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  • Descartes' Bones:An Interview With Russell Shorto
  • Donald A. Yerxa

RUSSELL SHORTO, THE BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE Island at the Center of the World, has recently written an engaging intellectual detective story that uses of the curious history of René Descartes' remains as a metaphor for the rise of modernity and the conflict between faith and reason: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason (Doubleday, 2008). Historically Speaking senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed Shorto on October 23, 2008.

Donald A. Yerxa: Why is Descartes important in understanding the trajectory of modern Western thought?

Russell Shorto: First, a word of clarification because one or two reviewers have claimed that the book argues for Descartes—as opposed to someone else—as the grand figure in the birth of modernity. The real point is to trace the very exotic path of the bones of Descartes, and then to use that path as a metaphor for understanding the creation of the modern mind. Some people in the past thought enough about his role in modernity to treat his bones as relics of one sort or another, and I follow that path. This is not to say that Descartes is not important. Of course he is.

Descartes' dates are 1596-1650, which very neatly correspond with all the activity that we associate with the birth of modernity. His contemporaries Francis Bacon, Galileo, and William Harvey were engaged in an exuberant outburst of effort to explore the natural world with microscopes and telescopes and dissecting corpses and so on. When you read material of the time, it's striking how much people felt that something new was going on.

Some found it very exciting, while others viewed it as frightening. In any case, the new activity posed a challenge to the whole framework of knowledge that had been built up over the previous thousand years or so, especially scholasticism, that blend of Christian teaching with ideas from Aristotle and other ancient thinkers. Scholasticism worked for a very long period of time, and it satisfied people and explained a lot of things. But by Descartes' time it was coming under attack, and there was a kind of crisis of meaning. Descartes addressed this crisis in his little 58-page essay called Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting Reason. A short expression of it is "I think therefore I am." By systematically casting off all knowledge whose substance he can doubt, he reaches a point where he feels he can't trust the soundness of the basic tenets that he had been taught. Famously, he comes to the idea that he is at that moment thinking these things and that as a logician he can't deny that. So that humble, very simple thing becomes the foundation: the mind and its good sense become the basis around which a new modern framework can be built.

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From Elizabeth Sanderson Haldane, Descartes His Life and Times (John Murray, 1905).

Yerxa: The spine of your book—forgive the pun—is a fascinating detective story about the rather convoluted history of Descartes' remains. Could you give our readers a brief sketch of what happened to his remains?

Shorto: Well, very briefly, Queen Christina invited Descartes to come to Sweden to be the jewel of the court that she was assembling. He didn't like winter, and he didn't like getting up early, but he arrived in Sweden in the winter of 1650, and she made him get up at five in the morning to teach her philosophy. After a few days of trudging through this Scandinavian winter of darkness, he caught pneumonia and died. He was buried quickly and quietly in a small cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm. After his death, Descartes' followers, the Cartesians, grew in number all over Europe and particularly in Paris. They functioned, especially in Paris, like the Christians in the Catacombs in ancient Rome. They were something of a semi-persecuted sect, though some of them were high officials in the church and the state. The Cartesians wanted legitimacy, and it hit them that they could try to use the bones...


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