The tale of philosopher-scientist Rene Descartes' bones form the skeleton of Shorto's sketch of Descartes key ideas that shaped our modern world.
Descartes, French by birth but exiled by force (his ideas were anathema to the Catholic Church) and choice (one senses that despite his complaints about the cold he enjoyed his place in the Swedish Queen Christina's court), died and was buried in Sweden in 1650. His remains were exhumed and moved to Paris in 1666, this time in procession as semi-holy relics as his ideas had gained in prominence and acceptance. But it was during the French revolution that Descartes was fully rehabilitated to the level of secular sainthood, and his remains were moved again to the Pantheon, a secular chapel/museum of French heroes in Paris. Or were they? Somewhere along the way, the provenance and possession of Descartes' bones got tangled.
Shorto attempts to make a mystery out of a tale of bureaucratic bumbling, mild nationalist fervor, and honest mistakes over insignificant events in the midst of the epoch-changing French Revolution, while at the same time weaving in historical and philosophical background about Descartes and his philosophical progeny. The result is an average mystery story (the mystery mostly consisting of the untangling of sources and positing of some ideas to resolve relatively minor undocumented gaps over the centuries Descartes' bones were being bandied about), and a disjointed skimming of the history of philosophy that is not deep or systematic enough to serve as a textbook or even very organized introduction to the topic.
We do learn that it was Descartes who famously said "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum), and that his ideas about doubt and faith opened the door to the questioning of dogmatic statements of truth and value (hence his banishment by the Church and King of Francs). While his writings, primarily the "Discourse on the Method", were the opening wedge in separating faith from reason, to use an overworked oversimplification, his reliance on philosophical investigation (reasoning over observation, to risk another oversimplification) is sometimes used to frame his ideas in opposition to the scientific method of experimentation and observation which would flourish and drive the Enlightenment he helped to spark. These ideas are in Shorto's chapters, just not highlighted or organized as well as I might like, as Shorto sacrifices the philosophical background for the sake of his mystery of the bones.
The regulations placed on the desires and sexuality by the Church suggests that it is part of a belief that individual passion of any sort is dangerous to a superior rationality. Can we have human attachments to people; such as, intimacy, caring, familial ties, and still function as obedient citizens? That is a question that very much organizes the anxieties of the Church that we see erupting around the invention of the individual. What is the Church's anecdote, what is the response? Obviously not … more
Part philosophical musings, part European history, this story is difficult to categorize. I will confess that I like the idea of philosophy, but I find the actual study of the subject boring. Although it is not a page-turner, this story proved to be interesting. The author follows the curious passage of Descartes' bones through time. Shorto takes a dubious concept and turns it into an engaging story. The book is definitely offbeat in style. He is a competent writer, but Shorto … more
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.