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Elisabeth von der Pfalz or Elisabeth of Bohemia or Princess Palatine (26 December 1618, Heidelbergmarker11 February 1680), Protestant Abbess of Herford, was the eldest daughter of Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, who were briefly elected King and Queen of Bohemia. She is well-known for having established a philosophical correspondence with René Descartes that lasted for seven years until his death in 1650.


After the overthrow of her father, her earliest youth was spent at Berlinmarker, under the care of her grandmother Juliana, a daughter of William of Orange, who gave her thoughts a lofty and pious direction. In her ninth or tenth year she was sent with her siblings to complete her education in Leidenmarker, The Netherlandsmarker, where she was taught classic and modern languages, art and literature, and showed especial inclinations toward philosophical studies. She also earned the nickname "La Grecque" ("The Greek") for her impressive knowledge of classical languages. Afterwards she moved to The Haguemarker, where her parents kept a quiet court surrounded by a select circle of noble and educated men. There were plans to marry her to Władysław IV Vasa, King of Poland. Being committed to the Protestant cause it is claimed that she refused to marry a Catholic king. It should be kept in mind that this episode occurred toward the end of the Thirty Years' War pitting Protestants against Catholics.

The many misfortunes that befell her family may have confirmed her decision. In 1639 she entered into correspondence with Anna Maria van Schurman, a learned woman, called the Dutch Minerva. A little later she became acquainted with Descartes, who, at her request, was made her teacher in philosophy and morals, and in 1644 he dedicated to her his Principia. In 1649 Descartes followed an invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden, but continued in correspondence with Elizabeth until he died in the following year. At this time Elizabeth returned to Heidelbergmarker with her brother Charles Louis who was now elector, but his conjugal troubles induced her to leave Heidelberg. During a visit to an aunt at Krossen she became acquainted with Johannes Cocceius who later entered into correspondence with her and dedicated to her his exposition of the Song of Songs. Through him she was led to the study of the Bible.

In 1667 she became abbess of the institution of Herfordmarker where she distinguished herself by faithfulness in the performance of her duties, by her modesty and philanthropy, and especially by her kind hospitality to all who were oppressed for the sake of conscience. In 1670 she received the followers of Jean de Labadie, by whose piety she was attracted. Saddened by the departure of the congregation in 1672, she retained a small body of like-minded souls under her protection. The Labadiste were followed in 1676 by the Quakers. In 1677 William Penn himself arrived together with Robert Barclay, and remained three days, holding meetings which made a deep impression upon the countess. Her friendship with Penn lasted until her death in 1680, and he celebrated her memory in the second edition of his book No Cross, No Crown (1682), praising her piety and virtue, her simplicity, her care as ruler, her justice, humility and charitable love. Gottfried Leibniz visited her in 1678.


"In a book about their relationship, Leon Petit claims that Descartes and Elizabeth were in love with one another [Leon Petit, Descartes et la Princesse Elizabeth: roman d'amour vecu (Paris, 1969)]. Genevieve Rodis-Lewis is inclined to agree, though in her opinion it was not a sexual passion." [A.C.Grayling, Descartes, The Life of René Descartes and Its Place in His Times (London, 2005)]

She is described as a woman of utmost intelligence speaking six languages and having an aptitude for mathematics. In her correspondence with Descartes she poses one of the most critical questions regarding his philosophy of Dualism - which states that mind and body are separate entities - namely that if mind and body are two separate entities then how do they interact with each other?

Descartes never provided a satisfying answer to this question. See the Mind-body problem for more information about this question, its history, and modern interpretations.

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