Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia—the first person to fully understand the paradoxical nature of the mind-problem, a mathematician, the possible romantic interest of Descartes, and an eventual abbess—was born in 1618, and lived in exile with her family in the Netherlands, a political refuge after her father’s brief reign. Her father’s rule had ended after he lost what was called the “Battle of the White Mountain,” for which he would be known via the sobriquet “the winter king,” having been in power for merely a season.
Elisabeth was a great philosopher in her own right—whip-smart and engaged by the intellectually stimulating times, she maintained numerous correspondences throughout her life on all manner of subjects. For her learning, within her family she was known as “the Greek,” and this was in a set of siblings that included an eventual king, another brother who was a famous scientist in addition to being a co-founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company, another sister who was a talented artist, and a further sister who was the eventual patron of Leibniz. Mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and politician, Elisabeth was, in her day, an important hub in that republic of letters that would become science.
The princess and Descartes only met in person a few times, but maintained a long correspondence over the years, exchanging a total of fifty-eight letters that have survived (more may not have). The correspondence began in 1643, and would last, on and off, until Descartes’s surprising death in 1650 (he died of pneumonia after being forced to wake early in the morning and walk through a cold castle to tutor a different and far more demanding queen). In the princess and the philosopher’s letters, Descartes usually signed off with “Your very humble and very obedient servant” and Elisabeth with “Your very affectionate friend at your service.”