Stolen René Descartes letter discovered at US college150 years after it was stolen from France, a letter by René Descartes has been discovered at Haverford College
A letter by René Descartes that was stolen over 150 years ago has been discovered in a small American college by a Dutch scholar.
Dr Erik-Jan Bos stumbled upon a mention of the letter of 27 May 1641 – an intense exchange between the French philosopher and his friend Marin Mersenne about the publication of Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy – in a description of the Charles Roberts Collection at Haverford College library following a Google search last month. Bos contacted the college, which is just outside Philadelphia, and, working with its head of special collections John Anderies, determined that it was an authentic, previously unknown letter by Descartes.
The densely written, four-page letter was one of thousands stolen by Count Guglielmo Libri, secretary of the committee for the general catalogue of manuscripts in French public libraries, in the 19th century. Libri was later sentenced in absentia for the robberies, but had already sold the documents to collectors in England. It is assumed that the letter then changed hands several times before it was given to Haverford by the widow of Charles Roberts, who had collected thousands of autographs over his lifetime, in 1902.
Experts say the letter reveals that the Meditations were originally conceived along different lines, with Descartes asking Mersenne to completely eliminate three texts from the work. “The reason for those changes is that a French visitor has convinced Descartes of the good intentions of Pierre Petit (1598−1677), who had been very critical of part four of the Discourse – criticism about which Descartes was extremely upset,” explains Bos on the University of Utrecht website, where he calls the letter “an invaluable addition to our understanding of the life and works of Descartes”.
“Now that he knows that Petit changed his mind, Descartes has no reason to react to him personally – in the new preface he limits himself to a few general remarks about the criticisms that reached him concerning the Discourse, without naming anybody.” The letter also sees the philosopher working through and clarifying his idea of God as “causa sui” (cause of himself), said Bos.
Following the discovery, Haverford president Stephen Emerson got in touch with the Institut de France, from where the letter had originally been stolen, offering to return it. “While we’ve certainly benefited from having the Descartes letter in our collection … there was really only one possible course of action: do the right thing, and offer to return the letter. We certainly hope someone else would do the same for us if the shoe were on the other foot,” he said.
The Institut’s chancellor Gabriel de Broglie accepted, and invited Emerson to accept a cash reward of 15,000 euros to thank him for returning it. “The gesture honours you and exemplifies the depth of moral values that you instil in your students,” wrote de Broglie in a letter to Emerson, in which he also laid out the Institut’s quest to recover other of the “Libri letters”. “[In] 2006 and 2009, another of the ‘Libri letters’ was sold at auction in Switzerland,” he revealed. “After I protested vociferously and publicly on both occasions in the name of the Institut, the letter didn’t find a buyer, but it proved impossible for us to raise the very large sum that the seller demanded.”
Bos is currently working on a book of Descartes’s complete correspondence, which will be published by Oxford University Press.