Passions of the Soul

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In his final philosophical treatise, The Passions of the Soul (French : Les Passions de l'âme), completed in 1649 and dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden, René Descartes contributes to a long tradition of philosophical enquiry into the nature of "the passions". The passions were experiences – now commonly called emotions in the modern period – that had been a subject of debate among philosophers and theologians since the time of Plato.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

In philosophy and religion the passions are the instinctive, emotional, primitive drives in a human being which a human being must restrain, channel, develop and sublimate in order to be possessed of wisdom. Passions in religion and philosophy have a different connotation from the popular concept of passion which is generally seen as a positive emotion. The philosophical notion of passion, in contrast, is identified with innate or biologically driven emotional states regarded in ancient philosophies and the great religions as being the basis for deadly sins and seen as leading to various social and spiritual ills such as unstable relationships, broken marriages, lack of social integration, psychological disorders and other problems. In the philosophical tradition of the west passion is often placed in opposition to reason. Reason is advocated in the control of passion, something seen as desirable and necessary for the development of a mature, civilized human being. This is achieved by the cultivation of virtue. Four virtues in particular have long been seen as of especial value in this regard.


Notable precursors to Descartes who articulated their own theories of the passions include St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Hobbes.

Augustine of Hippo early Christian theologian and philosopher

Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Roman African, early Christian theologian and philosopher from Numidia whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was the bishop of Hippo Regius in north Africa and is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers in Western Christianity for his writings in the Patristic Period. Among his most important works are The City of God, De doctrina Christiana and Confessions.

Thomas Hobbes 17th-century English philosopher

Thomas Hobbes, in some older texts Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which expounded an influential formulation of social contract theory. In addition to political philosophy, Hobbes also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy.

Origins and organization of the text

Origins of the book

1636 Elisabeth of Bohemia 1636 Elisabeth of Bohemia.jpg
1636 Elisabeth of Bohemia

In 1643 Descartes began a prolific written correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, in which he answered her moral questions, especially the nature of happiness, passions, and ethics. Passions of the Soul was written as a synthesis of this exchange.

Elisabeth of the Palatinate German princess, philosopher, and Calvinist

Elisabeth of the Palatinate, also known as Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate, or Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey, was the eldest daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and Elizabeth Stuart. Elisabeth of the Palatinate is a philosopher best known for her correspondence with René Descartes. She was critical of Descartes' dualistic metaphysics and her work anticipated the metaphysical concerns of later philosophers.

Happiness is used in the context of mental or emotional states, including positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. It is also used in the context of life satisfaction, subjective well-being, eudaimonia, flourishing and well-being.

Passion (emotion) emotion

Passion is a feeling of intense enthusiasm towards or compelling desire for someone or something. Passion can range from eager interest in or admiration for an idea, proposal, or cause; to enthusiastic enjoyment of an interest or activity; to strong attraction, excitement, or emotion towards a person. It is particularly used in the context of romance or sexual desire, though it generally implies a deeper or more encompassing emotion than that implied by the term lust.

Amélie Rorty asserts that the examination of the passions present in Descartes' work plays a significant role in illustrating the development of the perception of the cognitive mind in western society. According to her article “From Passions to Emotions and Sentiments,” Descartes’ need to reconcile the influence of the passions on otherwise rational beings marks a clear point in the advancement of human self-estimation, paralleling the increasingly rational-based scientific method. [1]

Relationship between moral philosophy and science

In the context of the development of scientific thought in the seventeenth century which was abandoning the idea of the cosmos in favor of an open universe guided by inviolable laws of nature (see Alexandre Koyré), human actions no longer depended on understanding the order and mechanism of the universe (as had been the philosophy of the Greeks), but instead on understanding the essential workings of nature.

Alexandre Koyré, also anglicized as Alexander Koyre, was a French philosopher of Russian origin who wrote on the history and philosophy of science.

It was in this context that Descartes wished to speak of the passions, neither as a moralist nor from a psychological perspective, but as a method of exploring a fundamental aspect of natural science. “My design is not to explain the passions as an Orator,” he wrote in a letter to his editor dated August 14, 1649, “nor even as a Philosopher, but only as a Physicist.” In doing so, Descartes broke not only from the Aristotelian tradition (according to which the movements of the body originate in the soul), but also the Stoic and Christian traditions which defined the passions as the illnesses of the soul and which dictate that they be treated as such. [2] Descartes thus affirmed that the passions “are all intrinsically good, and that all we have to avoid is their misuse or their excess,” (art. 211). [3]

Natural science Branch of science about the natural world

Natural science is a branch of science concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena, based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. Mechanisms such as peer review and repeatability of findings are used to try to ensure the validity of scientific advances.

Aristotelianism tradition in philosophy

Aristotelianism is a tradition of philosophy that takes its defining inspiration from the work of Aristotle. This school of thought, in the modern sense of philosophy, covers existence, ethics, mind and related subjects. In Aristotle's time, philosophy included natural philosophy, which preceded the advent of modern science during the Scientific Revolution. The works of Aristotle were initially defended by the members of the Peripatetic school and later on by the Neoplatonists, who produced many commentaries on Aristotle's writings. In the Islamic Golden Age, Avicenna and Averroes translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic and under them, along with philosophers such as Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi, Aristotelianism became a major part of early Islamic philosophy.

Stoicism School of Hellenistic Greek philosophy

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. While Stoic physics are largely drawn from the teachings of the philosopher Heraclitus, they are heavily influenced by certain teachings of Socrates. Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

In the context of the mechanistic view of life which was gaining popularity in seventeenth century science, Descartes perceived the body as an autonomous machine, capable of moving independently of the soul. It was from this physiological perception of the body that Descartes developed his theories on the passions of the soul. Formerly considered to be an anomaly, the passions became a natural phenomenon, necessitating a scientific explanation.

The notion of passion

The treatise is based on the philosophy developed by Descartes in his previous works, especially the distinction between the body and the soul: the soul thinks (res cogitans) but is incorporeal, while the body is a physical (res extensa) but does not think and is primarily defined by its form and movement. This is what is known as Cartesian Dualism. In Passions, Descartes further explores this mysterious dichotomy of mind and body.

The passions such as Descartes understood them correspond roughly to the sentiments now called emotions, but there exist several important distinctions between the two. The principle of these is that passions, as is suggested by the word’s etymology, are by nature suffered and endured, and are therefore the result of an external cause acting upon a subject. [4] In contrast, modern psychology considers emotions to be a sensation which occurs inside a subject and therefore is produced by the subject themselves.

In Passions of the Soul, Descartes defines the passions as "the perceptions, sensations, or commotions of the soul which we relate particularly to the soul and are caused, maintained, and strengthened by some movement of the spirits" (art. 27). [5] The "spirits" mentioned in this definition are "animal spirits," a notion central to understanding Descartes' physiology. These spirits function in a capacity similar to modern medicine's nervous system. Descartes explains that these animal spirits are produced in the blood and are responsible for the physical stimulation which causes the body to move. In affecting the muscles, for example, the animal spirits "move the body in all the different ways it is capable of" (Passions of the Soul art. 10). [6]

Descartes does not reject the passions in principle; instead, he underlines their beneficial role in human existence. He maintains that humans should work to better understand their function in order to control them rather than be controlled by them. Thus, "[e]ven those who have the weakest souls could acquire absolute mastery over all their passions if they worked hard enough at training and guiding them" (art. 50). [7]

Organization of the treatise

The organization of Descartes’ Passions is indicative of the author’s philosophy. Applying his famous method to moral philosophy, Descartes represented the problem of the passions of the soul in terms of its simplest integral components. He distinguishes between six different fundamentally distinct passions:

But there aren’t many simple and basic passions... you’ll easily see that there are only six: wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, sadness. All the others are either composed from some of these six or they are species of them. So I’ll help you to find your way through the great multitude of passions by treating the six basic ones separately, and then showing how all the others stem from them.
—Descartes, Passions of the Soul, article 69

It is with these six primary passions (wonder, love, hate, desire, joy, and sadness) that Descartes begins his investigation on their physiological effects and their influence on human behavior. He then follows by combining the six passions to create a holistic picture of the passions.

The work is itself divided into three parts, titled:

  1. The Passions in General and incidentally the whole nature of man;
  2. The Number and Order of the Passions and explanations of the six basic passions;
  3. Specific Passions.

The work is further divided, within the three greater parts, into 212 short articles which rarely exceed a few paragraphs in length.

Philosophical problems

Title page of the Passions. Descartes Les passions de l'ame.jpg
Title page of the Passions.

Status of the subject

According to Michel Meyer, Passions is one of the most important of Descartes’ published works. [8] Descartes wrote the treatise in response to an acute philosophical anxiety, and yet in doing so, he risked destroying the entirety of his previous work and the Cartesian system.

The problem arises from the fact that the passions, inextricably based in human nature, threaten the supremacy of the thinking subject on which Descartes based his philosophical system, notably in Discourse on the Method . Descartes had made the thinking subject the foundation of objective certainty in his famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” It was on this system that he based the possibility of knowing and understanding the world. In allowing that the passions could disrupt the process of reasoning within a human, he allowed for an inherent flaw in this proof. And if man was forced to doubt the truth of his own perceptions, on what could he base his understanding of the natural world?

Additionally, a further distinction between Descartes’ writings on physics and those on human nature such as can be found in Passions is their relationship to Aristotelian teleology. [9] While Descartes argues against the existence of a final cause in physics, the nature of his work on examining the origins and functions of desires in the human soul necessitates the existence of a final goal towards which the individual is working.

The relationship between the body and the spirit

The problem of the Passions treatise is also the problem of Cartesian Dualism. In the first part of his work, Descartes ponders the relationship which exists between the thinking substance and the body. For Descartes, the only link between these two substances is the pineal gland (art. 31), the place where the soul is attached to the body.

The passions that Descartes studies are in reality the actions of the body on the soul (art. 25). The soul suffers the influence of the body and is entirely subject to the influence of the passions. In the manner by which Descartes explains the human body, the animal spirits stimulate the pineal gland and cause many troubles (or strong emotions) in the soul.

The combination of the passions

The passions attack the soul and force the body to commit inappropriate actions. It was therefore necessary for Descartes to study in the second part of his treatise the particular effects of each separate passion and its manners of manifestation. The study of the passions permits one to better understand and account for these elements which may otherwise disturb a human's rational reasoning capabilities.

At the same time, Descartes' modernity must also be appreciated. Even while outlining the passions and their effect, he never issues an overarching interdiction against them as fatal human defects to be avoided at all costs. He recognizes them as an inherent aspect of humanity, not to be taken as aberrations. Furthermore, the role of the passions on the body is not insignificant. Descartes indicates that they must be harnessed in order to learn which are good and bad for the body, and therefore for the individual (art. 211 and 212).

Thus the majority of the work is devoted to enumerating the passions and their effects. He begins with the six basic passions and then touches on the specific passions which stem from their combination. For example, contempt and esteem are two of the passions derived from the basic passion of admiration (art. 150). The passion which Descartes valued the most is generosity for the positive effect it has on the individual (art. 153).

Controlling the passions

For Descartes, nothing could be more damaging to the soul and therefore the thought-process, which is its primary function (art. 17), than the body (art. 2). He maintained that the passions are not harmful in and of themselves. To protect the independence of the thoughts and guarantee a man’s understanding of reality, however, he indicated that it is necessary to know the passions, and learn to control them in order to put them to the best possible use. It is also necessary, therefore, that a man strive to master the separation which exists between the corporeal body and the mind.

The influence of The Passions of the Soul

In her examination of the popular modern misconceptions of Descartes' philosophy, Lilli Alanen argues that Gilbert Ryle, author of The Concept of Mind (1949) is commonly associated with a modern-day application of Descartes’ philosophy as put forth in Passions. [10] According to Alanen, Ryle describes the true man as the “Ghost in the machine,” completely separating the physical body and from the metaphysical ‘mind’ which actually encapsulates the spirit as well. Alanen argues that this philosophy is more akin to that of Plato’s, while Descartes’ remains more closely tied to Aristotle. The confusion which ties Ryle so closely to Descartes arises from a confusing mix of metaphors; Descartes and his contemporaries conceptualized of the mind as a thing of physical (if inconceivable) proportions, which allowed for a differentiation between “inner” and “outer” sense. This ties back to Descartes’ Discourse, which derived knowledge and understanding of external realities on the basis of internal certainty.

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  1. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, “From Passions to Emotions and Sentiments,” Philosophy 57.220 (April, 1982): 159-172.
  2. See Aristotle and On the Soul
  3. Descartes, René. Passions of the Soul. Translated by Jonathan Bennett. October 2010. .
  4. From the Latin passio, meaning "suffering."
  5. Descartes, René. Passions of the Soul. Translated by Jonathan Bennett. October 2010. .
  6. Descartes, René. Passions of the Soul. Translated by Jonathan Bennett. October 2010. .
  7. Descartes, René. Passions of the Soul. Translated by Jonathan Bennett. October 2010. .
  8. According to Michel Meyer in his introduction to Les Passions de l'âme, René Descartes LGF, coll. « Poche », Paris, 1990, p. 5.
  9. Robert Rethy, "The Teaching of Nature and the Nature of Man in Descartes' 'Passions de l'Ame,'" 53.3 (March, 2000): 657-683.
  10. Lilli Alanen, "Descartes's dualism and the philosophy of mind," Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 94e. Année no. 3 (July–September 1989): 391-395.