It was the Great Train Robbery of French intellectual life: thousands of treasured documents that vanished from the Institut de France in the mid-1800s, stolen by an Italian mathematician. Among them were 72 letters by René Descartes, the founding genius of modern philosophy and analytic geometry.
Now one of those purloined letters has turned up at a small private college in eastern Pennsylvania, providing scholars with another keyhole into one of the Western world’s greatest minds. The letter, dated May 27, 1641, concerns the publication of “Meditations on First Philosophy,” a celebrated work whose use of reason and scientific methods helped to ignite a revolution in thought.
The document, experts say, reveals just how much Descartes tailored his writings to answer his contemporary critics. Frequently suspected of heresy, Descartes sent copies of his arguments to well-known theologians to gauge their opinions and answer their objections within his text. …
France has recovered only 45 of the 72 stolen Descartes letters, Mr. de Broglie explained. One was offered at an auction in Switzerland in 2006 and 2009. “After I protested vociferously and publicly on both occasions in the name of the Institut, the letter didn’t find a buyer,” Mr. de Broglie wrote, “but it proved impossible for us to raise the very large sum that the seller demanded, and even though it can’t be sold, this 1638 letter remains in private hands.”
The letters were among thousands of documents stolen by Guglielmo Libri, an Italian count and mathematician who served as secretary of the Committee for the General Catalog of Manuscripts in French Public Libraries in the 1840s. After learning that he might be arrested, Libri fled to London in 1848 with a collection of 30,000 books and manuscripts, including those by Descartes, Galileo, Fermat, Leibniz, Copernicus and Kepler and other scientific and mathematical giants.
Claiming to be a political refugee, Libri was welcomed in Britain even though French courts eventually convicted him in absentia in 1850 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Libri raised money by selling his collection, and put a total of 7,628 lots up for sale at two auctions in 1861.
To Mr. Bos, the most important information in the four-page letter written in French is in the last paragraph, which “shows that at a very late stage in the printing process, Descartes changed the outlook of the Meditations dramatically.”
Harry Potter, the live stage show performed by re-animated historical figures might include Rene Descartes as Severus Snape… but I’m just going by the nose, dark clothes and hair… not the philosophy.