Home » Early Modern Philosophy » A Swedish Virago: Queen Christina of Sweden on Dualism and the Passions

A Swedish Virago: Queen Christina of Sweden on Dualism and the Passions

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) is not well credited for her contribution to seventeenth-century philosophy. Indeed, most historians pose her simply as a bygone monarch, albeit a most idiosyncratic one [1]. To some she is remembered as the mercurial spinster who went about Europe in men’s clothing, unique in her mastery of equestrianism, shooting and military strategy [2]. Most recall her for her involvement in René Descartes’ death, occurring in the midst of the Swedish winter as he laboured to satisfy her educational demands [3]. The more considered historian might meanwhile describe Christina as the ‘intelligent, independent and artistic sovereign’ (Philippe, 1970, p.695) who possessed the greatest book collection in Europe (Birch, 1907, p.8), who dreamt of making Stockholm ‘the Athens of the north’ (Conley, 2011, §1), and who may well prove to be the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-queen history has ever seen.

At birth she was proclaimed the male heir to the Swedish empire, and was upon the discovery of her true sex spurned by her mother, who had once again failed to provide King Gustav Adolphus with a son (Stolpe, 1966, p.37). The king proved more tolerant: he would later name Christina his heir and afford her the exacting education suited to a prospective emperor [4]. This unusual series of events came to epitomise her legacy as she assumed the role of the honorary male, adopting the character and temperament of a king in a blatant rejection of womanly life no doubt encouraged by her mother’s refusals. This legacy was a relatively good one, however: under Christina’s rule Sweden saw great relief in the Peace of Westphalia, bringing an end to the Thirty Years War, and later withstood severe political tumult without any major civil conflict (Åkerman, 1987, p.21).

The queen has since been dubbed ‘one of the wittiest and most learned women of her age’ (Stephan, 2006). It is said that she studied ten hours a day, leaving no time to keep up royal appearances. Slovenly dress and tangled, unruly hair quickly became her signature aesthetic (Goldsmith, 1956, p.52) [5]. She was by no means plain in the company she kept, however. Throughout her tenure Christina had a number of distinguished intellectuals at hand, a coterie including Isaac Vossius, Samuel Bochart, Nicholas Heinsius and of course the hapless René Descartes. She valued these men as ‘living libraries,’ as silos of information she admired but ultimately viewed as ‘poor advisers in affairs of the great world’ (M, p.25). This reluctance to heed the counsel of others, together with her scholastic bibliomania, enabled the events of 1654 in which the ‘eccentric scholarly creature’ turned Catholic and scandalously abdicated her father’s throne (Fraser, 1989, p.252). As Birch (1907) explains in the Maxims’ introduction:

All the gilded chains with which a people binds its King, and all the rigours of Protestant worship were to her offensive and odious and left her with the one wish to escape into an enlarged and more liberal life (p.10).

Longing to pursue her intellectual ambitions away from imperial duty, Christina left the Swedish empire in the hands of her cousin, Charles X Gustav, having spent several years spurning his proposals of marriage (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009). Her status as the only queen in history to favour education over royalty was emphasised with the discovery of her writings in 1690: ‘A prince must think of himself as a slave crowned by the people […] The man was truly wise who wished neither to obey nor to command’ (M, p.27, 30). If she did not aspire to be a queen, she certainly aspired to be wise: in abdicating she escaped both obedience and command, finally attaining the freedom she had long desired.

The study of Christina as a philosopher concerns three sources: her correspondence with Descartes, her commentary on the maxims of La Rouchefoucauld [6], and her very own posthumously published maxims [7]. In general her philosophical ruminations are erratic and fragmentary, but on the ontological matter of the mind and body and the ethical matter of virtue and passion Christina voices a clearly discernible position.


Among the few things we can establish from Christina’s brief correspondence with Descartes is her scepticism regarding certain aspects of Cartesianism (Conley, 2011, §a). This is not to say the queen was wholly averse to it, however, for references to a distinct mind and body—the hallmark of Descartes’ metaphysical system—abound elsewhere in her literature. Her commentary on La Rouchefoucauld, for instance, confronts the author’s materialist position and emphasises the mind’s causal yet not ontological union with the body.

La Rouchefoucauld observes that we know very little of the mind’s states and operations, suggesting they might ultimately be ‘the good or bad disposition of the organs of the body’ (i.e. equal to bodily states and operations). Christina does not agree. ‘There is such a great union between mind and soul,’ she writes, ‘that even if some small thing is bothering this machine, everything goes wrong’ (CMLR, §14). Her separation of mind from body should be noted here. Where La Rouchefoucauld implies human beings are exhausted by their physical processes—having taken the mind and body’s interaction as proof of their being one and the same—Christina approaches this as a Cartesian in emphasising the closeness of their union as distinct entities. This is comparable to Descartes’ analogy of the ship and the sailor: the latter, intelligent and autonomous, directs the former, simple and inert; and if the sailor becomes confused or distressed, the ship displays similar behaviour (Descartes, 1996, p.56). Where Christina and Descartes would discern between this sailor and his ship, La Rouchefoucauld makes no such distinction and perceives them as a single entity. Christina’s maxims likewise infer this separation: ‘The body must be subdued and treated as a slave […] We should cultivate our souls rather than torment our bodies’ (M, p.23, 32).

Of course Christina’s ontological distinction between mind and body is not made explicitly as it is in the Meditations (1996). In fact Christina does not discuss ontology at all; her metaphysical commitments are rather implied in her comments on other matters, namely the female intellect. As noted by Conley (2011), ‘[Her] argument for gender equity carries echoes of the Cartesian thesis that the mind remains a completely separate substance from the body and [is] thus unmarked by gender’ (§b, iii). Indeed, Christina seems certain that human identity springs from something more fundamental than physical parts: ‘It is true that the soul has no sex,’ she says, affirming that ‘there are men who are as much women as their mothers and women who are as much men as their fathers’ (RS, §268, 266). For her, the differences between men and women are neither essential nor necessary; they are simply the result of education and societal norms [8]. She resumes her Cartesianism in this mistrust of custom, which, she says, ‘makes us insensible to almost everything’ (M, §18). Readers of Mary Astell, author of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (2014) and renowned cartésienne, might look to Christina as a precursor to England’s first published feminist (Batchelor, 2002). The two closely intersect in their metaphysical egalitarianism, and their subsequent attribution of male supremacy to arbitrary tradition and custom [9].

This separation of gender from soul is at heart an ontological separation of mind from body. Used as it is to describe physical traits, dualists like Christina and Astell consider gender irrelevant where the mind is concerned, for it is composed of an immaterial and therefore androgynous substance. This is to say that intelligence and learning are not products of male nature but male privilege, and that sexual inequality is simply the unjust subjugation of one social group by another. Christina does not lay this out as explicitly as Astell, but in her dualist and protofeminist assertions she identifies with a school of women philosophers whose legitimacy relied on the mind and body’s ontological division (Broad, 2004, p.90). She would by no means have identified herself as a cartésienne, but her beliefs are nonetheless punctuated by ideas developed in the crucible of the Cartesian Revolution.

The Passions

This does not extend to her views on the passions, however. Descartes was renowned for his neostoicism, a school of thought that emerged during the late Renaissance with intent to reconcile ancient Stoicism with modern Christianity. Naturally this required the omission of certain Stoic principles, namely materialism and determinism, but the traditional concept of the passions as a disruptive force to be repressed by rational thought remained central (Sellars, 2011, §0-2).

Descartes defines the passions as ‘those perceptions, sensations or emotions of the soul which we refer particularly to it, and which are caused, maintained and strengthened by some movements of the spirits’ (Descartes, 1985, p.338). They are, in common terms, those feelings, needs and inclinations that lead to expressive behaviour, as distinct from the clear ratiocination that characterises the mind. The Cartesian view on the passions is particularly vivid in Descartes’ letters to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, in which he recommends she ‘reflect upon [her] soul’ in order to cure her medical afflictions (Shapiro, 1999, p.510). Emotions and desires are here equated with vice and ill health, as they are throughout the neostoic tradition, with Descartes grounding this relationship in the passions’ association with the physical body. A stark dichotomy is thus created between the rational, virtuous and immaterial nature of the mind and the passionate, unthinking functionality of the physical body.

Given her partial agreement with Descartes’ dualism, together with her frequent praise of Epictetus [10], it is puzzling that Christina’s work should so abound with positive views on the passions. ‘Passion often turns the brightest man into a fool and often makes the greatest fools bright,’ writes La Rouchefoucauld, to which she responds ‘I think that passion perfects everything’ (CMLR, §1). This position is likewise held in her maxims, throughout which she spurns the asceticism of the Stoic in favour of a colourful hedonism: ‘Over sympathies and antipathies the reason has no power […] The passions are the salt of life; we are neither happy nor unhappy except in their exercise’ (M, p.21, 28). Emotions and desires appear to possess an unusual significance in Christina’s system; they are somehow essential to the moral agent, providing ‘a positive vitality to the human person’ (Conley, 2011, §b, ii). In The Passions of the Soul (1985) Descartes, too, aims criticism at the austerity of the ancients [11], but is nonetheless committed to the neostoic notion of mind over matter, reason over passion. Christina, meanwhile, condemns this equanimity as ‘dull and insipid,’ insisting that we ‘only triumph over the passions when they are weak’ (RS, §149, 160).

This should not imply an unprincipled focus on self-indulgence, however, for her writings appear to favour a simple, studious life spent in avoidance of vanity and selfish behaviour. ‘Reading is part of the duty of an honest man,’ she writes, later adding that ‘the greatest profit we get from study is learning not to be insupportable to ourselves’ (M, p.25, 34). For Christina, the development of one’s knowledge allows for a better understanding of virtue in a hedonistic reality; it helps us to indulge our passions in the right and dutiful way.[12] Where this rectitude is concerned, the indulgence of the ultimate passion, love, appears to be central, with Christina describing the love of God and our friends as an ‘agreeable servitude’ (M, p.21). This is the extent of her moral prescriptivism, and reveals a sort of hierarchy within the passions:

There are moments in which God communicates Himself to the soul in so ineffable and incomprehensible a manner as to make one forget the whole world (M, p.37).

When a heart is capable of love, it is impossible that sooner or later it will not love God, who alone is capable of fulfilling it and lifting it up (HS, §84).

These statements lay out a remarkably simplistic ethical system: while we are free to seek pleasure and indulge the passions as we see fit, we are unable to achieve true happiness unless we are benefiting from a loving relationship with both God and our neighbours. Again, since love is the ultimate passion, we must achieve this by learning not to be ‘insupportable to ourselves’ via careful study. What is unusual about this is the modesty of her spiritual expectations: ‘True religion consists in loving God and our neighbour. All the rest is mummery’ (M, p.39). Curiously, it is not necessary for the mind to engage in gruelling rational thought, to dissociate itself from the body, or to observe religious traditions; all that is required is the proper direction of the passions, chief among them love. This provides moral obligation in a world otherwise driven by pleasure; and as long as we remain bound by the edicts of education and a loving disposition, we are free to ‘enjoy everything without scruple and surrender everything without pain’ (M, p.21.). This conception of a virtuous life is notably simple compared to that of the Stoics, who demand that we remain zealously focused on our nature as rational beings. This maverick simplicity sheds a great deal of light on things, namely Christina’s blasé position on the passions and her reputation as an untidy, bookish monarch who ardently opposed tradition, asceticism and ignorance.

Conclusion: Passionate Dualism

In her eclecticism Christina presents a system supported by tenets scarcely seen in conjunction:


  1. The mind and body are ontologically distinct.
  2. The proper indulgence of the passions is essential to a virtuous and happy life.


A Cartesian would of course uphold (1) and not (2). For them, the ontological distinction between the mind and body, together with the premise that the passions are associated with the inferior latter, results in Cartesian neostoicism. Christina, on the other hand, does not see her acceptance of the mind-body distinction as sufficient reason to neglect the desires of the body [13]. As she puts it, ‘Health and money exist to be spent,’ and as earlier stated we are within our rights to do so (M, p.31). She seems to hold a respect for the material world unusual among her fellow dualists, who tend to regard the physical with suspicion or disdain (Harth, 1992, pp.13-9).

This may refer back to the simplicity of her ethical theory. Once we remove neostoicism’s labour-intensive demands on the mind, we are left with a great deal of time and energy to be expended on the body. It is clear from Christina’s writings that she believes the immaterial soul joins God in heaven after death [14], and that the physical body thus remains on earth for a limited time [15]. Given her general preference for a cynical realism, it is possible that Christina is suggesting we ought to effect a worldly hedonism while we have the chance. In her own words, ‘We should simply forget the past, endure or enjoy the present, and resign ourselves to the future’ (M, p.20). In passages like this she seems to propound a narrative in which her fellow philosophers are overcomplicating things; and though she clearly upholds the very basic tenets of her Catholic (formerly Protestant) faith, it is clear that Christina thinks we ought to spend more time enjoying ourselves than we should labouring over our rational nature.

There is little clarity in Christina’s philosophical work, and this is in part owed to the fact that she never intended it to be published (Birch, 1907, p.6). She communicates a position that is prone to inconsistency [16], ambiguity—even randomness; and this leaves a lot of scope for interpretation. In my own I have attempted to align my speculations with what we already know of Christina’s history and character: she was an indulgent, educated, and free-thinking contrarian who sailed through life as if it were a brief sabbatical to which she was wholly entitled—and it seems likely that her philosophy would reflect this.


[1] Most notable are Lacombe (1766), Bain (2010) and Buckley (2008), who provide insight into Christina’s life as a princess, a queen and then a maverick but fail to provide a substantial exegesis of her philosophical writings.

[2] See Birch (1907, p.8).

[3] Grayling (2005) gives a thorough (if not somewhat unflattering) overview of these events (pp.257-94).

[4] Egherman (2008) notes that her education would have been ‘above the norm’ for a son, let alone a daughter (p.6).

[5] She addresses this in her maxims, poking fun at those who ‘are unhappy if they do not spend their days between the mirror and the comb’ (M, §102).

[6] Hereon CMLR, quoted in Conley (2011).

[7] Her maxims comprise Reasonable Sentiments (hereon RS) and Heroic Sentiments (hereon HS), written sometime before 1680 (quoted in Conley, 2011). A collection of these maxims selected by Birch was published in 1907 under the title Maxims of a Queen (hereon M).

[8] ‘Temperament and education explain all the differences one can observe between the two sexes’ (RS, §270).

[9] Astell takes this a lot further and ‘practically browbeats’ women into parting with their former reservations regarding their own intellect (Bryson, p.42).

[10] ‘Born a slave, the wise Epictetus proved himself so illustrious that he made his slave irons more glorious than many others have made their scepters’ (HS, §142).

[11] ‘It is not good to divest oneself entirely of these Passions, as the Cynics used to do’ (Descartes, 1985, p.331).

[12] ‘The man is worth nothing who does not prefer duty to pleasure […] We are not made innocent in order that we may remain ignorant’ (M, p.28, 31).

[13] This is of course assuming that Christina believes the passions in fact stem from the body and not the mind.

[14] ‘By whatever gate we enter Eternity, it is a gate of triumph […] Life would be little and death nothing if the soul were not immortal’ (M, p.36, 40).

[15] ‘The world should be looked upon as an inn, in which we abide but a few hours’ (M, p.40).

[16] Take for instance her occasional avowals of Stoicism: ‘The sea is the symbol of great souls. However agitated may be its surface its depths are always calm […] To conquer oneself is to triumph over one’s most powerful enemy’ (M, p.29, 33).

Works Cited

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Astell, M. (2014). A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. New York: Saltar’s Point Press.

Bain, F.W. (2010). Christina, Queen of Sweden. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

Batchelor, K. (2002). The Literary Encyclopedia. Available: http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=168. Last Accessed 06/09/16.

Birch, U. (1907). Introduction: Christina of Sweden (1907). Maxims of a Queen. London: W.M. Clowes and Sons, Ltd. Trans. Birch, U.

Bluestone, N.H. (1987). Women and the Ideal Society: Plato’s Republic and Modern Myths of Gender. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Broad, J. (2004). Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bryson, C.B. (1998). Mary Astell: Defender of the “Disembodied Mind”. Hypatia. 13 (4).

Buckley, V. (2008). Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric. London: Harper Perennial.

Christina of Sweden (1907). Maxims of a Queen. London: W.M. Clowes and Sons, Ltd. Trans. Birch, U.

Conley, J.J. (2011). Kristina Wasa (1626—1689). Available: http://www.iep.utm.edu/wasa/. Last accessed 23/02/15.

Descartes, R. (1985). The Passions of the Soul. In: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Descartes, R. (1996). Meditations on First Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grayling, A.C. (2005) Descartes: The Life of Rene Descartes and Its Place in His Times. London: The Free Press.

Egherman, M.J. (2008) Queen Kristina as a Reader. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Iowa.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Editors of (2009). Available: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-X-Gustav. Last accessed 05/09/16. Last accessed 05/09/16.

Fraser, A. (1988). The Warrior Queens: Boadicea’s Chariot. London: Phoenix Press.

Goldsmith, M. (1956). The Outrageous Queen: A Biography of Christina of Sweden. London: Muller.

Harth, E. (1992). Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lacombe, J. (1766). The History of Christina, Queen of Sweden. London: George Kearsly.

Philippe, J. (1970). Two Glasses Commemorating Queen of Sweden. The Burlington Magazine. 122 (811).

Sellars, J. (2011). Neo-Stoicism. Available: http://www.iep.utm.edu/neostoic/. Available: http://www.iep.utm.edu/neostoic/.

Shapiro, L. (1999). Princess Elizabeth and Descartes: The Union of Soul and Body and the Practice of Philosophy. British Journal for The History of Philosophy. 7 (3).

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Stolpe, S. (1966). Christine of Sweden. London: Burns & Oates.

Zirpolo, L.H. (2005). Christina of Sweden’s Patronage of Bernini: The Mirror of Truth Revealed by Time. Women’s Art Journal. 26 (1).


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