Title: Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason
Author: Russell Shorto
Release Date: October 15, 2008
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
From the back cover:
In 1666, sixteen years after his death, the bones of Rene 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, sold, stolen, 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 is the world-shattering notion that one could look to fact and reason for truth, rather than to faith and authority.
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 ideological conflicts.
When I heard the title Descartes’ Bones, the thing that first jumped to my mind was “oh boy, another The Da Vinci Code knock-off.” Indeed, while the title is apt for the narrative contained within the pages, it conjures an image very different from the book’s actual contents. This book is actually a discourse on philosophy, using the story of the bones of Rene Descartes as a vehicle to explore that period in history.
It’s clear that the author did an amazing amount of research in order to put together Descartes’ Bones. It is a meticulous chronicle of history, of the debate between faith and reason in the 1600’s. Descartes has been the symbol of this conflict since his death, and indeed, during part of his life as well. The mystery of what happened to the remains of Rene Descartes frames the entire book. As Descartes’ bones are divided and questioned, so are his ideas. Shorto puts together a detailed account of the history of Descartes’ remains; anyone interested in the philosopher’s life and death will find a gem in this book.
The problem is, if you are more interested in the mystery behind Descartes’ bones than the faith versus reason issue, then this book isn’t that compelling. It is definitely well-researched and meticulous, but there is nothing to drive the narrative forward. This is a book purely for those interested in the intellectual debate or in Descartes himself. The mystery behind the bones just isn’t that interesting.
As I’ve said, Shorto deserves credit for the sheer amount of research that went into putting together Descartes’ Bones. Though I didn’t find it very compelling, if you are interested in the topics discussed in the book, you should definitely pick it up.
Thank you to the publisher for sending me this book to review!