When I was a junior at Virginia Tech, I signed up for an Ancient Philosophy course. I had a lot of big questions at the time, and I suspected I might find some answers in the cobwebs and browned pages of old books – somewhere in the body of knowledge called “philosophy.” But while the class was fairly interesting and I learned some important things from it, ancient philosophy didn’t seem to speak to my questions – at least not directly.
Then one day, on a tangent, my professor mentioned René Descartes and his attempt to completely deconstruct and then systematically rebuild his own belief system. This seized my interest. I remember writing the name down on my notebook so that I could ask him for the book title after class: “Rennay de Carte.” After he graciously corrected my spelling, my professor pointed me in the direction of the Meditations on First Philosophy, which I read almost immediately. I was hooked on philosophy for the next several years.
Descartes’ mindset when he wrote his Meditations almost perfectly matched my own when I read them, so his words struck a strong chord. Ever since, he has been a benchmark figure for me – both in my understanding of the history of philosophy, and in my own intellectual development.
While my friend Charlie was studying in Rome, he would occasionally visit Paris. We were both reading a lot of philosophy at the time, and after one trip, he told me that he’d seen René Descartes’ grave. It was a fairly nondescript tomb, he said, in a church in the middle of the city. This seemed a little strange, because Descartes’ philosophy was recognized (even in his own time) as being contrary to Catholic theology. But regardless, I was impressed by the fact that some places are so rich in history that you can just stumble upon the graves of historical icons.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago.
I’d been in Paris for a couple weeks when I remembered the conversation with Charlie. I had a look online, and quickly discovered that the church Charlie was talking about was actually the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and it was only a few blocks from the hotel where I was staying. I walked by it every day on the way to and from the train. So the next day on my way home from work, I stopped by to see if I could find the tomb.
The church was open when I got there, but empty and dark inside. At first I couldn’t find it. I took a quick walk around the church, scanning all of the side chapels, and I even jumped a barrier to get into the area behind the altar – but no luck. I was looking for a horizontal stone tomb, or a steel plaque on the floor, or at least a sign that drew attention to it; but there was nothing of the kind.
Eventually I went back outside to get a signal on my phone, which I used to look it up on Wikipedia. I wondered if there were two churches with the same name, or if the tomb might be in a part of the church not open to the public. But the article confirmed that I was in the right place; so I went back in to have a closer look. This time I found it – behind the main altar, in a side-chapel, in the wall, between two other guys I’d never heard of.
I didn’t do much more than stand in front of the inscription and think “wow, Descartes’ bones are behind that stone slab” for a couple minutes, but it was still satisfying to realize that one of the most famous philosophers’ remains were right there, in the same building as me, only a couple feet away.
I haven’t quite figured out why yet, but there is something that is deeply gratifying about getting physically close to important things in our lives – particularly ones that we’ve previously only heard of or read about, and even when there is nothing impressive to see. It is the same type of experience that people seek when they push through crowds or wait in long lines to catch a glimpse of a celebrity. Sure, celebrities are usually strong or good looking, but with all of the digital re-touching that goes on in the media these days, they look better in the magazines or movies than in person anyway. It isn’t the draw of their attractiveness that explains the crowd; it is being there, close to the real thing that attracts people.
Likewise with Descartes’ grave. There was nothing impressive about the site itself to keep me standing there more than a moment, but there was something about simply standing there, close to the real thing, that compelled me to investigate, seek out and visit that spot.
In any case, one of the coolest parts of the experience was that it took place in such nonchalant circumstances – that is, on my walk home from the train station after work. I didn’t even have to make a detour. It makes me wonder: if I found Descartes’ grave after only a few weeks, what else will I find in the coming year?
Thanks Brian: It is a great way to keep up with your life and you do have the gift of the gab … with all that Irish DNA feeding into you it is no wonder. There is a really great essay on Descartes in Karl Stern’s “The Flight from Woman” that I think you will enjoy: it is a psychoanalytic delving into his early childhood, his life and his recurring dream. Stern has the gift of empathy so I suspect you will be intrigued by his insights. It is the first chapter or at least Descartes is the first historical figure he deals with. Descartes’ desire to get to the bottom of things was most natural given his greatness of intellect. It was a time of great chaos…not unlike our own in many ways. If you get to read it I would love to hear your comments.
Sounds like an interesting read, and it looks like Amazon France has it in stock, so I will order it and take a look.
Just for the record – and I realize I didn’t make this very clear in the post – I never really agreed with Descartes’ philosophy. In fact I remember being somewhat under-whelmed with The Meditations from a purely rational (and practical) standpoint. It was his effort was that really drew me in. It was the first time I saw philosophy applied to the questions that were most important to me at the time. The prospect of getting answers – even though Descartes didn’t deliver them – was enough for his writing to sink a hook.
Hi! Brian, I am from India and I too recently went to the Eglise St. Germain specifically to see the grave of Rene Descartes. It was deeply satisfying to be physically so close to what remains of the great philosopher. And yes, I too had a tough time finding the nondescript black stone wedged between two others. I would greatly appreciate your help in translating the Latin inscription which marks the memorial slab. I tried google and google translator but it turned out to be very fragmented (as expected). Thanks in advance.