Spiritual heritage victim of unleashed human reason

By  Brian Welter, Catholic Register Special
  • January 16, 2009
Descarte Bones
Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason , by Russell Shorto, (Doubleday, hardcover, 299 pages, $30).

In telling the tale of the remains of philosopher Rene Descartes, who died in 1650 and was buried the first time in Stockholm, Russell Shorto reflects on the personal and the cultural, the religious and the scientific, portraying interesting individuals as they chased after dreams of scientific success. In this history, the ideals of progress are slowly replaced by those of religion.

In the 17th century, Shorto writes, “we — seemingly — left our mythic, biblical selves behind and reoriented ourselves in the cosmos.” Since then, the West has suffered through a never-ending Kulturkampf, an intellectual civil war that has engulfed one country after the other. Catholic France was never the same after the French Revolution. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck fought the Catholic Church over education in the late 19th century, by which time the Italian peninsula had reunited, eliminating the papacy’s millennia-old temporal power. Quebec, Ireland, Poland and Spain have seen more recent religious-against-secularist turf wars.

{sa 038551753X}One of the people most responsible for this reorientation, oddly enough, was Descartes, a somewhat faithful Catholic who hoped that by establishing a mind-body, or material-spiritual duality, he could protect Catholicism behind a wall. Instead, right from the first publication of Discours de la Methode in 1637, Cartesian doubt began to eat away at all learning, including the received wisdom and teaching of the church. Descartes did indeed aim to rebuild knowledge from the ground up with his methodological doubt, by which all received knowledge was subject to the rigorous testing of human reason. If a theory failed the test, it would be jettisoned. Because he believed that human reason was ultimately based on God’s existence, methodological doubt could not lead to atheism, or so he claimed.

Shorto explains that despite all this hubris for human reason, people continued to act most unreasonably. Why was this mysterious need to venerate Descartes’ remains, as if they were religious relics, ever cropping up? After being interred in Stockholm, the French government requested them for reburial in France — something that was accomplished, but without the skull and a few other bits and pieces.

Thus entailed an on-again, off-again wild goose chase over decades, even centuries, involving two skulls and multiple countries. While the reason-based French Revolution was at its most unreasonably violent, members of its governing and scientific establishment hoped to chase down the bones so that they could be put into a museum to show off the founder of Cartesian reason.

Shorto’s important digressions to historical facts and institutions enrich the main discussion. Alexandre Lenoir and his museum, which the Revolutionary government set up to protect France’s mostly religious heritage from the crazed revolutionary mob’s destructive power, was a focal point for Descartes’ bones, which were to be placed there.

Lenoir represented the current of his time. Through his museum he “became one of the first people to bring a social-scientific approach to art and history.” The museum embodied the result of Cartesian-based Enlightenment philosophy up to that point in history, as it was meant to show progress through the centuries.

Shorto is at his most Enlightenment-critical here, as he laments the museum’s habit of taking artifacts out of their native surroundings — the spiritual ground of their soul and meaning — and placing them in a museum as empty objects for people to gawk at. The centuries-old religious heritage of the Catholic Church’s eldest daughter, France, was put on dispassionate, reason-based display.

This picture of Cartesian analytical disenchantment gives life to the book’s critique of unleashed human reason. The West’s spiritual heritage has been almost destroyed from within by the civil war between the children of the Enlightenment and those faithful to a richer past.

The book’s only shortcoming is that, aside from its conclusion, this lamentable spiritual destruction was not made clearer and given more ink. Let’s wait for the sequel.

(Welter, of Vancouver, is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of South Africa.)

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