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This is an engaging account of history and science, but at heart it's a work of philosophy. Shorto calls Descartes the "father of modernity". He starts by asking the question what it means to be modern, and spends most of the book developing his answer. The title "father of modernity" is for pioneering the separation of science from religion--in establishing experience and observations as valid bases for making conclusions about reality, separate and apart from wisdom received from either the Bible or the Scholastics.
Yet Descartes was very religious, and he tried to create a separate sphere for it in the mind/body dualism. Shorto characterizes much of Western history since Descartes as various attempts to find balance between the secular and spiritual worlds both individually and socially.
Despite the West's more than 350 years' experience trying to find such a balance, we are still searching, and we still have extremists who believe no such balance is possible. Other cultures, particularly the Muslim world, have not had that experience--have not even begun the search. Shorto believes that the Muslim world's lack of such a search is at the root of much of the West's difficulty dealing with Islamic extremism.
At the individual level, Shorto reaches the same conclusion as did Descartes: that the connection between the secular and spiritual--how mind and body relate--what makes each of us unique--what might even be called the soul--is the heart, also known as passion and emotions.
Shorto does a good job posing questions and challenges and using Descartes' bones for historical illustrations. The answers are not fully developed, making the book more of a personal statement than a full-fledged argument, and challenging the reader or listener to develop his or her own answers.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
I was feeling pretty good after I finished the book "The Swerve" so decided to tackle another book that had long been on my TBR stack that dealt with essentially the same time period and the same dawn of modernity.
Russell Shorto also wrote "The Island at the Center of the World" about the Dutch new world settlement New Netherland. It remains one of my favorite historical books regarding that time frame. It was well written and extremely readable. So I had high hopes for "Descartes' Bones."
Unfortunately I was disappointed. The book was well written, but while I understand how important a figure Descartes was both at the launch of the modern period but also today, that really wasn't what the book was about. Rather, it was about the circuitous route Descartes skull took when it was separated from his body after his death. I think the goal was to use the skull, and actually his entire skeleton as symbols for the radical ideas Descartes proposed and by understanding people's reactions to the skull and skeleton we could understand their reaction to those ideas. Unfortunately that didn't work for me. I appreciate that his remains became relic-ized, mirroring what the church had long done with purported saints bones, but to me that has never been an admirable or interesting practice and in this case, it had little to do with Descartes thoughts and ideas and those are what was important.
If you want to read a piece of non-fiction dealing with the dawn of modernity, I recommend "The Swerve" over "Descartes Bones." Russell Shorto is a very good writer, but the topic itself was uninteresting and it fell far short of convincing me that the fate of Descartes skeleton and skull was anything I should remotely care about.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful