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Journal of Early Modern Studies

Volume 2, Issue 2, Fall 2013

Susan Mills
Pages 101-122
DOI: 10.7761/JEMS.2.2.101

The Challenging Patient: Descartes and Princess Elisabeth on the Preservation of Health

In this paper I examine Descartes’ goal concerning the preservation of health—his proclaimed “principal end” of his studies—and reasons for it. At the centre of my investigation are Princess Elisabeth’s challenging comments concerning the attractiveness of death, which she makes in response to Descartes’ medical advice in their long-running correspondence of letters. Her challenge, I claim, strikes at Descartes’ medical project at large: she understands Descartes to endorse certain principles concerning the soul that are at odds with his medical ambition to preserve the health of the body. Descartes dispels Elisabeth’s challenge, but not with—what I argue—is his absolute reason for preserving health. For that, I turn to Descartes’ exposition in the Sixth Meditation of dropsy as a “true error of nature.” Unlike the other reasons for Descartes’ concern with health that I take up in my analysis of Descartes’ medical project, this one does not justify the preservation of health by the goods of health but, rather, by the order of nature that God ordained in creating the human being as a composite of soul and body.