Good ‘Bones’ structure here

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

“Cogito ergo sum” -- commonly translated from the Latin as “I think, therefore I am” -- is probably the most-quoted, if also least-understood, fragment of philosophy in the history of Western civilization.

In “Descartes’ Bones,” journalist and historian Russell Shorto (“The Island at the Center of the Island”) sets out to reacquaint the modern reader with the man who first uttered it, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), in the form of a kind of intellectual adventure story that focuses on the fate of the great man’s skull.

At moments, “Descartes Bones” is reminiscent of a real-life version of “The Da Vinci Code.” Shorto describes the strange circumstances under which Descartes died, the intrigue that followed his death as secret operatives competed for fragments of his writings and his skeletal remains, and the cult-like qualities of the so-called Cartesians who embraced his teachings.

The body of Descartes, who was later rumored to have been killed by poisoning, was disinterred from its grave in Stockholm by a pair of knights and spirited away to Paris, where it was reburied in a sealed vault in 1667 along with a copper sword on which an account of the whole remarkable adventure was inscribed.

Or was it?

The whereabouts of Descartes’ actual remains, as Shorto demonstrates, turn out to be a dense and enduring mystery. One of the caretakers of what was understood to be the philosopher’s mortal remains filched a finger bone as a souvenir, and another cut a chunk out of the reputed skull -- “the skull that had given birth to modern philosophy” -- and used it to make a set of finger-rings that he distributed among his friends.


Yet Shorto questions whether any of these modern relics was more authentic than the proliferating fragments of the True Cross. He writes that at one point it seemed “that there were now four skulls or skull pieces that had supposedly once belonged to Descartes.”

The comparison to “The Da Vinci Code,” which the author himself makes at one point, is a bit misleading. Shorto’s book (unlike Dan Brown’s) is firmly rooted in scholarship rather than speculation, including a peripatetic investigation of primary sources, and Shorto (again unlike Brown) writes with wit, verve and style. On every page, he offers up some new bafflement, curiosity or delight, thus turning “Descartes’ Bones” into the literary equivalent of a “cabinet of curiosities,” where objects like a famous philosopher’s skull might have been displayed in the 18th century.

Shorto observes in passing, for example, that “the chalk-and-vinegar aroma” of face powder was the prevalent odor of the courts and salons of the 18th century. He reveals that an object reputed to be the skull of Descartes ended up in the hands of an “infamous” casino owner who wanted to use it to drum up business.

He describes how dried peas and water were (and still are) used by scientists to separate the delicate bones that make up a human skull. And he shows how the newfangled practice of mesmerism was found wanting in the 18th century by a committee of the French Academy of Sciences that included both Benjamin Franklin and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the man “whose name was soon to become attached to the signature device of the Revolution.”

Shorto eventually proposes his own solution to the mystery of Descartes’ missing skull, but his real motive is to restore Descartes to his rightful place as “the man who laid the intellectual foundation for the whole modern world” by insisting on making distinctions between mind and body.

“The hard fact of modernity,” argues Shorto, “is that from the time that Descartes separated the two, nobody has yet come up with a definitive, satisfying way to solder mind and brain together again.” In that sense, “Descartes’ Bones” is a biography of both a man and an idea, a fanciful and beguiling way of ushering the lay reader into the history of religion, science and philosophy.

“The story on which I became fixated -- small, weird, serpentine, insignificant -- intersects some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the philosophical mind-body problem, the ongoing confusion over the terrains of science and religion,” explains Shorto. “Eventually it occurred to me that the trail of Descartes’ bones was a path through the landscape of the modern centuries.”

Shorto also reminds us that Descartes “was not the cool rationalist that history has portrayed him as.” He remained a believer in God and identified the pineal gland in the human brain as “the principal seat of the soul,” although his nod to religion did not spare his books from being banned by the Inquisition. Still, even as Shorto hails Descartes as one of “the architects of the modern mind,” he concedes that he always “had one foot in the Middle Ages.”

Within a century after his death, Descartes was eclipsed by Isaac Newton, whom Voltaire praised as “the destroyer of the Cartesian system.” But Shorto takes it upon himself to prove that Descartes was the godfather of modernity.

The philosopher’s revolutionary ideas, he writes, “not only lived on but expanded into virtually every corner of human life, evolving and adapting and spawning new generations, each with its own characteristic traits but all of them linking back to their ancestor, even as the original Cartesians flickered into extinction.”

In that audacious evocation, Shorto has succeeded brilliantly, and he conjures up a flesh-and-blood figure out of those dry and dubious bones.