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Publisher's Summary

From best-selling, prize-winning author Russell Shorto comes a grand and strange history of the on-going debate between religion and science - seen through the oddly momentous journey of the skull and bones of the great French philosopher Rene Descartes.

In this book Shorto brilliantly shows how this argument first started with Descartes and how his ideas (and bones) have remained central to this theoretical struggle for over 350 years.

On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman Rene Descartes, the most influential and controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a cold and lonely deathfar from home. Sixteen years later, the pious French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones and transported them to France. Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of a philosopher who washounded from country after country on charges of atheism? Why would Descartes' bones take such a strange, serpentine path over the next 350 years - a path intersecting some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the mind-body problem, the conflict between faith and reason?

The answer lies in Descartes' famous phrase: cogito ergo sum. "I think therefore I am." This quote from his work Discourse on the Method, destroyed 2,000 years of received wisdom by introducing an attitude of human skepticism towards ideas of medicine,nature, politics and society. The notion that one could look to provable facts, and not rely on the Church's teachings and tradition, was one of the most influential ideas in human history, ultimately creating the scientific method and overthrowing religion asprevailing truth.

Descartes' Bones is a fascinating narrative - both macro and micro history in one - that twists and turns up to the present day.

©2008 Russell Shorto; (P)2008 Recorded Books, LLC

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  • Overall
  • Roger
  • South Orange, NJ, United States
  • 06-17-09

Philosophy of Modernity

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.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Perhaps I Expected Too Much

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.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Descartes and his influence on modern society

Prior to this book, Descartes was, to me, a great mathematician and theorist, I did not have any idea of the influence his thinking had on the development of world view and the scientific method. There was so much great information in this book that I listened to it twice. The narrator was great and the twists and turns of history were well explained. I am sure that the material could have easily covered several volumes.
For those interested in history and the history of science, this is a great book.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Randall
  • Grand Haven, MI, USA
  • 11-20-09

Best Nonfiction Read of the Year

I was so enthralled by Hecht's narration I had to buy the text. I both listened, and then read what I'd listened to, because I couldn't get enough. Undoubtedly the best nonfiction read I've had this year, bar none.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Roy
  • Beaumont, TX, United States
  • 04-25-10

Cogito, ergo sum

Well, you don't have to be a philosopher to enjoy and gain from this book. Shorto provides a review of Descartes' work, places it in historical context, and follows the mystery of Descartes' bones over tha past three centuries.

One could suggest that the focus of the book as not really on the story of the philosopher's remains and that might be true. However, it is the common thread that holds other discussions together.

This book is well written, well read by Paul Hecht and well worth the listener's time. Those who never read philosophy or history will still benefit. It answers many questions we have about how the political world is working today.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Science and History

I enjoyed this book a lot. It is a nice balance between the non-scientific history of the era and the broad impact Descartes had on the development of science and our approach to understanding the world

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Fantastic insight into The Enlightenment

Why the US revolution and the French Revolution were different, although part of a general movement toward democracy. Europeans were and still are more secular. It all started with Decartes.

7 of 11 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating

I loved the history, physics, and journey detailed on this fascinating book touching on a variety of genres.

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The spine of modernity

Where does Descartes' Bones rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Firmly in the top third overall, but as far as historical books go, this is one of the more unique.

Who was your favorite character and why?

Probably the author himself, who had to dig into lots of historical records and make sense of it all. I seemed to get excited along with him as he discovered new clues.

What does Paul Hecht bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

He could pronounce all the foreign names of people and places.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

There was a good chunk later in the book about the beginnings of anthropology, and how it attempted to show how some races were superior to others. Provided with context of the time, it made more sense, not that it made it right. On the positive side, it shows how much progress the western world has made over the past couple hundred years.

Any additional comments?

It certainly wasn't the most exciting book ever written, but historical books rarely are. Still I found it fascinating and I'm tempted to learn a bit more about Des Cartes.

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Very Thin

What would have made Descartes' Bones better?

I wish that Descartes' Bones had greater density of information. Shorto goes on at great length "reciting" dialog from primary sources. The players were interesting to be sure, however, the detail included interferes with the broader point. I feel this book was interesting, but could have been distilled to two hours -- thereby eschewing mind-numbing dialog and retaining a focus on the Faith vs. Reason theme that holds so much promise.

What could Russell Shorto have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

I feel this book was interesting, but could have been distilled to two hours -- thereby eschewing mind-numbing dialog and retaining a focus on the Faith vs. Reason theme that holds so much promise.

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Descartes' Bones?

I would have limited his focus on detail to that which pushes forward the thesis of the book.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful