POST 314 WHERE IS THE SKULL OF RENE DESCARTES
EAST WEST NEWSLETTER (since 1997)
September 17, 2017
from Charles P. Hoang, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Research Methodology
Formerly with Union Institute &University (Cincinnati ,USA)
and UQAM (Montreal, Canada)
WHERE IS THE SKULL OF
On June 10, 2007, at the Trudeau Airport in Montreal I bought a book for my reading on the long travel to The Netherlands and Kazakhstan. Since the day I was back home that book stayed quietly in one corner of my private “CPH Library”. The truth is it was forgotten for about ten years. Last week while reorganizing some sections of my ‘library’ I fell on this forgotten book: DESCARTES’SECRET NOTEBOOK by Amir D. Aczel (published by Broadway Books, 2005, ISBN-13: 978-0-7679-2034-6;
and ISBN-10: 0-7679-2034-1). It was a great pleasure to me to reread the Introduction of this book and I now would like to share with you some following passages (page 8)
“I spent my days at the libraries and archives of Paris, researching material on Descartes and his work; I traveled to the locations at which he stayed or lived throughout Europe-Descartes was a great traveler
who saw most of the continent...
…But sometime in the middle of my search, I made a surprising discovery: Descartes had kept a secret notebook.
I was now sitting at the heart of the area in which Descartes loved most to live whenever he was in Paris for longer stays -the then and-now-fashionable district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Richard was talking fast about Descartes and history and Paris, but we were too often interrupted by the perpetual ring of his cell phone. I looked at the ancient church in front of us. I knew it was very old -its construction began in the sixth century. The church has a graceful tower, dating to the tenth century and still in its original state. It has a rustic kind of beauty, seen more often in churches in the French countryside, and in fact it used to be out in the fields, outside the city walls-hence the designation "des Prés".And I knew something else about this church: inside it is a crypt containing the remains of René Descartes. But the body of the great philosopher and mathematician -so revered by the French- lacks a head. Descartes'skull or rather a skull purported to be that of the philosopher ,is displayed elsewhere in Paris. Nothing about Descartes is simple, and nothing is what it seems, as I learned in my quest to understand Descartes and to uncover his secrets.”
I guess some of you would ask how such a situation could happen to the remains of Descartes? Where is his skull?
Descartes died on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm (Sweden) and was buried in the cemetery of the hospital for Orphans. Sixteen years later, on October 2, 1666, his body was exhumed and the remains arrived in France in January 1667 and were placed in the Chapel of Saint Paul in Paris. Probably the skull was already missing, before or during the travel. In 1819 the remains of Descartes were finally transferred to the crypt of the Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
In 1821 a French baron, G. Curvier presented to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris the skull of Descartes he received from the famous Swedish chemist Baron Jons Jakob Berzelius (1779-1848). Berzelius told in a letter to Curvier that he bought the skull of Descartes at an auction in Stockholm and sent it to G. Curvier as a donation to the French nation so that it will “be placed with the other remains of the philosopher”. But for reasons that have never been explained, Curvier placed it on display in a museum….
I closed the book on Descartes, and closed my eyes. Then I thought of several questions for me and one question for you…
Charles Phan Hoang, September 17, 2017
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