July 9, 2009

Book review: "Descartes' Bones," by Russell Shorto

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Descartes' Bones, by Russell Shorto
Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
By Russell Shorto
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51753-9

According to long-form journalist Russell Shorto, what will often determine the subjects he ends up writing about will sometimes simply be inspired by a random bit of information he comes across in his daily reading, and then just can't seem to mentally let go of; for example, discovering several years ago that the skull of Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes has actually been stolen several times over the centuries, by various different people for various different purposes, and that it's kind of a miracle that it's survived the several secret trips back and forth across Europe in the backs of wagons that it now has. That started Shorto on a three-year process of research and interviews across the EU; and that resulted in his latest book, the informative yet easy-to-read Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. It turns out in fact that the story behind Descartes' remains is indeed as fascinating as Shorto suspected; because as he so deftly shows us here, the fate of Descartes from generation to generation has roughly mirrored the way we've felt about science in general over the years, and that the schism between him being worshipped like a god by some and cursed as a witch by others reflects the extremely difficult relationship between faith and reason that has existed with us since the late Renaissance times in which Descartes lived.

For example, the first time Descartes' head was stolen, soon after his death by the soldier in charge of overseeing his burial, the theft of famous body parts was actually a pretty regular occurrence; and that's because of a rediscovered obsession with "religious relics" among citizens of the Baroque period, the belief that the finger of a saint or whatever brings good luck and that no church is complete without one. And this goes hand-in-hand with understanding that Descartes was thought of in a completely different way by his contemporaries than we think of him now; although his reputation in our times is mostly as a simple philosopher, the guy who first came up with the idea that self-sentiency is the only real way we have of proving our existence (or in other words, "I think therefore I am"), at the time of his death he was highly respected as an actual scientist and medical expert as well (before most of his theories were eventually disproved), and considered by a growing amount of acolytes to be nothing less than the "Grandfather of the Enlightenment." And to understand why all that is, you need to understand the style of education that preceded Descartes' theories, the so-called "Aristotelianism" which was essentially the "Intelligent Design" of the 1600s (or in other words, a smattering of what we today recognize as legitimate science, surrounded by a huge pile of mythology and superstition); and understand how blasphemous the church back then considered the very notion that humans might eventually learn to have some small control over their natural environment; and also understand that the first proto-scientists of this period (people like alchemists and natural philosophers) weren't trying to supplant God with their ideas but merely trying to understand Him better, an inherent threat to powerful church figures who had gained their power in the first place by telling others what to think.

This is what Shorto is really good at, presenting the dry facts behind the fate of Descartes' skull and then filling in all the cultural details surrounding the sometimes ho-hum events, which in my opinion is why these kinds of contemporary "narrative nonfiction" books are so enjoyable; because really, the ultimate point in books like these is not really to understand the subject at the center of it in any kind of scholarly detail, but rather to get a better idea of the society surrounding this subject and how this society has changed over time. And so does Shorto gently guide us through the 350 years between Descartes' generation and our own, pausing along the way at the French Revolution (at which point the native Descartes was unofficially deified by the reason-worshipping revolutionaries, and his remains defended from drunken mobs by noble pitchfork-wielding nerds), the Romantic Era (where his skull was used to try to prove such Victorian quackery as phrenology, as well as the now-false correlation between brain size and intelligence), and on into Modernism (where such sophisticated technology as x-rays, DNA sampling and forensic reconstruction have been used to erase any doubt of the skull's authenticity, and to reaffirm just what a right decision it's been for us to believe in the "scientific process" for the last half-millennium in the first place).

I've said many times now how I consider these days a real golden age for lovers of intelligent yet entertaining "NPR-worthy" documentaries and history projects; and Descartes' Bones is yet another example, a fascinating look at our entire 400-year post-Renaissance history but that will still take most people only a couple of days to zip through, alighting along the way on a whole series of eccentric characters and unbelievable capers which are the very things to make the dusty subject of history come alive in the first place. Just like his previous The Island at the Center of the World which I also quite enjoyed, it comes highly recommended today.

Out of 10: 9.5

Read even more about Descartes' Bones: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:15 PM, July 9, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |