At the risk of invalidating Bill’s comment that this blog is predicated on a model he describes as “cut, paste, lambaste,” I’m going to try my hand at a little epideictic writing today by writing a post in praise of technology AND universities.

It was the Great Train Robbery of French intellectual life: thousands of treasured documents that vanished from the Institut de France in the mid-1800s, stolen by an Italian mathematician. Among them were 72 letters by René Descartes, the founding genius of modern philosophy and analytic geometry.

Now one of those purloined letters has turned up at a small private college in eastern Pennsylvania, providing scholars with another keyhole into one of the Western world’s greatest minds.

The letter, dated May 27, 1641, concerns the publication of “Meditations on First Philosophy,” a celebrated work whose use of reason and scientific methods helped to ignite a revolution in thought.

The document, experts say, reveals just how much Descartes tailored his writings to answer his contemporary critics. Frequently suspected of heresy, Descartes sent copies of his arguments to well-known theologians to gauge their opinions and answer their objections within his text.

If old-fashioned larceny was responsible for the document’s loss, advanced digital technology can be credited for its rediscovery. Erik-Jan Bos, a philosophy scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who is helping to edit a new edition of Descartes’s correspondence, said that during a late-night session browsing the Internet he noticed a reference to Descartes in a description of the manuscript collection at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He contacted John Anderies, the head of special collections at Haverford, who sent him a scan of the letter.

“This was exhilarating,” Mr. Bos wrote in an e-mail message. “Seeing Descartes’ handwriting appear on my screen took my breath away.”

And who says that good guys finish last?

It turns out the letter had been donated in 1902 to Haverford’s library by Lucy Branson Roberts, whose husband, Charles Roberts, was an avid autograph collector. He had bought the letter without knowing that it was stolen.

As soon as Haverford’s president, Stephen G. Emerson, understood the letter’s history, he contacted the Institut de France (coincidentally on Feb. 11, the anniversary of Descartes’ death in 1650) and offered to return the item. “I was frankly shocked because I didn’t know we had the letter at all,” said Mr. Emerson, who was a philosophy major in college. “But it’s really not ours.”

Scholars have known of the letter’s existence for more than 300 years, but not its contents. Apparently the only person who had really studied it was a Haverford undergraduate who spent a semester writing a paper about the letter in 1979. (Mr. Bos called the paper “a truly fine piece of work.”)

Gabriel de Broglie, chancellor of the Institut de France, an organization that manages thousands of donations and foundations, described the letter as “a wonderful discovery for science.”

Delighted by the college’s offer, Mr. de Broglie awarded Haverford a prize of 15,000 euros (slightly more than $20,000), writing to Mr. Emerson that the offer “honors you and exemplifies the depth of moral values that you instill in your students.”

This is an example of wonderful things made possible by the internet, and of the place ethical behavior still has in universities. (For the time being, anyway.)

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