Descartes and the Education of the Emotions


  • Patrick Gorevan Lecturer in Philosophy, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth (Ireland)



Descartes’ physiological theory of emotions stresses the autonomy of the body in producing passions. The purpose of the theory is to help in controlling the emotional sphere. While he does see the value of emotion for a more rounded experience of the world, he also stresses the need to master the emotions in order to live a life according to reason. The virtue of generosity is central here; it enables us to fight the battle against unruly emotion with the best weapon: an awareness of the freedom of the will and the power of clear reasoning.

He is sometimes called a virtue ethicist, and he stresses the goodness of a life according to virtue. Unlike traditional virtue thinkers, he places virtue exclusively in the soul (reason and will) and does not regard passion as open to virtuous education; passion is autonomous and reason simply controls it.






The formation of habits in the education of affectivity