Before internet memes were memes, really, there was a viral video, of sorts, from the Legend of Zelda cartoon. It was a super cut of all the times Link said his catchphrase: “Excuse me, Princess” to Princess Zelda. There are only 13 episodes, and they are not very long, but, as you can see below, Link manages to work in his catchphrase near constantly.
In other words, this is not one of those cases where my memory deceived me into thinking something was a common occurrence, and really, it only happened once or twice. No, Link really did say this grating catch phrase all of the time.
I am reminded of this catchphrase, though not the grating and sarcastic tone in which it is delivered, whenever I read Rene Descartes’s correspondence with Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatine. This is because much of their correspondence, especially the part that I include when teaching my regular early modern course, involves excessively profuse and over-wrought apologizing to each other for what they are sure must be their own fault in misunderstanding what the other one has said. Other times, the apologies come in the form of ironically framed prefaces to his neo-stoic pep talks, because, for much of the correspondence, Elisabeth is struggling with severe melancholy:
I ask your Highness very humbly to pardon me, for I cannot feel sorry for her indisposition when I have the honor of receiving her letters. I always note in them thoughts so distinct and reasoning so firm that it is not possible for me to convince myself that a mind capable of conceiving them is lodged in a weak and sickly body. Whatever the case might be, the knowledge that your Highness demonstrates of the illness and of the remedies that can overcome it assures me that she will not fail to have the skill required to employ them.Descartes to Elisabeth, Egmond, June 1645
In slogan form, Stoicism is about mastering your passions, rather than letting your passions be your master. I am not drawn to Stoicism, myself, though briefly summarizing why would involve me caricaturing the view in a way that would raise the ire of its adherents (or, rather, my making snarky jokes about stoicism wouldn’t raise the ire of stoicism’s more faithful adherents, but, well…you get the idea).
The principle advice that you get if you ask a stoic is, “have you tried…not being so melancholic?” (Ok, I did a bad job of not summarizing Stoicism in a way that would perturb its adherents, but I think we all saw that coming). And if you’ve ever actually been anxious, nervous, depressed, etc. you know that this is not a winning strategy; as does Elisabeth:
But I confess that I find it difficult to separate from the sense and the imagination those things that are continuously represented to them in conversation and in letters, so that I do not know how to avoid them without sinning against my duty. I know well that in removing everything upsetting to me (which I believe to be represented only by my imagination) from the idea of an affair, I would judge it healthy and would find in it the remedies as well as the affections which I bring to it. But I have never known how to put this into practice until the passion has already played its role. There is something surprising in misfortunes, even those that have been foreseen, of which I am mistress only after a certain time, my body becomes so strongly disordered that several months are necessary for me to restore it, and those months hardly pass without some new subject of trouble. Besides this, I must govern my mind with care, giving it agreeable objects, for the least laziness makes it fall back onto those subjects, all too readily available, which afflict it.Elisabeth to Descartes, The Hague, 22 June 1645
When they get into the heart of the discussion, Descartes has three simple rules that are supposed to help anyone achieve contentment, regardless of everything about their circumstances: 1) use your reason to determine what must be done (or not done) in all the events of life; 2) have a firm and constant resolution to execute all that reason advises you to do without letting passions and appetites turn you away from following reason’s advice; and 3) bear in mind that every good you do not possess is entirely outside your power (and thereby eliminate your desire for it), “[f]or there is nothing but desire and regret or repentance that can prevent us from being content”. Elisabeth points out that this seems to be less universally applicable than Descartes, and Seneca—who they are building their discussion around—suggest:
It is for this reason that I do not yet know how to rid myself of the doubt that one can arrive at the true happiness of which you speak without the assistance of that which does not depend absolutely on the will. For there are diseases which destroy altogether the power of reasoning and by consequence that of enjoying a satisfaction of reason. There are others that diminish the force of reason and prevent one from following the maxims that good sense would have forged and make the most moderate man be subject to being carried away by his passions and less capable of disentangling himself from the accidents of fortune requiring a prompt resolution.Elisabeth to Descartes, The Hague, 16 August, 1645
Elisabeth has a good point which I will somewhat unfairly paraphrase as being that Descartes’s advice is sort of…useless? She is nice about saying this, but, let’s be honest: his overarching advice is as they say…not so good. Because while she says “hey some people are entirely debilitated from the use of reason and others have diminished ability to fully use reason”, we might instead say, “literally no one is fully governed by reason, so what even is the point of those rules?”
Now, the exchange they have is a really interesting discussion of their readings—Descartes’s refinement and her criticisms—of Stoic ethics. Her prodding leads Descartes to write the Passions of the Soul, in which he offers more worked out defenses of his views on the mind-body union and questions like what can you say about these compelling concerns regarding the influence of the body and its passions on the mind? So, if you want to know more about what Descartes thinks, please read this correspondence, and read the Passions.
But, he also seems to back off of the view that you can just think your way out of what we’d now call depression without fully acknowledging that he is giving up on his initial position (strictly speaking, he says he wants to limit his strong claim to people who have haven’t entirely lost the use of their will, but denies that people in her second category are deprived of the ability to achieve happiness). Ultimately, before the conversation shifts to physics and Machiavelli, Descartes is going to more-or-less “recommend carefreeness to [her] Highness” (or refrain from withdrawing that recommendation), and Elisabeth continues to point out some of the obvious problems with trying to be carefree when you already aren’t.
These essays I’ve been writing have, inadvertently, but unsurprisingly, had a lot of content related to mental health. Some of it has been tangential, and some of it has been fore-fronted, as with this essay, which has taken me a long time to finish. Some of that has been garden-variety distraction, and some of it has been ironically topical (not too severe of melancholy, but I think, this year, it’s not too hard for anyone to identify some sources, or recognize that you don’t even need specific sources as it were).
I can get very melancholic in November. The days are short, it’s cold, it’s dark, last year it was especially lonely (every possible variety of having Thanksgiving plans canceled occurred, leading me to foreswear plan-making for months after). It’s also the anniversary of my dad’s death. Thankfully, it is not November, and has not been for some time. Which is probably why I’m finally able to finish writing this essay. I’m not having a rough time at the moment. But, reading the exchange, I find it infinitely easier to sympathize with and see things from Elisabeth’s perspective, rather than Descartes’s.
Back in November, when, it was dark, and felt dark, the advice that was helpful to me was not to try to be carefree, or to use my reason to determine what was to be done or not done. The advice I needed was bake a pie over zoom with a friend (that’s not all the advice that I needed, it’s just one major component I can share succinctly here). I wasn’t going to come up with that advice myself, but I surely wasn’t in the category of fully debilitated reason that Descartes would have said was outside the scope of his pronouncement. I just would have employed reason poorly.
Fortunately I got that advice, and other good advice. I had some tantrum-y melancholic days. There was much that was hard about this past 14 months. But I’ve reconnected with people that I had lost touch with. I’ve made new friends and had to be more intentional about how to stay in touch with others. And, I’ve also made pies, and shared them with friends.
It is important to remind ourselves that it is an enormous accomplishment just to have made it through the past 14 months still standing. So, remember that you (by which I am really reminding myself) should be positively proud of any further accomplishments.
Now one way I’ve been enormously unfair to Descartes here, is that I’ve continually suggested that no one would want to receive the advice he was giving Elisabeth while they were struggling with melancholy. But that’s partially me projecting. While it is impossible to scrape away all the layers of formalities and etiquette alluded to at the outset and divine exactly what was on everyone’s mind really, my best reading of the correspondence is that the correspondence itself is lightening her mood. She writes about being excited to see him and hear from him, and not wanting him to pass through the city without visiting, etc. So, even though she fervently thinks his advice is incorrect, she doesn’t seem bothered to be getting it. Instead, she seems to be quite eager to receive the letters telling her to (again, I am being slightly unfair) reason her way out of her depression and anxiety. To my mind, that’s parallel to the social amelioration/restorative effect I got from pie-baking and sharing with friends. But maybe Descartes would suggest it differs importantly because they were engaged in philosophical disputations? I’ll leave that for your consideration, and just end with sharing a song I listened to more times in the past 14 months than I have listened to any other song in my entire life, probably: