Synopses & 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.
"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
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.
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Descartes' Bones opens with this quotation from Shakespeare's Richard II: "What can we bequeath save our deposed bodies to the ground?" In the context of what we learn in Descartes' Bones, what do you think this quote means? Why did the author choose it?
2. What do you think of the author's conversational writing style, how he weaves his experiences and opinion into the narrative? Did it enhance your reading experience?
3. Before reading Descartes' Bones, what meaning did Descartes' most famous saying, "I think, therefore I am," hold for you? Did it change now that you've read the book? How?
4. What is your definition of philosophy? Is there a particular philosopher to whose theories you subscribe? What do you think of Descartes' disproved theory of dualism? Can you understand why it was accepted for so long?
5. "Dr. Mennecier is what you would call a French intellectual….To many people…that would be considered a slur…but the term can also encompass a way of looking at the world that is becoming sadly rare-call it a serious commitment to idiosyncrasy,". How does Descartes embody this description by the author? What about the author himself? How would you describe someone with a "commitment to idiosyncrasy?" Is that a good or bad trait?
6. "The prevailing wisdom in neuroscience and philosophy is that Descartes was dead wrong. Mind and body-mind and brain-aren't fundamentally different at all." What do you make of this statement from the Preface, that such a revered figure in science such as Descartes was ultimately wrong? Does the fact that dualism was debunked make you question the accuracy of Descartes' other teachings?
7. The author poses many questions about what he terms the "perennial conflict between faith and reason." To you, what comprises this dispute? Why has it persisted through centuries?
8. "[Descartes] wanted to reorient the way people thought,". How are people influenced? Do you think it's really possible to alter the way a person actually thinks? If so, how would one go about doing so?
9. The author describes the great lengths to which opponents of Cartesianism went to prevent its ideas from being spread. Why was Cartesianism considered so dangerous?
10. "In the prevailing modern view, faith has no business meddling in astronomy or biology." Do you agree with this statement from Chapter Two? Considering debates like those between believers of Darwin's theory of evolution and those of intelligent design, how does religion factor into these ideas?
11. The author describes the saga of Descartes' bones as a metaphor for modernity. Do you agree with his characterization?
12. In Chapter Six the author explains his obsession with the tale of Descrtes' bones by stating that we as human beings "are all detectives" and "we crave closure." Do you agree? Why is the story of Descartes' bones so interesting to Russell Shorto, and to others? To paraphrase the book's descriptive copy, why should anyone care about the remains of one long-dead philosopher?