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Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reasonby Russell Shorto
Synopses & Reviews
In 1666, sixteen years after his death, the bones of René Descartes were dug up in the middle of the night and transported from Sweden to France under the watchful eye of the French Ambassador. This was only the beginning of the journey for Descartes' bones, which, over the next 350 years, were fought over, stolen, sold, revered as relics, studied by scientists, used in séances, and passed surreptitiously from hand to hand.
But why would anyone care so much about the remains of one long-dead philosopher? The answer lies in Descartes' famous phrase cogito, ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am." At the root of this statement are skepticism and the world-shattering notion that one could look to facts that could be proved for truth rather than relying on the Church's teachings and tradition.
In the years that followed, this powerful idea and Descartes' physical remains became intertwined with many of the major forces that define the modern era, influencing everything from the religious wars of the seventeenth century and the rise of democracy to today's greatest conflicts, such as the struggle between Islamic fascism and the Western world.
"At the center of this philosophical tale by the acclaimed author of The Island at the Center of the World is a simple mystery: Where in the world is Descartes's skull, and how did it get separated from the rest of his remains? Following the journey of the great 17th-century French thinker's bones — 'over six countries, across three centuries, through three burials' — after his death in Stockholm in 1650, Shorto also follows the philosophical journey into 'modernity' launched by Descartes's articulation of the mind-body problem. Shorto relates the life of the 'self-centered, vainglorious, vindictive' Descartes and the bizarre story of his remains with infectious relish and stylistic grace, and his exploration of philosophical issues is probing. But the bones are too slender to bear the metaphorical weight of modernity that he gives them. Their sporadic appearance in the tale also makes them a shaky narrative frame for the sprawling events Shorto presents as the result of Descartes's work: the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the 19th century's scientific explosion, 21st-century battles between faith and reason. Given Shorto's splendid storytelling gifts, this is a pleasure to read, but ultimately unsatisfying." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"With the fascinating Descartes' Bones, Russell Shorto has again produced another compelling intellectual detective story, one that illuminates the present as much as the dusty past." Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine
"This is a beguiling book about the architecture of the way we live now. As Russell Shorto points out, Descartes is claimed by both the ferociously secular and the ferociously religious, but the truth is more complicated. The sooner we recognize that the world is too wild to be reduced to glib categorization, Shorto writes, the sooner we may be able to find ways to talk to, rather than yell at, one another." Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston and American Gospel
"A fascinating, colorful, and very readable account of early modern ideas and personalities. Shorto has a gift for story telling. He brings the seventeenth century to life while doing justice to the philosophy." Professor Steven Nadler, author of Rembrandt's Jews and Spinoza: A Life
"Mr. Shorto is a rambling philosopher-reporter whose versatility can be more impressive than his coherence. But his insights are keen. And he is as drawn to great, overarching ideas as he is to historical factoids." Janet Maslin, New York Times
"An oddly enjoyable excursus into Enlightenment history." Kirkus Reviews
On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, the Frenchman René Descartes, the most influential and controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a cold and lonely death far from home. Sixteen years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones and transported them to France.
Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of a philosopher who was hounded from country to country on charges of atheism? Why would Descartes' bones take such a strange, serpentine path over the next 350 years—a path intersecting some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the mind-body problem, the conflict between faith and reason? Their story involves people from all walks of life—Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets and playwrights, philosophers and physicists, as these people used the bones in scientific studies, stole them, sold them, revered them as relics, fought over them, passed them surreptitiously from hand to hand.
The answer lies in Descartes famous phrase: Cogito ergo sum—"I think, therefore I am." In his deceptively simple seventy-eight-page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2,000 years of received wisdom and laid the foundations of the modern world. At the root of Descartes “method” was skepticism: "What can I know for certain?" Like-minded thinkers around Europe passionately embraced the book--the method was applied to medicine, nature, politics, and society. The notion that one could find truth in facts that could be proved, and not in reliance on tradition and the Church's teachings, would become a turning point in human history.
In an age of faith, what Descartes was proposing seemed like heresy. Yet Descartes himself was a good Catholic, who was spurred to write his incendiary book for the most personal of reasons: He had devoted himself to medicine and the study of nature, but when his beloved daughter died at the age of five, he took his ideas deeper. To understand the natural world one needed to question everything. Thus the scientific method was created and religion overthrown. If the natural world could be understood, knowledge could be advanced, and others might not suffer as his child did.
The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era: where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world and pine for a culture based on unquestioning faith; where scientists write bestsellers that passionately make the case for atheism; where others struggle to find a balance between faith and reason.
Descartes Bonesis a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind, with twists and turns leading up to the present day—to the science museum in Paris where the philosophers skull now resides and to the church a few kilometers away where, not long ago, a philosopher-priest said a mass for his bones.
About the Author
Russell Shorto is the bestselling author of The Island at the Center of the World and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Amsterdam.
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