Saturday, February 7, 2009

Descartes’ Bones

Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
Russell Shorto (2008, Doubleday)

The kernel of Descartes’ Bones is the strange history of the skeletal remains of René Descartes, who died in Stockholm in 1650. It sounds like an arcane topic, but in this appealing, eccentric book, Russell Shorto uses the history of the skull and bones to trace a journey through the history of Descartes’ influence on the modern world.
With the 1637 publication of his “Discourse on the method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences,” Descartes shoved aside everything he knew--everything anybody knew--in search of what could not be doubted. The result,
"Je pense, donc je suis" has resounded ever since. Shorto says, “With the ‘cogito,’ as philosophers abbreviate it, and with the theory of knowledge that arises from it, ... human reason supplanted received wisdom. Once Descartes had established the base, he and others could rebuild the edifice of knowledge. But it would be different from what it had been. Everything would be different.”
Almost immediately, defenders of the old, Aristotelian order of knowledge began charging that Descartes’ ideas would lead to atheism and anarchy. Descartes himself, who remained a devout Catholic, had built God into his philosophy, but the authorities of both church and state felt threatened by the placement of the individual’s reason at the center of the search for knowledge, and rightly so.
Back to the bones: Descartes died in Sweden because he had been invited to join the court of Queen Christina, but sixteen years later, some of his French devotees decided that their hero was their own national treasure, and caused his bones to be disinterred and shipped to Paris, as if he were a medieval saint. One of the officials involved went so far as to request his right index finger as a personal relic. (Someone else made off with the skull, which carried on a separate history in various people’s curio cabinets before eventually returning to a French museum.)
During the French revolution, a high water mark of secular atheism in Europe, there remained a fascination with the material remains of the great man. It was proposed to remove them from the decrepit Church of St. Genevieve to a building that Louis XV had had built nearby to replace it, which the revolutionaries stripped of religious associations, and called the Pantheon, a monument to fame itself. “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.”
Shorto’s own motivation owes a lot to simple personal curiosity; but he is also making an argument for the value of modern thought. He says, “Modern society as we normally define it--a secular culture built around tolerance, reason, and democratic values--occupies a rather small portion of the world, and there are signs that it is shrinking.” Modernity is threatened not only by fundamentalist religion, which seeks authority in a realm beyond reason, but by those to whom “modernity has come to be synonymous with colonialism, the exploitation of non-Western peoples, the use of science and technology for inhuman purposes, environmental catastrophe.” Both types of criticism have their merits: rationalism does not have all the answers, and it has at times led to unspeakable cruelty.
So is the modern project worth saving? Will Cartesian dualism, “the mind-body problem,” admit a solution in which we can be both rational and religious? Shorto says that that’s the world most of us actually live in: “We are all philosophers because our condition demands it. We live every moment in a universe of seemingly eternal thoughts and ideas, yet simultaneously in the constantly churning and decaying world of our bodies and their humble situations. We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death.”
We are both angels and animals, and it must be some kind of blessing to be aware of it, as it will not cease to be true.

December 2008

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