On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, the Frenchman Ren� 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 philosopher's skull now resides and to the church a few kilometers away where, not long ago, a philosopher-priest said a mass for his bones.
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. (Oct. 14) Copyright ? Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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October 13, 2008
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Excerpt from Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto
THE MAN WHO DIED IN THE SOUTHERN EDGE OF STOCKHOLM'S OLD Town stands a four-story building that was constructed during the busy, fussy period called the Baroque. Its red-brick facade is ornamented with sandstone cherubs and crests. Two upright cannons flank the entry; bearded busts gaze down sternly on those who approach the door. If you could somehow ignore the designer handbag shop and the upscale "Glenfiddich Warehouse" restaurant/bar occupying the ground floor, and the streams of tourists moving past on a summer afternoon, the structure would probably seem very much of the year--1630--when a merchant named Erik von der Linde built it. In the dead of night in the dead of winter in the year 1650, the most solemn rite of passage was playing out on an upper floor of this building. People hurried between rooms, past windows that looked out onto the dark, icy harbor below, exchanging information and worried looks. But if the occasion was grave, it wasn't quiet. For someone close to death, the man who lay in bed--not quite fifty-four years old, small-boned, ashen, the center of everyone's attention--was alarmingly active. It was fury that gave him these last bursts of adrenaline. His friend and protege Pierre Chanut, the French ambassador to Sweden, in whose house he lay dying, was at his side constantly, trying to manage the man's anger while feeling doubly guilty: it was he who had urged Rene Descartes to come to this frozen land and he who had first contracted a fever, through which Descartes had nursed him before catching it himself. Chanut fervently believed that Descartes was in the process of transforming the world with his revolutionary thinking. In this he was essentially correct. A change took place in the middle of the 1600s. People began to employ a new, sweeping kind of doubt, to question some of their most basic beliefs. The change was in a way more profound than the American and French revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, or the information age, because it underlay all of them and affected the very structure of people's thought--the way they perceived the world, the universe, and themselves in it. And the person most closely identified with this transformation was the man who lay dying in the Swedish winter. Pierre Chanut couldn't have known the scope of the future, but he knew, as did many others, that something staggeringly significant was afoot and that Descartes was at its center. It had by now dawned on the diplomat that, in bringing the philosopher here, he had unwittingly engineered a catastrophe. The fever had given way to pneumonia; the patient's breath was ragged, his eyes wandering. Chanut had wanted to call the court physician, but Descartes raged against that idea. Finally, from her fairy tale palace on the other side of the small island in the harbor that was the center of Stockholm, Christina, the twenty-three-year-old queen of Sweden, who would go down as one of the more remarkable personalities in European history (there is, for starters, the centuries-old line of serious speculation that she was in fact a king), sent her physician to attend him. It was Christina who, with Chanut, had coaxed the intellectual celebrity northward in the first place. The doctor, a Dutchman named Wullens, approached the bed reluctantly. There was a sharp exchange in which the philosopher made it venomously clear he thought the physician an ass. The encounter climaxed when Wullens proposed bloodletting, whereupon the patient erupted with a theatrical cry--"Gentlemen, spare French blood!"--and ordered the man out. Wullens departed, washing his hands of the business, muttering as he went a rather fatuous piece of consolation from the Roman poet Horace: "He who saves someone against his will does the same as to kill him." The rage had two components. First, the philosopher had known Wullens during his long years in the Dutch provinces. One of the ear