March 02, 2010

The Philosopher's Skull- A Latin Poem Disclosed

Parvula Cartesii fuit hæc calvaria magni
exuvias reliquas Gallica busta tegunt
sed laus ingenii toto diffunditur orbe
mixtaque coelicolis mens pia semper ovat.


In September of 1649 René Descartes departed for Sweden to mentor 20-year-old Queen Christina in the field of philosophy. Just six months later, in February of the following year, he would die from a sudden onset of pneumonia.

The French philosopher's body might have remained to this day in a churchyard cemetery near Stockholm, but a French Ambassador by the name of Hugues de Terlon secretly exhumed it, put it in a copper coffin, and brought it back with him to St. Genevieve-du-Mont, Paris.

Unfortunately, this wouldn't be the last trip for the philosopher's remains ... for the next 350 years his bones would be "fought over, stolen, sold, revered as relics, studied by scientists, used in séances, and passed surreptitiously from hand to hand."

Along the way there were inscriptions made on some of the bones, especially the skull. One in particular, and the one this post is most concerned with, is the inscription across the forehead of his skull. It's a single quatrain written in old Latin cursive- apparently a poem that commemorates the high genius of the philosopher.

Although I'm quite familiar with Descartes and his background as a philosopher, my Latin's a little loose; and because I was dying terribly inside to know the contents of this poem, I had to exhaust every means at my exposal to obtain its meaning ... I tried broad spectrum internet searches, online translators, combed through a dozen books or so, I even sought out assistance on Facebook- all to no avail.

And then it happened ... I stumbled on a Google Books page that referred to a book written by Russell Shorto, Descartes Bones. In it, on page 146, was that very Latin poem transliterated into English. Needless to say, I was really excited! Here's both versions:


Parvula Cartesii fuit haec calvaria magni,
exuvias reliquas gallica busta tegunt;
sed laus ingenii too diffunditur orbe,
mistaque coelicolis mens pia semper ovat.

This small skull once belonged to the great Cartesius,
The rest of his remains are hidden far away in the
land of France;
But all around the circle of the globe his genius
is praised,
And his spirit still rejoices in the sphere of heaven.

How cool is that? I just wish I knew the exact history of the person who wrote this poem, the extent of their poetic inclinations, what poetic influences bore sway on them, and- considering they were apparently Swedish- why the choice of Latin.

Now the English version of this poem may not be the most impressive read in the realm of poetry, but you've got to admit, considering the history of Descartes as a philosopher and the 'travels' of his skeletal remains, the poem takes on an aesthetic relevance that makes ignoring it at least unworthy. Hence the post.

As a side note, I feel a certain sense of shame that Descartes' remains were treated this way. This is a man whose philosophical position lends ontological primacy to soul over that of flesh; a man who has argued that the body is merely an extended thing within which we- the mind, or soul- act through, but are not intrinsically a part of.

Yet here we are- I say we as in we humans … yet here we are squabbling, stealing, selling, and superstitiously adoring the bones of a man who would laugh at the very thought of it. At least the author of the above inscription acknowledged that these “once belonged” to Descartes, and that the man- Descartes- occupies a place that is “in the sphere of heaven” (a latent suggestion of the dualism Descartes espoused).


"This 'I' – that is, the soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and would not fail to be what it is even if the body did not exist."

"Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)."

In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn, than to contemplate.

1 comment:

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