You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Descartes' Bones

I received Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones for Christmas. The full title is Descartes' Bones: A skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason. And it is just that. Shorto uses the famous philosopher's bones to trace the history not only of the mortal remains but philosophy in general and the impact that the use of reason has had on science and faith.

Descartes died and was buried in Sweden in 1650, but his bones were disinterred in 1666 and sent back to France. His bones were seen as a symbol of the light of reason, but ironically they were also treated as holy relics. In this way Descartes embodied the fusing of ancient or medieval thought with the principles of the Enlightenment, like using reason despite where it took you. But even though Descartes worshiped reason he still maintained the existence of God, and he was joined in other scholars who dared not challenge the church's authority. Instead they used reason to try to prove God's existence.

During the French Revolution the bones were moved from a church to a national museum known as the French Pantheon to join other historical monuments. Yet just a few years after the decree to move the bones, the revolutionary fervor swayed against the philosopher. This is the biggest example of the fact that reason alone can be used or abused for many purposes. The revolution itself, originally formed based on principles of a government formed by its citizens, quickly turned bloody and unreasonable to the extreme.

Shorto gives a good description of how Descartes' ideas spread throughout Europe from the relatively free Netherlands and immediately created controversy. Later, his philosophy would influence great thinkers such as Spinoza and Kant. The influence of reason over religion would grow over the centuries, but there are obviously great conflicts to this day. I was struck by this quote towards the end of the book, by a Christian minister: "The human mind can be led astray. It is no basis for anything without God." This anti-reason attitude is not only prevalent today, it is highly contradictory. The minister is trying to reason away reason itself. He saw no irony in the fact that his own mind is as fallible as any other, more so because he refuses to apply any reason to his preconceived notions.

The author does a great job melding a historical detective story with the development of modern philosophy, while developing the symbolism of the bones: the way Descartes bridges ancient and modern thinking. To add to the symbolism and mystery, his skull was separated from the rest of his bones and has its own fascinating history. A-

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