September 2015 Book of the Month: A Table of Humane Passions by Nicholas Coeffeteau (1621)

TableofHumanePassions (5)

Title-page of Coeffeteau’s A Table of Humane Passions: Fellows’ Library N.5.22 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This book discusses the passions (or emotions), a key concept of early modern moral philosophy. The title-page depicts the passions as allegorical figures in mannered poses, holding emblematic objects such as Hope’s anchor. Despite their abstract portrayal, the passions were seen to have tangible effects on both the individual’s health and the state of the body politic.

Coeffeteau’s understanding of the passions arises from Aristotle’s theory of the tripartite vegetative, sensitive and rational soul. He situates the passions in the sensitive part, arguing that the reasonable soul should limit the emotional excesses and associated physical illnesses which affect everybody. Coeffeteau contrasts his pragmatic attitude with the Stoic ideal of the imperturbable virtuous man.

Latin inscription 'Posse et nolle nobile': Fellows' Library N.5.22 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Latin inscription ‘Posse et nolle nobile’: Fellows’ Library N.5.22 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

This edition presents the translation of Edward Grimeston, a prolific translator and sergeant-at-arms for King James I. It is testament to the flourishing market for French works on the passions, which was to culminate with the English publication of Descartes’ Passions of the Soule in 1650. Its previous owners include one James Coulbye and former Principal Jonathan Edwards. The latter’s inscription ‘posse et nolle nobile’ (to have power and to abstain from using it is noble) is an apt aphorism for a book about developing self-restraint.

Emma Jones (Library Assistant, 2015)

Sources and further reading:

  • Paster, Gail Kern, Rowe, Katherine and Floyd-Wilson, Mary, Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion (Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
  • Schmitter, Amy M., ‘Passions and Affections’ in Peter R. Anstey (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pages 442–471.
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