeable objects also our body becomes respectively activated, thus causing bodily modifications appropriate to the emotion at stake. In the letter to Elisabeth May or June 1645 he writes about two kinds of persons. One of them has all the reasons to be happy but considers continually all sorts of tragedies and is thus occupied by sadness and pity. Descartes continues by describing how these sorts of thoughts are closely connected to certain type of movements in the body: the heart closes itself up and emits sights, the circulation of the blood becomes blocked and slowed, the larger particles of the blood attach one to another and grind up the spleen, more subtle particles retain their agitation and alter the lungs and cause cough.

The other person on the other hand has many real causes to be unhappy but he does his best to consider only the objects that gives him joy and contentment. Descartes thinks that this inclination is related to such bodily modifications that make him healthy again. Even in the case, he says, where “spleen and lungs were already ill disposed by the bad temperament of the blood caused by [--] sadness”. Medical remedies would strengthen the recovery curing obstructions in the blood. So what Descartes says to Elisabeth is that she should clear her mind entirely of all sorts of unhappy thoughts, occupy her mind with thoughts of “the greenery of a wood, the colors of a flower, the flight of a bird” as if she thought of nothing. This way she would gain “perfect health, which is foundation of all the other good that one can have in this life”. Descartes gives an example of his own life. He tells that he had inherited a dry cough and a pale color from his mother who had died of a lung disease soon after his death. Doctors thought that it would cause him an early death. Nevertheless his inclination has always been to look at things from the most favourable perspective and to base contentment on himself only. Thus he could cope with this indisposition fairly long time, until he was hit by the cold winter in Sweden and Queen Christina’s demands in 1649-50.

Although Elisabeth likes the affection Descartes has to offer she is not very thrilled by his advice. Elisabeth thinks that it is very difficult not to think of those unpleasant things that are continuously represented in her imagination and senses. She writes that she does not know how to put this practice “until the passion has already played its role”. In particular she says that her body becomes “so strongly disordered that several months are necessary for [her] to restore it, and those months hardly pass without some new subject of trouble”.

Presumably it is because of these bodily elements in the passions that Elisabeth then a few months later in the 16th August 1645 dismisses Seneca’s De vita beata as a book that does not really instruct in issues that it deals with and encourages Descartes to correct him. Nevertheless there is an aspect in which Descartes feels affinity with Seneca. This is that true happiness as Descartes writes in a letter to Elisabeth on 18th August 1645 “consists only in the contentment of the mind”. There are kinds of contentment that depend on the body but the solid contentment is that of the mind. Sovereign good leads us to this happiness, which for both Seneca and Descartes involves virtue. For Seneca virtue means wisdom and reason to follow the nature of things and conform to “its law and example”. Descartes stresses that to follow virtue is “to have a firm and constant will to execute all that we judge to be the best and to employ all the force of our understanding to judge well”.

Internal freedom is crucial for both thinkers. Later in the Passions of the Soul Descartes insists that that the will is so free that it cannot ever be constrained (art. 41). The function of the passions according to Descartes is to dispose the soul to want what they prepare the body for (art. 40, 52). Because the will however is by nature free it is not compelled to accept those thoughts that are caused by the body, e.g. the passion in case. In a similar manner Seneca stresses our freedom when he thinks that we do not need to give our assent to propassions, the physiological reactions we feel, and to judge that something good or bad is at stake. It is this metaphysical sense of freedom that Elisabeth seems to dismiss in her approach to emotions. So does Echart Tolle in his Power of Now when he considers that the idea of the stream of thoughts fully explains Descartes’ view of our internal nature. Our mind consists in thoughts but they are not caused without our active participation. We can only think, but our will is free in choosing what to think. We are creators of our own reality when we choose to where we direct our attention. It is not necessarily our inherent solitude that Descartes points to but our internal activity and power as regards our thoughts. A good shaman is a master of the mind in the sense that he understands his power concerning what sorts of thoughts he holds, and he thinks what he wants to.

Emotions as Scenes on the Stage

Elisabeth however is in difficulties to choose some other thoughts than those ones to which she is inclined due to the bodily causes. She seems to identify herself mainly with the embodied self, and thus it is hard to detach from emotions. In a way her case shows the struggle with emotions when the focus is still on externals. She has not yet really grasped her own internal power and its worth. Emotions are overburdening as long as one values external and material things most. When the focus shifts, the picture however changes, and it can change quickly. Somebody trained by Tibetan lamas once said that the power of an emotion ceases when one holds attention on something else during a minute and an half.

Sounds as an exaggeration but Descartes also thinks that mastery of the passions does not necessarily need to involve year long practice. He says this in the Passions. Because even dogs can be re-trained, humans can be so yet faster (art. 50). Nevertheless it can be that it takes some amount of studies and life experience until one realizes what is fundamental. After that it can indeed happen quite easily that passions do not bother to a greater extent any more and people relate better to another when they are not so motivated by greed and envy often attached to external goods.

Descartes is however understanding to those people who experience strongly their emotions. In June 1645 he writes to Elisabeth that “it is ordinarily the best minds in whom the passions are the most violent and act more strongly on their bodies”. However he thinks that all events can be considered from a positive angle. If not otherwise, so at least from this one: adversities function as excellent occasion for us to improve ourselves. Descartes writes to Elisabeth that:

Your Highness can draw this general consolation from all favors of fortune: that they have perhaps contributed a lot toward enabling her to cultivate her mind to the point that she has (in June 1645).

Here Descartes comes pretty close to what we found in Lipsius’ On Constancy. Setbacks are really important because they train us and make us thus better. There is a real reason for a soul to be tightly intertwined with the body and to feel deeply its inclinations: they teach it. In this frame of mind, human life is really a classroom. Those who live materially great life do not use the opportunity to elevate their souls. Descartes writes to Elisabeth about the significance of hard life:

This is a good that she should value more than an empire. Great prosperity often dazzles and intoxicates in such a way that it sooner possesses those that have it than is possessed by them. [--] it would all the same furnish her with fewer occasions to exercise her mind does adversity.

Although Descartes thinks that the soul is so closely united with the body that it forms as if one thing with it, he still thinks that the soul is metaphysically more prior than the union. The soul is immortal and in its usage of the will, it is free. So unlike Elisabeth Descartes identifies himself with the soul’s view point rather than with the embodied self, and in this sense he is able to detach himself from the passions. He is more or less an observer of the passions that he still feels them and even acts on them. Several times he relates the passions to watching a play in a theatre. People who esteem this life much less than eternity

they give events no more consideration than we do events in comedies. Just as those sad and lamentable stories which we see represented on a stage often entertain us as much as the happy ones, even though they bring tears to our eyes, in this way the greatest souls [--] draw satisfaction in themselves from all the things that happen to them, even the most annoying and insupportable (on the 18th May 1645).

Then again in January 1646 he writes that we can prevent by the good use of our free will all evils from entering our soul in the same way as happens to sadness that comedians excite in us by representing tragic events to us. He adds however that “one must be very philosophical to arrive at this point”.

Elisabeth does not really understand the comparison of the real emotions with those ones that we feel when watching a play. She thinks that we can enjoy the sadness that tragedies excite in us because we know that it cannot really harm us (on the 28th October). If she however thought like Descartes that her soul were eternal and indestructible and if she identified herself with that entity, then she would think as well that emotions she feels cannot really harm her and she could understand what Descartes means when he talks about them as if scenes on the stage. They cannot ever truly threaten our internal core. The same idea occurs in the Passions as well. There Descartes relates it to internal emotions of the soul that the soul causes itself. Again Descartes refers to scenes on the stage or reading a book: they arouse different emotions depending on the objects represented to us that in turn cause pleasure in us, which is the soul’s internal emotion. Descartes considers internal emotions very powerful because they affect us most intimately: they are caused only by our soul, our true self.  

Although Elisabeth does not really seem to get there where Descartes tries to take her, she shows to be greatly receptive to emotions, which as such is a good thing, at least in two ways. She starts to understand that although emotions can be hard, they are not necessarily evil but they carry a message for the person who experiences it. On the 13th September in 1645 Elisabeth writes to Descartes that some people thinks that emotions only subject reason to it but she does not really believe it. Namely she adds that experience has shown her that there are passions that do carry also to reasonable actions. Furthermore, she thinks in the letter on the 25th April 1646 that in civil matters one should always rely on experience rather than reason. It would have been very interesting to see how she would have elaborated these issues if she had had a chance.

Another issue concerns empathy that quite likely is going to increase when people experience hard times. Elisabeth is apparently still so preoccupied by the setbacks that hit her and her family that she is mainly concerned by the pain that she herself feels. In a way empathy occurs in Descartes’ letter on the 18 May 1645. Those people who are able to relate to the passions in a way that Descartes recommends, they do their best to help others. They feel compassion at their friends’ ill fortune when they see these friends under some big burden. They might even expose themselves to death when trying to help them. Furthermore in a letter on the 6th October 1645 Descartes speaks on the behalf of charity. He thinks that the pure affection we feel for others will always win sadness and pain we might experience when feelings with others suffering some affliction.