A New York Times Notable BookSixteen years after René Descartes' death in Stockholm in 1650, a pious French ambassador exhumed the remains of the controversial philosopher to transport them back to Paris. Thus began a 350-year saga that saw Descartes' bones traverse a continent, passing between kings, philosophers, poets, and painters. But as Russell Shorto shows in this deeply engaging book, Descartes' bones also played a role in some of the most momentous episodes in history, which are also part of the philosopher's metaphorical remains: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, and the earliest debates between reason and faith. Descartes' Bones is a flesh-and-blood story about the battle between religion and rationalism that rages to this day.
Making the case for one or another historical moment as the starting point of modernity is a familiar hook for writers of grand chronicles…Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones is a smart, elegantly written contribution to this genre. For Shorto, the pivot upon which the old world yielded to the new was the genius of Descartes, the philosopher who gave us the doubting, analytical, newly independent modern self. The Frenchman's most famous phrase, "I think, therefore I am," may strike our own ears as a coffee-mug cliche, but in the 17th century it was a revolutionary declaration. Shorto's achievement is to complicate this picture, and with it our understanding of modernity, by also describing the religious context of the philosopher's ideas.