Les passions de l’ame.

Paris: chez Henry Le Gras, au troisième pilier de la grand’ Salle du Palais, à L couronnée, 1649.

First edition, of Descartes’s important psychological treatise, one of his most influential works, and the last work published before his death in the following year. This copy made its way to England very soon after publication. “Les passions de l'ame, which drew heavily on the then-unpublished Traité de l'homme, contains the application of Descartes’s mechanistic physiology to the relationship between mind and body. Descartes made an essential distinction between the soul as the divinely-endowed seat of consciousness, will and rational thought, and the body as a machine or automaton subject to the laws of physics, and only indirectly controlled by the soul through the nerves. Using this dualistic model, he was able to make the important distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, a distinction discussed further in the Traité. Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland, which thus served as the locus for interaction between soul and body; he had defined the pineal gland’s function in the Traité, but Les passions de l’ame contains his first published account of it. The work also contains the first use of the word “reflex” in connection with the action of the nervous system” (Norman). “Cartesian dualism . . . gave great impetus to the development of psychology in its own right” (Hunter & Macalpine, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, p. 133). Cartesian theories had a great deal of influence on the way that mental pathologies were considered throughout the entire 17th century and during much of the 18th century, but the link between the pineal gland and psychiatric disorders was definitively highlighted in the 20th century, with the discovery of melatonin in 1958. The first edition of Les passions de l’ame was apportioned between the Elseviers of Amsterdam and Henry le Gras of Paris. There is no priority between the two versions; they are equally rare. Copies in contemporary English bindings are most uncommon; the work was translated into English in the following year as Passions of the Soul.

Provenance: Sir Henry Edward Bunbury (1778-1860), armorial bookplate and his crest at head of spine. Son of the famous caricaturist Henry William Bunbury (1750-1811), Henry Edward Bunbury had a successful military career, being responsible in 1815 for informing Napoleon of his sentence of deportation to St Helena. He was the author of several historical works, the most notable being his military memoirs Narratives of Some Passages in the Great War with France, first published in 1854.

The origins of Passions of the Soul lie partly in Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy (1641): in the Sixth Meditation he had sought to justify the way in which we are equipped to respond to the outside world by experiencing sensations, appetites, and passions. He argued that such perceptions provide guides for maneuvering our bodies through the world, and ultimately for preserving the mind-body union that constitutes the human being. But the main impetus for writing the Passions was his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia from 1643 to 1645. Elisabeth, almost twenty years younger than Descartes, was one of the great princesses of Europe, the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of kings. She was a person of remarkable intelligence and unusually well read at a time when women were generally denied the kind of education their brothers received. Elisabeth asked Descartes most searchingly about his dualistic theory qua theory; she also asked him for advice about her own physical and mental health (she was probably suffering depression owing to the misfortunes of her house both at home and abroad – the English King Charles I was her uncle). Her requests and Descartes’ replies frequently bear on the relationship between the body and the mind.

“The Passions of the Soul is the last of Descartes’s works to be published in his lifetime. It is his fullest account of the interaction between soul and body, and his most significant contribution to moral philosophy. Not that he sets himself up as a moral philosopher: he says that his intention is to explain the passions purely as a natural philosopher (physicien), not, as Aristotle had done, from the point of view of rhetoric or moral philosophy. However, he does not confine himself to a purely descriptive approach: his theory opens up a prescriptive dimension. Thus, the first part of the text explains the nature of passion in general, the second describes the principal passions, and the third the further passions that derive from these; but each part ends with some definite recommendations concerning the attitudes or behavior we should adopt in the light of the foregoing explanations …

“Though he dismisses all earlier writings on the subject, Descartes’s account of the passions shows continuities with that of earlier thinkers. Like Aristotle and Aquinas, for instance, he sees the passions as involving interaction between body and soul. But his theory does involve a radical break with other aspects of their accounts. Essentially, he argues that the soul is nothing other than the mind: it is not the support of the organic functions of life. These can be explained in purely mechanical terms. To show this, Descartes briefly describes the workings of the body in terms of its key organs and processes: digestion, the circulation of the blood via the veins into the heart and so to the rest of the body through the arteries; and the movement of the muscles by contraction and extension, in response to the action of the nerves, little filaments originating in the brain and responsible also for sensation. The source of all these processes is a kind of fire kept going in the heart by the blood supplied by the veins. This fire dilates or rarefies the blood, so causing it to flow to different parts of the body. But the most rarefied parts of the blood, what Descartes calls the animal spirits, flow into the brain and out again into the nerves and thence into the muscles, where they produce movement. The animal spirits are described as tiny and fast-moving bodies comparable to the particles of a flame (§§7-10). Their movement is closely related to sensation. Sensory stimuli, external or internal, set off movements in the nerves, which are transmitted to the brain. These can cause movements of the animal spirits, and hence of the muscles. Such motions can be accounted for purely mechanically …

“Descartes analyses the passions as perceptions in the soul of a bodily process. To that extent they are akin to sense-perceptions of external objects or internal perceptions of bodily states such as hunger and pain. In sense-perception the light of a torch and the clang of a bell arouse different movements in our nerves, which are then transmitted to the brain, so as to produce different sensations in the soul (note that the sensation, as such, occurs only in the soul; what occurs in the brain is a movement). But there is an element of confusion in the perception. We seem to see the light of the torch in the room, to hear the bell ring in the church tower. Likewise with our internal perceptions: we feel a dryness in our throat, a pain in our injured foot. But in each case, what we are in fact aware of is a sensation representing an external object or a bodily state (the pain we feel ‘in’ our foot is produced by the same mechanism as the pain an amputee feels ‘in’ the limb that has been removed). Again, as regards the passions, we feel anger or joy ‘in’ our soul, whereas we are in fact reacting to a physical process produced by a sense-perception (seeing behavior of which we disapprove or hearing the voice of someone we are fond of).

“The passions, then, can be defined as ‘perceptions, or sensations, or emotions of the soul that we refer (rapportons) particularly to the soul itself, and that are caused, sustained, and fortified by some movement of the spirits’ (§27). ‘Perceptions’ in the general sense of thoughts rather than volitions, but not the kind of perception involved in evident knowledge; ‘sensations’ in that they reach the soul by the same path as sense-perceptions; ‘emotions’ in that, more than any other kind of thought, they are liable to agitate and disturb the soul (§28). Descartes emphasizes the involvement of the animal spirits in order to distinguish passion as such from acts of will, which we also experience as in the soul, but rightly, because they do originate within it (§29).

“The mediating agency between body and soul is identified by Descartes as a part of the brain called the pineal gland. Though undoubtedly erroneous, Descartes’s ascription of this function to the gland is a brilliant piece of reasoning. He notes that the other parts of the brain are all doubled, as are our sense-organs; so that we need one single part, like the gland, in which the two-fold impressions received from our sense-organs can be fused into one (§§30-3).

“Descartes is now in a position to reconstruct the whole process of passion. It begins in sensation: to use his example, an animal appears in our field of vision. Light reflected from its body affects our optic nerve, producing two images, one for each eye, on the inner surface of the brain. The surrounding spirits transmit these to the pineal gland, which blends them into a single image. The gland transmits this to the soul, and we see the animal …

“Having explained the general mechanism of the passions, Descartes proceeds, in the second part of the text, to explain how the specific passions are generated. He identifies six basic passions, classified in respect of the various ways in which objects of sense-perception can harm or benefit us: wonderment, love, hate, desire, joy, sadness. This taxonomy differs markedly from two influential earlier schemes, those of the Stoics and of Aquinas. Along with each basic passion, he identifies its major derivatives (§§51-69). He then goes through the basic passions again, defining them in more detail and describing the particular physical processes that accompany each one (§§70-111). Next, he reviews the external manifestations of these passions: movements of the eyes, facial expression, changes of colour, trembling, lethargy, fainting, laughter, tears, groans, and sighs (§§112-35). (His discussion of facial expressions is generally held to have inspired seventeenth-century art theorists’ attempts to codify the expression of the passions in painting.) In the third part, he discusses the derivative passions in detail, along the same lines as the principal ones” (Moriarty (tr.), The Passions of the Soul and Other Late Philosophical Writings, pp. xviii-xxiv).  

“The final essential thread in this account of emotions is the Cartesian theory of conditioning … ‘Our soul and our body are so linked that, if we have once joined some bodily action with a certain thought, one of them does not occur subsequently without the other also occurring. We see this, for example, in those who have taken some medicine with great revulsion when they were ill, and cannot afterwards eat or drink anything that has a similar taste without immediately feeling the same revulsion. Likewise, they cannot think of their revulsion from medicines without the same taste returning in their thought.’ This innate connection between specific thoughts or feelings and bodily states tends to continue indefinitely unless changed by new connections that displace them. However, the primitive connections can also be expanded to include novel relations between mental states and bodily states, even in the case of stimuli that have no natural connection with the feelings they trigger. Descartes had noticed that animals can be conditioned to respond to novel stimuli, long before Pavlov studied the same phenomenon in the twentieth century and gave his name to it. ‘This is so certain that if you whipped a dog five or six times to the sound of a violin, I believe that it would begin to howl and run away when it hears that music again’. Evidently, the same kind of conditioning works in the case of human beings. ‘If people have at some time in the past enjoyed dancing while a certain tune was being played, then the desire to dance will return to them as soon as they hear a similar tune again. On the contrary, if others have never heard the music for a galliard without falling into some misfortune, they would infallibly become sad as soon as they heard it again’ …

“Descartes’ book on human emotions was published in Amsterdam and Paris, toward the end of November 1649. He had drafted a large part of it during the winter of 1645-46 and had sent it to Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s reply included suggestions for improvement that, almost out of character, were accepted by the author. Even with additions and corrections, however, this still amounted to only about two-thirds of the final text. Descartes made a clean copy of the revised text and sent it to Chanut [the French ambassador to Sweden], with permission to show it to Queen Christina. At about the same time, he had a request from an unidentified correspondent who had met him on his trip to Paris, had heard about the essay on the passions, and had apparently offered to assist the author in getting the final version into print. Descartes explained that his reluctance to release the manuscript had nothing to do with an unwillingness to serve his reading public. He wanted to keep the essay confidential as long as possible, partly because it had been composed originally ‘only to be read by a princess whose mind is so above the norm that she easily understands what seems most difficult to our doctors’. However, Descartes relented and promised ‘to revise this writing on the passions, to add what I think is necessary to make it more intelligible. After that, I shall send it to you and you may do what you wish with it.’

“In the spring of 1649, Descartes also sent a copy of the revised manuscript to Clerselier in Paris [Claude Clerselier met Descartes in Paris in 1644 and published the French edition of the Meditations in 1647]. Clerselier advised him that it was too difficult for ordinary readers. This prompted a further revision and plans for the addition of most of the material that was published as Part III of the book. When he wrote to Clerselier, in April 1649, he probably still had done little more than think about the additions that remained to be written: ‘As regards the Treatise on the Passions, I do not expect it to be printed until I have arrived in Sweden. For I neglected to revise it and to add the things that you thought were missing, which would have increased its size by a third. It will contain three parts, of which the first will be about the passions in general and, as required, the nature of the soul, etc.; the second part will be about the six primitive passions, and the third part about all the others.’ Descartes seems to have been procrastinating at this stage, and to have been concerned primarily with a decision about going to Sweden − whether he would go at all and, if so, when would be the best time to travel.

“His importunate correspondent of the previous year wrote again, in July 1649, bemoaning the fact that 'it has been such a long time that you have made me wait for your Treatise on the Passions that I am beginning to lose hope of getting it’. This correspondent had hoped to facilitate Descartes’ ambition to complete the unfinished parts of the Principles, and he suggested that, if he were to publish this essay, it might prompt those who had access to public funds or private donors to provide the money required to complete the necessary experiments. One reason for Descartes’ reluctance to part with the text of the Passions, which his correspondent could not have known about, was that he was worried about publishing a book that he had previously shown to Queen Christina without dedicating it to her and without her permission to make public something that he had shared with her as if with a privileged reader. This scruple was resolved by writing to the queen’s librarian and asking him to inquire discreetly about whether she might take offence. Once that was cleared, Descartes replied to his anxious editor that he was not so lazy that he feared the challenge that would result if he had adequate funds for his scientific work. However, he was now able to report that he had worked on the revisions he had promised and was ready to release the work for publication. He thus wrote on 14 August 1649, two weeks before his departure for Sweden: ‘I confess that it took more time to revise the little treatise that I am sending you than it previously required to write it. Nonetheless, I added very little to it, and I changed nothing in the argument, which is so simple and brief that it will show that my plan was not to explain the passions as an orator or even as a moral philosopher but only as a natural philosopher. I foresee, therefore, that this treatise will not do any better than my other writings. Although its title may possibly attract more people to read it, only those who take the trouble to study it carefully can find it satisfactory. Such as it is, I place it in your care.’

“The comments in the anonymous letters apparently addressed to Descartes in the Preface to the volume were accurate. They linked the Treatise on the Passions with the unfinished Principles, in particular with the writing on animals and human nature that Descartes wished to complete. The Treatise on the Passions was thus a foretaste of what might have been realized if Descartes had had the financial resources to pursue his research project and if he had made the progress that he thought, less plausibly, was being inhibited only by a lack of observations and experiments. It is difficult to estimate how successful that project might have been had Descartes lived longer, in a more suitable research environment. Apart from such guesswork, the context in which the Passions should be read was captured perfectly by Descartes’ prefatory letter. There was nothing unusual about a philosopher writing a book on the passions. However, it was distinctive to approach the topic as a ‘physicien', that is, as a natural philosopher or, in today’s language, as a scientist. In doing so, Descartes came as close as he had ever come to addressing directly the question of how mind and body interact” (Clarke, Descartes, pp. 387-9 & 391-2).

Descartes’s connection with Queen Christina began in 1646, when he met her close friend Pierre Chanut. When Chanut showed Christina some of the letters between Descartes and Elisabeth (despite Elisabeth’s insistence that their exchanges be kept private), she began a correspondence with Descartes, through Chanut as intermediary. In 1649 she invited him to Sweden; initially reluctant, Descartes eventually agreed and arrived in Stockholm on 4 October 1649, where he resided with Chanut.

Queen Christina at first required very little from Descartes, but after he had some time to settle in, she ordered him to do two things: first, to put all of his papers in order, and secondly, to put together designs for an academy. In January of 1650 Queen Christina began to require Descartes to give her lessons in philosophy. These were given five days a week, would begin at five in the morning and would last for about five hours. During this time Descartes published the Passions. He also met and became friends with Vicomte Brégy, the French Ambassador to Poland, who was then visiting Stockholm. In a letter to Brégy, dated 15 January 1650, Descartes expresses reservations about his decision to come to Sweden. He sees himself to be “out of his element,” the winter so harsh that “men's thoughts are frozen here, like the water”. In early February, less than a month after writing to Brégy, Descartes fell ill. His illness quickly turned into a serious respiratory infection. And, although at the end of a week he appeared to have made some movement towards recovery, things took a turn for the worse and he died in the early morning of 11 February 1650. He was fifty-three years old.

Brunet, II, 611; GM 4965; Guibert p. 150, no. 1; Hermstein & Boring (eds.), A Source Book in the History of Psychology, pp. 204-210; Norman 626; Rieber 130; Tchemerzine IV, p. 301 (“Cette édition fut imprimée de compte à demi par L. Elzevier avec le libraire parisien Le Gras. Aussi trouve-t-on des exemplaires sous l’adresse de Louis Elzevier à Amsterdam, avec la Minerve comme fleuron. Les deux aspects de cette édition sont d’impression elzévirienne”); Willems 1083 (“L’édition de 1649 est assez rare”).

8vo (152 x 96 mm), pp. [xlviii], 286, [2]. Woodcut device on title, woodcut initials and tailpieces. Contemporary English speckled calf, English printer’s waste used in binding (joints repaired). The printer's waste contains part of A copy of a letter from the Earle of Essex, by order of the pretended Houses of Parliament, to Prince Rupert: with His Highnesse answer thereunto (Oxford: Leonard Lichfield, 1645), pages 1-4 of 8 (Wing E3310).

Item #4536

Price: $11,000.00

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