Russell Shorto
Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto

Descartes’ Bones

A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

…a smart, elegantly written contribution to this genre.”

The New York Times

A video talk about the book in the Authors@Google series.

My essay on “Descartes’ Bones” lurking beneath the U.S. presidential election, in the Huffington Post.

Interview on the Leonard Lopate Show.

On a winter’s day in 1650 in Stockholm, René Descartes, the most influential and controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a cold and lonely death far from home. Sixteen years later, the 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 was hounded from country to 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? Their story involves people from all walks of life — Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets and playwrights, philosophers and physicists, as these people used the bones in scientific studies, stole them, sold them, revered them as relics, fought over them, passed them surreptitiously from hand to hand.

The answer lies in Descartes’ famous phrase: Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am.” In his deceptively simple seventy-eight-page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2,000 years of received wisdom and laid the foundations of the modern world.

Descartes’ Bones is a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind.

Descartes’ Bones was a New York Times Notable Book for 2008.

Review in Nature.

Review in the New York Times Book Review.

Review in the Los Angeles Times.

A kind of intellectual adventure story.… Fanciful and beguiling.… Shorto writes with wit, verve and style. On every page, he offers up some new bafflement, curiosity or delight.”

Many strains of thought converge around Descartes and his physical remains.… Mr. Shorto has used them as the basis of an investigative book…[that] attest to Mr. Shorto’s intellectual adventurousness and dogged curiosity.…Mr. Shorto leaps from one intriguing topic to another, doing it with verve… His insights are keen. And he is as drawn to great, overarching ideas as he is to historical factoids. Descartes’ posthumous journey happens to be rich with both.”

— Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Shorto will pull in readers who enjoy a good history mystery seasoned with philosophical thoughts.”


[A] smart, elegantly written.….feat of intellectual of intellectual story-telling”

The New York Times Book Review

This is a beguiling book about the architecture of the way we live now. As Russell Shorto points out, Descartes is claimed by both the ferociously secular and the ferociously religious, but the truth is more complicated. The sooner we recognize that the world is too wild to be reduced to glib categorization, Shorto writes, the sooner we may be able to find ways to talk to, rather than yell at, one another.”

— Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston and American Gospel

A fascinating, colorful, and very readable account of early modern ideas and personalities. Shorto has a gift for storytelling. He brings the seventeenth century to life while doing justice to the philosophy.”