He was the philosopher who posited the separation of mind and body — and who, posthumously, must be very glad he did. Ever since his death in 1650, Rene Descartes’ corpse has been picked apart by intellectual vultures who stole his fingers for posterity, his bones for jewelry and his head for financial gain.
Now, in what some see as a further insult to the dignity of one of France’s greatest thinkers, plans are afoot to continue the peripatetic journey of his remains by transferring his skull from Paris to the school where he spent his formative years.
The Prytanee military school near the northwestern town of La Fleche has made an official request for the centuries-old cranium to be put on display in its adjoining church. Keen to play a role in honoring its most famous alumnus, the institution believes the skull’s current home in the capital’s Musee de l’Homme — between busts of prehistoric man and retired soccer player Lilian Thuram — is inappropriately modest. The school, which was run by Jesuits when Descartes attended it during adolescence, has received the tentative backing of French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
“He’ll [Descartes] be at home at the Prytanee,” said Jean de Boishue, one of Fillon’s political advisers who has been given the task of arranging the transfer. “It is a project which has received support.”
But some historians are outraged that the authorities are more concerned with moving and displaying the skull than with reuniting it with the rest of Descartes’ body, which has lain since 1819 in the Parisian church of Saint Germain des Pres.
“To me this is scandalous,” said Clementine Portier-Kaltenbach, a historical journalist who has written to the minister of culture, Christine Albanel, to warn her of the plans.
She bemoans the fragmented state of Descartes’ remains, comparing them to those of Charlotte Corday, the revolutionary whose skull is separated from her skeleton.
Before any decision is taken, Portier-Kaltenbach says the authorities must first do one thing: establish whether or not the artifact at the Musee de l’Homme is in fact Descartes’. The skull — kept in a protective container while visitors admire a cast — has been the subject of intense debate since it resurfaced in 1821 and many say its authenticity must be proved before the transfer.
“From an archeological point of view it makes no sense at all,” said Philippe Charlier, a forensic scientist whose laboratory specializes in ancient human remains.
He claims there are at least four other skulls — one in Stockholm and three in private collections — which could all theoretically be Descartes’.