The Passions of the Soul Essay - Critical Essays

René Descartes

Critical Evaluation

René Descartes was a man who made of his life a quest for certainty, a quest which led him to the discovery of a new approach to knowledge. This method he summarized in his twenty-one RULES FOR THE DIRECTION OF THE MIND. In THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL, Descartes, late in his life, turned his attention to the human emotions; this book is the result of his applications of his rational method to an analysis of the causes, varieties, and significance of emotions. Descartes wrote this study during the winter of 1645-1646; it was not published, however, until a short time before his death in 1650. During his lifetime Descartes’ books had only small sales and were a source of disappointment to their author. But under the prodding of friends and royal patrons, including Queen Christina of Sweden and Princess Elizabeth of the Palatine, he finally agreed to the publication of this, the last book to appear before his death.

Descartes saw mind and body as being completely distinct; he also saw that sense perception requires an interaction of mind and body. He came to believe that the emotions, as well as sense perception, were the result of interaction between the body and the mind. The causes of the emotions, or, as he called them, the passions, were not, he came to believe, solely in the brain but in all parts of the body, insofar as the various parts of the body serve for the production of blood and what he called the animal spirits. These animal spirits he believed to be very subtle portions of the blood, material bodies of extreme minuteness, which move very quickly through the body and are produced, for the most part, in the brain. The animal spirits, as well as perceptions, can cause the actual movements of the body, thought Descartes. The seat of the soul he located in the pineal gland, between the two hemispheres of the brain; the spirits move from the pineal gland, he believed, through the nerves, act upon the animal spirits already in the body’s system, and thus cause movements in the muscular and skeletal portions of the body.

The first part of Descartes’ study, consisting of fifty “articles,” or paragraphs, discusses the physiology of man, explains the seat of the soul, and discusses the general nature of the passions, or emotions. In this section of the book Descartes concludes that both desires and emotions proceed from the soul, noting that while some desires are the result of the body others are the result of the soul, such as the desire to love God. In this section, too, Descartes tries to show why he believes that every soul, despite the degrees of strength in souls, can exercise absolute control over the emotions of the particular human being. Such power to control the individual is, of course, a logical necessity if the individual is to be held responsible for his thoughts, emotions, and acts.

Because he was a rationalist, Descartes believed that to analyze and to understand the passions is a first step in being able to control them. Therefore, the second part of THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL is an examination of the emotions. He enumerates and analyzes a long list of passions, but he suggests that there are six basic, or primitive, passions from which the others derive; the six he lists are wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness. Other passions, claims Descartes, are species of these six or combinations of them. He suggests that the utility of the passions is that they fortify and perpetuate thoughts in the soul which it ought to preserve, thoughts which might disappear if they were not strengthened by emotion. Two ways exist, however, in which the emotions can be detrimental: one is that thoughts can be fortified more than is necessary or desirable; the other is that thoughts unworthy of retention by the soul are fortified, and so retained, by emotion. For example, maintains Descartes, wonder can be marvelous in inclining the individual to study the sciences. On the other hand, he points out, as we progress in...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)