Review of Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by

Book cover for Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

I was ambivalent about the gimmick of basing the history around the journey of Descartes' bones. How interesting could it be? Much to my delight, Russell Shorto managed to surprise me. While this book isn't quite the "historical detective story" it advertises, it does contain some detective work. I was fascinated by the way various people treated Descartes' remains, particularly the skull. For most of the owners of the skull, the object was one of mythical connotations: this was the man who started it all, the thinker who had rejected Aristotelianism, created analytical geometry, founded the scientific method. Shorto can't resist pointing out the irony of the near-religious reverence with which Descartes' skull has been treated. No matter how much we enslave ourselves to reason, we can't help but at times be oh so very human.

And, as humans are wont to do, we like to debate! Bones aside, the meat of this book is in the development of European society (especially French society) after Descartes' death. His legacy lives on in the form of Cartesianism, which influences the French revolutionaries toward the secularization of France. In effect, Descartes laid the groundwork for the secular Europe that exists today and defined the difference between the French Revolution and the one across the Atlantic in America. What I found particularly interesting was the way in which Descartes has, one way or the other, been made a paragon by the power of the day.

Shorto spends a good deal of time discussing the disposition of Descartes' bones before, during, and following the French Revolution. In so doing, he presents a side of the Revolution I hadn't yet seen. I learned about the Revolution mostly from a grade 12 history class and a little from War and Peace. The dates and events are easy enough to learn, but it's difficult to grasp the shift in social attitude occurring at the time. It's not just that people began wanting to give their consent to the government. The Revolutionaries embraced Cartesianism and even atheism (actually more its cousin, deism) in their attempts to weaken the power of the Catholic Church and of the monarchy. And I like that, while he does mention the Reign of Terror, Shorto focuses on some of the other unsavoury parts of the Revolution. Shorto makes me cringe with despair as he talks of looting and vandalism of symbols of the monarchy and religious establishments. I'm not Catholic, but I find the idea of looting a church reprehensible. But for the Revolutionaries, this was all sanctioned by the new order, in which atheism and reason held dominion.

Descartes, then, was a symbolic father figure of the Revolutionary movement. After all, Cartesianism's dualism poses a problem when it comes to something like the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist and transubstantiation. But wait a moment! Both before and after the Revolution, when the Catholic Church holds sway in France, Cartesians portray Descartes as a devout Catholic who reaffirms God's role in the universe. The former queen of Sweden, Christina, claims he had a hand in her conversion to Catholicism. Which of these two men was the real Descartes? Was he a rabid atheist, as his opponents often charged? Or was he a pious man, intending only to further the glory of God?

The answer is, of course, "both and neither." Shorto explores the myriad posthumous interpretations and portrayals of Descartes with a vim that I found both entertaining and informative. Several famous scientists become involved in attempts to authenticate Descartes' skull. By relating these episodes to the scientific and social developments of the time, Shorto creates a scaffold for the scientific progress of the eighteenth century. In 1861, Pierre-Paul Broca and Louis-Pierre Gratiolet debate whether or not the size and mass of one's brain is an indicator of intelligence—bigger being better, naturally. Broca says yes, pointing to some doctored data that reeks of confirmation bias. Gratiolet says no, and holds up Descartes' skull as an example of an intelligent man with a relatively small cranium. Although authenticated forty years prior by the Academy of Sciences, the skull's true identity is questioned again as Broca claims that its size, then, necessarily makes it a fake. The fact that the Museum of Natural History in Paris even has the skull is forgotten until 1912, and then another flurry authentication ensues.

What this teaches us, then, is that society has a very short memory. France easily forgot that it had possession of Descartes' skull, losing it in the minutiae of collecting and the chaos of flood damage repair. Descartes' skull has been authenticated several times throughout history, since each successive time the past authentications were called into question or just forgotten about in general. And this is true of scientific and philosophical concepts as well: Broca and Gall's ideas of a physical or genetic basis to race and intelligence have been thoroughly discredited, but the theories are advanced under different names, slightly tweaked, once every couple of decades. There will always be advocates of other positions—sceptics, in fact, and that's fine. One of the prices for becoming mainstream is that the controversial new philosophy becomes part of the establishment, and the philosophy that it usurps can always try to come back as a contrarian alternative.

I'm spending a lot of time talking about Descartes, his bones, and history and not much time reviewing the actual book. That's because Descartes' Bones accomplishes what good non-fiction should: it excites me about its subject matter, makes me enthusiastic and interested in discussing it with other people. Naturally, this gets me strange looks from coworkers and friends as I spontaneously begin talking about Cartesian philosophy. I don't mind. And if I restricted myself to talking purely about how Shorto presents Descartes' effect on history, this review would be short. And boring.

One danger of investing myself so much in the subject matter, however, is a loss of objectivity when it comes to judging the book itself. There's a part of me that's itching to give Descartes' Bones five stars; that's the same part in all of us that wakes up when we watch a funny YouTube video and instantly forward it to everyone we know: the OMG-this-is-awesome reflex. I try to avoid that and give the books I read a sobre second thought before sending my review out into the world. I'd love to give Descartes' Bones five stars, but it really only deserves four, in my opinion.

Shorto, while a good storyteller, isn't always the clearest of historians. The narrative tends to meander, loop back on itself, and emphasize facts I don't find very important, almost as if Shorto feels the need to remind us that Descartes was buried in Sweden (Sweden, I say!). And while I love that there's a chapter that applies Descartes to modern events, it is too short and too non-specific for my liking. Maybe this is because such a chapter probably deserves a book on its own (those interested may want to take a look at Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason for an American treatment of similar subject matter). Shorto too often fails to properly connect all of the points he's making; as grand a goal as "a skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason" may be, he doesn't quite synthesize everything into a single thesis.

My complaints, however, are minor and mostly addressed with some good editing. The core of this book is pure, enjoyable discourse. The name "Descartes" may strike terror into the hearts of the uninitiated and conjure up images of a lengthy treatise on Cartesian philosophy and mathematics. Rest assured, Descartes' Bones is accessible to everyone. Shorto explains what one needs to know about Cartesianism, and the bibliography at the back contains a wealth of recommendations for further reading. This is a book that will fit many people: it's perfect as a coffee table read, because it's intelligent without being pedantic; however, for more serious intellectuals, it's a fine gateway into the greater world of Cartesianism (I say this as someone who has yet to actually read Descartes, so I'm speaking from personal experience here).

Although steeped in philosophy and science, this is primarily a history. Such polymath books are always a treat for me, something with which I like to reward myself after a long string of mediocre pulp novels or a particularly difficult, if fulfilling, classic. Why do I like popular science/history so much? Many of these books retrace the same ground over and over—this time it's the Enlightenment—each author inflicting his or her pet grand unified theory as to the causal relationship among the various events of that time period. It's true that this can get repetitive, but it can also be fun to look at the same events from different perspectives.

In the case of Descartes' Bones, there is no dying that René Descartes played a major role in jolting Western Europe out of the Middle Ages and setting it on the path to the Enlightenment. As a mathematician, I revere Descartes for his contributions to mathematics; we owe him for things as big as Cartesian coordinates and as small as writing exponents as superscripts (33 = 3^2). As an amateur philosopher, it's impossible to talk about Western philosophy without looking at Cartesianism. Descartes was audacious and vain in the development and promotion of his philosophy, but he was also effective at encouraging Europeans to begin looking toward scepticism and reason as foundations of study rather than received wisdom and faith.

Descartes' Bones reminds us that, while we can't reduce the events of history to the actions of a single person, one person's actions can and have reverberated through history, setting off new ideas centuries later. We may not be Cartesians, but we are a product of Cartesianism's impact on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Therefore, if one had to pick a single person around whom to weave the story of the French revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, I can think of no one better than Descartes.

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