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Was Descartes Murdered? February 18, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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A few days ago The Guardian reported that a new book by German scholar Theodor Ebert claimed that Descartes did not meet his end by being exposed to the harsh Swedish winter climate, as we philosophers have been fond of telling forever, but by arsenic poisoning.

According to Theodor Ebert, an academic at the University of Erlangen, Descartes died not through natural causes but from an arsenic-laced communion wafer given to him by a Catholic priest.

Ebert believes that Jacques Viogué, a missionary working in Stockholm, administered the poison because he feared Descartes’s radical theological ideas would derail an expected conversion to Catholicism by the monarch of protestant Sweden. “Viogué knew of Queen Christina’s Catholic tendencies. It is very likely that he saw in Descartes an obstacle to the Queen’s conversion to the Catholic faith,” Ebert told Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper.

In a letter written after his patient’s death, Descartes’s doctor, Van Wullen, described having found something wrong – which Ebert believes to be blood – in the philosopher’s urine. “That is not a symptom of pneumonia; it is a symptom of poisoning, chiefly of arsenic,” said Ebert, adding that Descartes asked his doctor to prescribe an emetic. “What conclusion is to be drawn other than the philosopher, who was well-acquainted with the medicine of his day, believed he had been poisoned?”

 What Ebert contributes here, contrary to the buzzing assumptions on the Internet, is not the theory that Descartes died by arsenic poisoning—that story has been circulating for a long time, at least since 1980. I myself read about it in, of all places, an old popular account of conspiracy theories we’d picked up, serendipitously, in a used bookstore, and I cautiously put it into a footnote in Chapter 7 in my textbook, The Human Condition, in 2001. (Unsubstantiated theories should not go into textbooks, but footnotes referencing the unsubstantiated are acceptable!) The prevailing theory was then, to my understanding, that Descartes was murdered by Protestant bishops, not a Catholic missionary, for precisely the opposite reason: The conversion to Protestantism in Sweden had been long and bloody, and Protestant bishops feared that Queen Christina would revert back to Catholicism, helped along by what they perceived to be a very Catholic French philosopher. Hence the plot to get rid of Descartes.  Evidence in support of this theory was that Descartes never got to have any in-depth discussions with the queen, but  was put off with excuses for five months, until his death. A missionary would not have that kind of political power, but a bishop might. So who knows? I’m looking forward to reading Ebert’s book, to evaluate the level of research and the likelihood of his hypothesis. I’m thrilled that somebody is finally doing a (presumably) serious study of Descartes’ death, which might very well be an old unsolved mystery, a “cold case,” not because of chilly temperatures, but because of chilly politics.  I’m just not sure that his conclusion is the most likely one. If anybody has a lock of hair of Descartes that we can test for arsenic, would he or she please step forward? That would at least tell us the “How,” if not the “Why.



1. Paul J. Moloney - February 18, 2010

Amazing! This is the first I have heard of this. Still, after living all these years in Southern California, it will not, most likely, endear me to cold weather.

2. Blackjack - February 10, 2011

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