St. Augustine’s Press (2007)
The court ballet “La Naissance de la Paix” (“The Birth of Peace”) has been translated to English for the first time in a book by Richard A. Watson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of philosophy in Arts & Sciences.
Along with providing the translation, the book, “Descartes’s Ballet: His Doctrine of the Will and His Political Philosophy,” demonstrates that the ballet, commissioned by Queen Christina of Sweden in 1650 and long attributed to French philosopher Rene Descartes, was almost certainly not written by him. Instead, Helie Poirier, a Dutchman who wrote the verses for two other ballets commissioned by Queen Christina, likely wrote the ballet.
Descartes’ authorship of the ballet is a falsehood that has been perpetuated for centuries, Watson said.
“Descartes’ first biographer, who linked Descartes to everything, said that Descartes wrote the ballet, and this — with a lot of other false things the biographer wrote — has been repeated ever since,” Watson said.
“If the ballet text was written by Descartes, it would indicate that he was closer to Queen Christina than is possible given the evidence because the ballet — as were all court ballets — was part of the propaganda for her politics. This has appealed to Descartes scholars — that Descartes was close to the great queen — but there is no evidence that he was,” Watson said.
While “The Birth of Peace” was not written by Descartes, Watson said, Queen Christina did share Descartes’ doctrine of the will — that is, his assertion that humans are made in the image of God, and as God has free will, so do humans. That idea conflicts with the notion that God, an all-powerful creator, is the cause of everything — including human actions — but Descartes argued that the idea of free will under an all-powerful God is reality, though beyond human comprehension.
“The ballet is all about the exertion of willpower — of which Queen Christina was, if anything, oversupplied — and about Christina’s political philosophy, which is very like Descartes’,” Watson said. “This has been taken to show that she followed Descartes’ political philosophy, and that he advised her, but although their political philosophies are similar, he absolutely did not advise her. He was just an intellectual plaything for her — a toy, if you like.”
Watson admitted the subject matter isn’t “earth-shattering,” but that doesn’t make the book any less of a good read for those interested in Descartes, the debate over free will, and philosophy in general.
“If this book should illustrate anything, it is that historical scholarship can be a lot of fun,” Watson said.
— Jessica Daues