Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto


The subtitle A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason gives both the substance and flavor of the book.  Marietta gave me this book, noting my interest in the area.  Well, it was a rare treat, the most exciting book I have read in years.

Besides a sketch of Descartes' work and life, Shorto describes the bizarre journey of Descartes' bones after his death in Sweden in 1650.  It's too circuitous a trip to describe fully, but I must relate that his skull was separated from his other bones in 1666, and is now in the Musée de l'homme in Paris.  His other bones moved about from Sweden to various places in Paris and are purported to be in St. Germain des Prés in Paris, although Shorto thinks they were lost in the upheaval of the Revolution.

Of course we all know his pronouncement, "I think, therefore I am."  His Discourse on the Method and other works set thinkers into a new mode.  As a young man one night he had three dreams which resulted in his vision of "the natural world as a single system, with mathematics as its key.  Pursuing this vision–a new way of seeing the universe and man's relation to it–would be his life's work."  He rejected the principles of Aristotle as false.

As this conflicted with my view of Aristotle as the supporter of reason and investigator of the natural world based on Aristotle's Children by Richard E. Rubenstein, I was growing very confused.  Jim suggested I read The Encyclopedia of Philosophy and in the article about Aristotelianism, and I found this:

Moreover, the influence of Aristotle has evoked the most contrary judgment, and he has been regarded as both the friend and the enemy of progress.  The intellectual renaissance of the thirteenth century in western Europe, stimulated by the new availability of the Aristotelian corpus in Latin, looked to him as The Philosopher, “the master of them that know,” in Dante’s words, the ally of innovation and expanded horizons.  But to the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Aristotelianism was the straitjacket that had kept learning in confinement for two thousand years.

 That settled, I could comfortably enjoy the digressions and reflections on the central topic as we wended our way through the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.  We learn about the building of the Pantheon in Paris during the revolutionary fever which included rejection of religion.  I have been to that building twice in Paris, but was not tempted to pay the fee to get inside; it turns out to be a strange manifestation of the tumult of the Revolution.  It was dedicated not to gods in the usual sense but to the great men of France.  Shorto says, "In redesigning it so, architecturally replacing faith with reason as a source of worship, the revolutionaries created a unique monument, and visiting it today gives a feel not only for their motivation but for its naiveté and hollowness."

Getting down to the heart of the matter, Shorto says that relying on reason has some serious drawbacks.  We are too inclined to rely on the ability of humans to employ reason; the "scientific stupidities" he recounts live along with real advances in science.  As he says, "trying to follow reason is not the same thing as being right."  For him a greater problem is that radical secularism as practiced in this century has too narrow a view of reality.   He says, "Religion, like art, is a way of negotiating the complexity that the philosophical puzzle of dualism, and all of the attempts at overcoming it, acknowledges."  (Dualism here refers to the separation of mind and body.) 

So I wonder if he thinks that despite the horrors religions have inflicted on humans, rejecting religions to rely on reason would not give better results.  Tolerance is all important and awfully hard to come by.

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