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Descartes’ Purloined Letter to be Returned

Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals

Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals

When Erik-Jan Bos, a scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, conducted a recent Google search for documents referencing philosopher René Descartes, he made an extraordinary discovery. A letter written by Descartes in 1641, and later stolen from the Institut de France, had been buried in the archives of Haverford College for over a century. Its theft was documented in the 1880′s, when Count Guglielmo Libri, a mathematics professor and administrator for France’s public libraries, pilfered thousands of valuable letters and documents. He then fled to England to avoid prosecution and sold the pieces off to various buyers. The letter came into the possession of the Pennsylvania college as part of a large collection of correspondence and ephemera, signed by notable political and literary figures, donated by the widow of Haverford alumni Charles Roberts, class of 1864. It is likely that Roberts purchased the letter from a dealer, and did not know it was stolen.

Haverford recently started cataloging Roberts’ collection online, which prompted Bos to contact John Anderies, Head of Special Collections, to request a scan of the letter. “It was like a Dan Brown [author of the Da Vinci Code] experience, but the real stuff,” Bos explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It was a thrill to see this letter appear on my desktop screen.” Until now, the contents of the letter written by the mathematician and philosopher known for the seminal quote “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), remained unknown to most scholars. Upon its re-discovery, it was learned that the four-page letter was part of an ongoing discussion between Descartes and friend Marin Mersenne regarding the editing and structure of his most famous book Meditationes de prima philosophia (Meditations on Metaphysics).

When Haverford president, Stephen Emerson, was alerted to the existence of Descartes’ letter and its provenance, he quickly reached out to the Institut de France, and offered to return the letter. “We realized the most important thing was to return it to its proper owner,” he stated. The chancellor of the Institut, Gabriel de Broglie, was so pleased with Emerson’s gesture, that he offered the college a prize of 15,000 euros (approximately $20,000). Emerson is scheduled to personally deliver the letter to the Institut de France at an awards ceremony in June. The letter is set to be published as part of a collection later in the year.

Read Philadelphia Inquirer article

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