Is the United States of America Still a Republic?

Benjamin Franklin playing the Glass Armonica

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, the Constitution of the United States having finally been adopted, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” he famously replied.

Have we kept it? Or is it something else now?

I offer here some bare facts and strong assertions. Let the discussion begin…

From republic, to empire, to… what?

According to George Friedman, the USA is now an empire, truly begun in the wake of World War Two. (Source).

Let’s look at the Roman Republic and how it evolved, and then imagine the possible implications in the continuing evolution of the USA.

First there was the Kingdom of Rome, beginning  2,770 years ago. It lasted 244 years, until the kingdom was overthrown by nobles representing the senate. The senate elected consuls for one-year terms to perform the executive functions of state. This arrangement lasted 482 years

The Roman Republic was the era of ancient Roman civilization beginning with the overthrow of the Roman Kingdom, traditionally dated to 509 BC, and ending in 27 BCE with the establishment of the Roman Empire. It was during this period that Rome’s control expanded from the city’s immediate surroundings to hegemony over the entire Mediterranean world.  (Source)

The Murder of Julius Caesar

The republic ended upon the murder of Julius Caesar, and the subsequent ascension of Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, to assume the role of the first emperor.

The Roman Empire lasted 503 years, until the end of the reign of Romulus Augustulus 1,541 years ago, in 476 CE, displaced by the Byzantine Empire in centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

To recap:

The Roman Kingdom lasted 244 years.

The Roman Republic lasted 482 years.

The Roman Empire lasted 503 years.

The Byzantine Empire, which replaced the Roman Empire, lasted 977 years, until it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 CE.

The Ottoman Empire lasted for 465 years, until the end of World War One and the 1918 Armistice of Mudros.


How did Rome transform itself from a republic to an Empire?

  1. It exalted the executive function (from consul to emperor) over the senate function.
  2. It exalted the military function over the senate function and, occasionally, over the executive function.

What about the USA?

The USA was part of the British Empire, which began around 1500 CE.

  1. The USA was a republic for 169 years, from its founding in 1776, until the end of World War Two in 1945.
  2. The USA exerts military and economic and, therefore, political hegemony over much of the world, a trend starting with the Spanish-American War.
  3. The United State Senate has ceded more and more authority to the executive branch (president) than is provided for in the Constitution. (Source)
  4. The United States military is the largest and strongest in the world, and has been so since the Second World War. (Source)

How long will the USA last as an empire?

As shown above, the Roman Empire lasted around 500 years. During that time there were seventy-seven emperors. The length of their reigns varied (Source):

21           less than one year (usually assassinated or overthrown)
16           one to three years (often deposed or killed)
14           four to eight years (sometimes killed in battle or killed by elements of the Roman Army)
26           ten to forty years (sometimes died of natural causes)

This history shows us why Washington, D.C. announces so loudly and clearly that, upon the inauguration of each new president, there has been a peaceful transition of power.  Such peacefulness is unusual in the history of such transitions in a mature government.

If such peaceful transitions remain the norm for changes in its government, then the USA can last a very long time, unless a stronger force from without successfully challenges it. So far, the primacy of the civilian executive over the military function has not been challenged by elements of the military or by either house of Congress.

Can the United States ever return to being a republic instead of an empire, given the world contains other large nations with nuclear weapons?

In that prior empires have lasted no more than around one thousand years, shall we have the same expectations for the USA?

React and discuss…

Reading list:

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

A Study of History (Abridged), by Arnold J. Toynbee

The Decline of the West,  by Oswald Spengler

Russia is not the Soviet Union—what are ‘we’ afraid of?

Over a quarter of a century has passed since the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent republics, and since its satellite countries in Eastern Europe have declared their independence from Soviet hegemony. Yet many in Europe and the USA are acting as if the Soviet Union still exists.

NATO continues to act as if Russia were the Soviet Union. The European Union continues to challenge Russia’s real and perceived interests in Eastern Europe. Some politicians in the USA are preparing to urge the new president to be ‘tough’ with Russia.

What’s going on? And what are the facts underlying the purported similarity of today’s Russia with the defunct Soviet Union that certain politicians and talking heads are promoting?

How strong was the Soviet Union in 1989 before its dissolution? And how strong is its successor state, Russia?

– In 1989 the Soviet Union was the third most populous country, after China and India, with the USA in fourth place.
– In 2016, Russia was the ninth most populous country, after China, India, the USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, with Japan in tenth place.

– The population of Russia today is about one-half that of the Soviet Union in 1989.

– In 1989, The Soviet Union’s share of World Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 13.5%.
– In 2016, Russia’s share of World GDP was 3.3%

– In 1989, The Soviet Union’s fertility rate (births per woman—all women) was 2.4, comfortably above the population replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Its population was growing at a rate of 0.8%
– In 2016, Russia’s fertility rate was 1.61, well below population replacement rate. Its population was shrinking at the rate of -0.06%

Here are two charts, one for 1989 and one for 2016, which underly the above statements:

screenhunter_459-jan-02-17-47

I offer questions and ideas for discussion on this and related issues:

1. India seems poised to take the path which China has taken in the last quarter century, in terms of population and economic growth, while the other ‘great powers’ are slowing down in these respects. Why are ‘we’ not afraid of China and India, or at least as much as ‘we’ seem to be afraid of Russia?

2. Is it in the nature of the Russian character and its history as a regional power to expand its influence through the use of raw, i.e., military power?

3. I have seen it asserted that China is not ‘expansionist’ in nature, but rather seeks economic strength, and stability in its relations with other entities.We have not seen India as an expansionist entity, but perhaps Pakistan has a different perspective.

4. All European countries, except France and Iceland, are losing population, even with the recent migration waves from Asia and Africa. Eastern European countries are experiencing the greatest reductions in fertility and population. Perhaps this engenders fearfulness for their respective futures which the peoples project toward more powerful neighbors?

5. All four of these ‘great powers’ possess nuclear weapons. Who should be afraid of whom?

Let’s discuss this…

END

Letter from Poland

I recently visited Kraków, Poland, with nine of my writing colleagues, for a ‘writing retreat’ and some minor tourism.

We arrived 10 November, the day before an important national holiday, National Independence Day…

… a national day in Poland celebrated on 11 November to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918, after 123 years of partition by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. (Wikipedia)

img_0697

One of the celebrations early on November 11, image taken from our hotel room

In pursuing the tourism, I went to the English language Massolit Bookstore. The fellow at the cashier and cafe desk is interested in the Beat Poets, as I am. He and I struck up a conversation and I promised to send him a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

After returning home, I sent him the poem, along with some personal comments and links to my writing. I received from him a most unexpected response. Here it is:
___

I am happy to read that you enjoyed your stay in Kraków. It is my favourite Polish city and I am happy to have moved here for good. You found it much settled in history and past. The city was lucky, very lucky not to be destroyed much by any war. Even the Communist  regime didn’t crush its beauty and spirit. And seriously, to me Kraków is an escapist city.

In any other Polish city I always feel some destruction. Warsaw was paved to the ground and awfully rebuilt after 1945. Lublin, which I came from is a God-forgotten place suffering from the consequences of a too rapid switch from communism to capitalism. Wrocław, which I lived in is a German town made Polish fifty years ago and still struggling to reinvent it’s identity, a continuing process. Only in Kraków do I feel at home, without all the damage that has been done to this country.

poland-map

I am writing this at age thirty-four, in the generation that grew up seeing the old being replaced by the new Poland after 1989. I was eight when it all happened. My parents would tell me “how it’s been” and why the Regime should “never repeat”. They raised me with this warning. Their parents raised them with the warnings against war. I am happy to notice twenty-year-olds not influenced with this kind of perspective.

My grandfather lost all his family during the war. He never came back to Lviv (today’s Ukraine, yesterday’s Poland). My mother tried to look for our relatives, didn’t meet anyone when she came there. I don’t feel like going there at all. Let past be the past.

This might sound cruel, but… I am sick and tired of war literature, especially the Holocaust kind of literature still being “mass produced” by yet another Jewish person coming to Auschwitz as a part of their “identity trip”. With masterpieces like Ellie Wiesel’s “Night” we don’t need any more Shoah books to understand the trauma.

I spent one year volunteering in Israel, which was a great lesson on complexity and diversity of life in all kinds of meaning. I walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and it was the most precious experience so far.

I came back to Poland and got close to Judaism again. I acted in Jewish theatre groups. I think that if there is any space in which we can work out the demons of all kinds it is art. Only in art and only on the non-personal but emotional and spiritual level of metaphorical language we can “speak with the ghosts.”

Some people now say: “If they chose Trump it means that humankind didn’t learn anything”. Well, a bit overstatement I would say, but I find an answer in Walter Benjamin’s “The Angel of History” essay. He said that all the answers have been given a long time ago and that if there is something like the Messianic times it IS the time of now, and if we can recognise ourselves and recognise our calling in the calling that has been left to us by the late generations to be accomplished, then it means we are doing right at life.

But why am I writing all this actually? Well, I believe life is a journey and I am trying to learn from all the passengers I happen to be travelling with. Sometimes I feel like explaining myself. Maybe that was one of these moments. We, Poles, have an idea of “The Polish complex,” which is an old fear of not being appreciated or never being understood by outsiders. Maybe this is also my complex that keeps me trying to tell this story again and again, come back to past, tell the identity and keep on checking if I have really told “the whole” story…

jakub-wydrzynski

— Jakub Wydrzynski

These Fourteen European Countries are Disappearing

[See end notes for sources, inclusions and exclusions]

These countries are currently losing population (sorted by population growth rate):

screenhunter_453-oct-16-10-05

[Note: Fertility Rate is the ratio of ‘total children born’ to ‘all women’ in a given population. In order for a given population to remain constant (not counting net migration) the ratio needs to be 2.0 to 2.1.]

What can we intuit from correlating these figures with what we see happening in the world today?

Intuition No. 1: Germany needs to increase the number of its permanent immigrants in order to maintain or grow its population, despite that it already has a relatively high net migration rate: 1.5 net new migrants per 1000 population. But, politically, there is currently a movement away from increased immigration which has created a problem for the current leadership of the country. Note that Germany records the highest median age and the largest percent of the population over 64, in the list above.

Intuition No. 2: Greece’s high net migration rate (2.3 per 1000) is barely adequate to keep its population stable. But the ability of Greece to accommodate large numbers of new residents and citizens is problematical, given its current economic distress. What is not known at this point, is the long term effects of the tens of thousands of refugees who have recently arrived in Greece. Despite recent waves of immigration, the age measures for Greece are only slightly under Germany’s.

screenhunter_453-oct-16-09-36Intuition No. 3: The three, small Baltic Sea countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are seriously losing population (0.5% to over 1% annually, currently). Further, their fertility rates are low (1.5-1.6), and immigration from elsewhere is not occurring. What can be the future of these countries if they continue to fade away? [Note: they all share a border with Russia.] Despite different cultures and ethnicities in these three countries, their age measures are almost identical. In that they were dominated and occupied by the Soviet Union, I wonder if there is a uniting thread resultant from this. There are no separate measures available for the entity named ‘Kaliningrad’, a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, around one-third the size of the neighboring Baltic States. According to the 2010 Census, its population was 431,902

Intuition No. 4: The neighbor countries of Bulgaria and Romania, like the Three Baltic states, are losing population and are not gaining immigrants. Their current populations are much larger than the Baltics, so it will take longer for them to “disappear.” In that they border the Black Sea, Russians flock to these countries during the tourist season and have bought many properties along the coast. Russians are a palpable presence in these two countries, which unofficially affects national politics. Their net migration rates are only slightly negative, but their fertility rates are very low, below 1.5.

screenhunter_452-oct-16-09-36

Intuition No. 5: Five of the six former provinces of the united Yugoslavia, which have reverted to their former independent states, are losing population: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. The other, Macedonia (not in the above chart), is slowly growing due, apparently, to positive net migration, despite its fertility rate being 1.6. The bottom line: the former Yugoslavia is slowly fading away, as are Bulgaria and Romania, above. [Note: The present day state of Kosovo was, until recently, a province of Serbia. We have no data for Kosovo, other than population: 1,883,0189]. The population of these five seems to be slightly younger than others on this list, but they are not reproducing. Their fertility rates are at or near the bottom of the list.

Intuition No. 6: The remaining two states in the above chart are Hungary and Poland. Both are currently aligned politically to resist immigration from non-European countries. But, unless they reverse this position, they will fade along with the others mentioned here. Hungary’s fertility rate is 1.44 and Poland’s is a very low 1.34.

On the other hand: These 13 countries in Europe are currently growing at an annual rate between 0.5% and 2.0% (sorted by population growth rate):

screenhunter_453-oct-16-10-08

Why are these countries not fading away like the others?

The quick answer is: immigration. The Net migration rates for all are relatively high, ranging from 2.5 in the United Kingdom to 16.3 in Luxembourg. The highest fertility rates are in Sweden and Ireland; the are lowest in Austria, Cyprus and Spain. In the latter three, if their current fertility rates and immigration rates continue, the native born ethnic Austrians, Cypriots, and Spaniards will be in the minority within a lifetime. Is this a problem? I guess it depends on the person viewing the situation. Such things have happened many times in the past, peacefully and otherwise.

Not Reproducing

Only two European countries in the forty studied have a positive fertility rate:

screenhunter_453-oct-16-10-09

I intuit that France is the picture of the future for most European countries. France has had waves of immigration of people from North Africa in the past and, more recently, from the Near East whose birth rates are higher than the indigenous population.

rvxnf4bujdek3kcm2dwdq6jy These people, in my intuition, are responsible for France’s high fertility rate, compared to other European countries. Nonetheless, France’s annual population growth rate of 0.41% is not remarkable or significantly different from other European countries. The non-immigrant residents are reproducing at a much lower rate than the immigrant population. The accompanying chart was for the year 2004, and the ensuing twelve years have seen a significant rise in the immigrants from ‘Asia.’

Iceland seems to be a special case about which I have no useful remarks.

WHY are European countries Not Reproducing?

The answer is given by Col. Robert de Marcellus (Ret.) in an article “Falling Fertility: The World at the Tipping Point,” in the online magazine of the Population Research Institute:

  • The great increase in the number of wives who must work in the paid economy to help support the family due to the loss of the “family wage” concept
  • The increasing cost of raising children
  • High taxation that reduces family disposable income
  • Educational debt
  • Lifestyle changes that increasingly cause luxuries to be considered necessities
  • More years spent by young people in higher education. delaying family formation
  • Older average marriage ages, which greatly reduce wives’ childbearing years
  • Less family support as young couples relocate at a distance from family members

Please read the entire article for a lucid discussion of these and other factors.

My Final Intuitive Statement

The spirit of ‘Europe’ is depressed. Depressed spirits decline to reproduce.

Perhaps there is no more ‘Europe.’ It seems to be an idea, an abstraction, without a basis.

We can point to European Culture, starting from its putative origins in Ancient Greece and Rome, then The Renaissance, then The Enlightenment, and so on—Art, Music, Literature, Philosophy, Science… and the relationship of the Church to any of these.

It seems all a museum now.

The European ‘Union’ is reeling, nationalism on the rise, tribalism more evident.

Popular arts are declining, public figures ever more ridiculous.

BUT…

Perhaps the above is necessary for a rebirth of something more beautiful?

“Without mud, there can be no lotus,” Thich Nhat Hanh, renown Buddhist teacher.

The data are taken from the current listings, by country, in the CIA World Factbook.

I analyzed all countries in Europe (40), not just those in the European Union (28)

I excluded Russia and Turkey, even though some parts of these nation-states are in what is recognized as Europe, geographically.

I excluded five other “European” countries because they are dominated politically and/or economically either by Russia or Turkey: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine.

The Star-Spangled Banner has been our national anthem for eighty-five years; it’s time to change it.

When I was in kindergarten and grammar school, in the early 1940s, we often sang other patriotic songs as well; “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.” I especially liked the latter, and still do. Here’s the first stanza:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Even as five- and six-year-olds we could sing these words from memory. I felt I could actually see the land “from sea to shining sea.” Sometimes we had the printed lyrics and could read and sing other three stanzas, which can be seen here

I have lived fourteen years in Sweden. During this time I haven’t participated in an event where the Star-Spangled Banner has been sung, until I recently attended the high school graduation ceremony of my granddaughter Sydney, in San Jose, California. Something didn’t feel right: “And the rocket’s red glare/the bombs bursting in air” were difficult to utter, although “the land of the free and the home of the brave” still brought tears to my eyes, remembering stories of our founding patriots who pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor“; and, in having known warriors and veterans, some wounded, since World War Two.

ScreenHunter_16 Jun. 11 15.03

Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, Senior Pastor, St. Stephen Church; President, Simmons College of Kentucky

I’ve lived with this dissatisfaction for many decades, but upon watching and hearing Dr. Kevin Cosby speak, on live TV, at the memorial service of Muhammad Ali yesterday, I decided to make public my dissatisfaction and propose a new official anthem for the United States of America.

Dr. Cosby is head of Simmons College and senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He delivered an oration and eulogy which was spell-binding. One of its many elements was a reference to a portion of the third stanza of the “Star-Spangled Banner”:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

This reference, as Rev. Cosby points out, shows how slavery was an accepted social and legal fact at the time of its writing, contributing to the “nobody-ness” of the former Africans who were now in America but recognized as having only three-fifths the personhood of other Americans, as set forth in the original Constitution of the United States. The abolition of involuntary servitude and the granting of full rights under the Constitution for former slaves were not assured until the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, all finally ratified by the states by 1870. (Source)

The words of what was to become, one hundred seventeen years later, our national anthem are from “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, a poem written on September 13, 1814 by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort during the American victory. (Source).

In addition to the anachronisms in the third stanza and throughout our anthem, it is notoriously hard to sing. Professional and amateur singers have been known to forget the words, which is one reason the song is sometimes pre-recorded and lip-synced. Other times the issue is avoided by having the performer(s) play the anthem instrumentally instead of singing it. The pre-recording of the anthem has become standard practice at some ballparks, such as Boston’s Fenway Park. (Source).

As I earlier said, I now live in Sweden. I occasionally hear my new country’s anthem sung (literal translation):

Thou ancient, Thou free, Thou mountainous north
Thou quiet, Thou joyful [and] fair!
I greet thee, loveliest land upon earth,
/:Thy sun, Thy sky, Thy climes green.:/

Thou thronest on memories of great olden days,
When honoured Thy name flew across the earth,
I know that Thou art and wilt remain what thou werest,
/:Yes, I want to live, I want to die in the North.:/
(Source)

(Note: I remain an American citizen).

The first verse reminds me of “America the Beautiful” where the physical vastness and beauty of the land is recognized first. It will be no surprise, therefore, that I now recommend we change our national anthem to “America the Beautiful…  and I already have an endorsement from Ray Charles.

ScreenHunter_14 Jun. 11 14.58

 

Where have the New Citizens to the USA Come From?

Did you notice that I didn’t use the word “immigrants”?

STLI.statueblueskysunbehindtorchThe times are such that this word has taken on a negative connotation for a large number of Americans and Europeans.

The USA remains a remarkable country in that it has, since its beginning, attracted new citizens from throughout the world, and continues to do so. Since the subject is currently of higher than usual temperature in Europe and North America, leading to the promulgation of misleading or misinterpreted information, I was delighted to come across a large official database on immigration from the years 1820 through 2013, a span of almost 200 years. (You can download the file from this link, provided by Metrocosm.)

I summarized the data in the following table, and subsidiary tables not displayed, then created several charts to highlight major aspects of the data.

(for a larger view, right click the table-image to get a drop-down menu from which you can open the image in a new tab).
Table 1Table 2See the Note at the end regarding African immigration.

The greatest impact of immigration on the existing population occurred in the time period 1870 – 1919, when 23 million people arrived from Europe, a number equal to the 21.7% of the population in the United States, 1920. You can review the table to see that, other than the first wave from Europe in 1820 – 1869, the subsequent waves from Europe, ‘North America’ and Asia of were of much lesser magnitude with respect to existing population. [See end note regarding “unauthorized” immigrants]

During the entire 193 years Europe has been the dominant exporter of new citizens to the USA, but this trend is declining. The dominant trend is now emigration from “North America.” This label needs explanation. These are all countries (other than the USA) in the continent, which (officially) includes: Canada, Caribbean, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, ‘Other Caribbean’, ‘Other America’. Here is the detail for these countries.

Immigrants to the USA by Country in the Region North America, 1820 - 2013

Here is a broader perspective on these numbers. During the 193 years studied here, around 75% of documented immigrants came from sixteen countries or areas, with more than 60 identified countries and areas comprising the remaining 25%. These are easily seen in the source document.

Number of Documented Immigrants to USA by Country or Area, 1820 - 2013

The two nations Austria and Hungary were once one nation and, over time, were reported/recorded together, then separately. I have combined all three entities for this study. I combined Norway and Sweden for reasons pertaining similarly to Austria-Hungary.ScreenHunter_437 May. 15 10.26

One final chart to increase our perspective:

ScreenHunter_437 May. 15 10.48.jpg
Depending on one’s point of view, he or she will make conclusions regarding the above data and graphics. I make none, here, but offer the data as a basis for further discussion–which I welcome as responses to this article.

Note Regarding Africa: The official number does not include an estimated 450,000 Africans brought as slaves directly and indirectly to the USA during the times of the slave trade. The first African indentured servants arrived in 1619 in Jamestown (Colony of Virginia), and by the middle of the century the slave trade was firmly established. Congress prohibited the importation of slaves, effective in 1808, but illegal smuggling took place. Slave trade ceased completely sometime during the period between President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and, finally, with the adoption of the 13th Amendment, 1865.  (Source 1, Source 2)

Note Regarding unauthorized immigrants: The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has estimated that 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States in January 2012. In 2012, 52% were from Mexico, 15% from Central America, 12% from Asia, 6% from South America, 5% from the Caribbean, and another 5% from Europe and Canada. (Source).

French Philosopher René Descartes Dead in Stockholm: An Ignominious End

René Descartes is famous for his assertion Cogito ergo sum (“I am thinking, therefore I exist”), or more popularly and pithily translated from the Latin, “I think, therefore I am”.

René Descartes

René Descartes

Descartes was enticed to Sweden at age fifty-three by the young Queen Christina, through their mutual friend, the French Ambassador to Sweden, Pierre Hector Chanut.  In 1646 Chanut corresponded with Descartes, asking him for a copy of his Meditations to give to the Queen. Christina started correspondence with Descartes about hate and love, and eventually invited him to Sweden. Descartes arrived on 4 October 1649. He resided with Chanut, but had to wait till 18 December until he could start giving private lessons to the queen. Accustomed to working in bed until noon, and being of delicate health since a young age, he probably suffered from Christina’s study regime which began early in the morning at 5 a.m. The premises of the nearby royal castle were icy, and on 1 February 1650 Descartes fell ill with pneumonia and died ten days later. (Source)

The Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Lutheran states and factions in Europe had recently ended. As a Catholic in a Lutheran nation, Descartes was interred in a graveyard at St. Olof’s Chapel, a wooden structure used mainly for unbaptized infants, well outside the center of the city. In 1666, Descartes’ body was disinterred and returned to the building where he died and where the French Ambassador to Sweden lived, as had his predecessor Chanut: 68 Västerlånggatan (Western Long Street) in what is now “Old Town”. (More about the building further below).

Västerlånggatan 68, currently

Västerlånggatan 68, currently

Hughues de Terlon, the French ambassador, was officially in charge of the secretive exhumation and transport of Descartes’ remains to France for proper ceremonial interment. The flesh had decomposed, so all that was left were the bones. This allowed the Ambassador to put the remains in a much smaller box, thus not having to transport a coffin which would bring unwelcome attention, en route, to this enterprise.

The bones were properly blessed by local Catholic officials before being placed in the box, but de Terlon requested the authorities that he might himself be allowed, “religiously”, to take possession of Descartes’ right index finger, the bone “which had served as an instrument in the immortal writings of the deceased”. They granted him this request.

The box was guarded by Swedish military men, at least one of whom removed the skull of Decartes before the box was transported to France. The Swedish family that became the proud owners of Descartes’ skull — how, it is not clear — had it lovingly inscribed with Latin verses celebrating its significance as a souvenir of the beginnings of rationality. Successive owners added their own signatures and inscriptions testifying to their own ‘faith’ in the relic.

(The story of the box of bones and the skull is wonderfully told in the book Descartes Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto, from which parts of the previous two paragraphs are taken.)

Ultimately, after centuries, all the bones except the index finger were reunited in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris.

In 1774, a new church was erected on the site of St. Olof’s Chapel where Descartes’s remains had lain for sixteen years—Adolf Fredriks Kyrka.  Royal Prince Gustav (who, shortly after, was crowned King Gustav III) of Sweden wanted to honor the philosopher with a monument in the newly built church. The sculpture, rendered in lead, hangs on a pillar to the right of the altar in the church. The cherub unveiling the globe of Truth bears the likeness of Gustav III, the “Enlightenment King”. (Source).

Rene_Descartes_monument_in_the_Adolf_Fredriks_Kyrka_Stockholm_2

The full text on the monument is:

Gustavas Pr. Haer. R. S. (Gustavus Hereditary Prince)
Renato Cartesio (Italian form of René Descartes)
Nat. in Gallia MDXCVI (Born in France 1596)
Mort. in Svecia MDCL (Died in Sweden 1650)
Monumentum erexit (A monument has been erected)
_____________
MDCCLXX (1770)

Gustav III (1746 –1792) was King of Sweden from 1771 until his death. He was the eldest son of King Adolph Frederick and Queen Louise Ulrika, who was a sister of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. (Source)

The house in which Descartes briefly lived still stands in Gamla Stan (Old Town), Stockholm (pictured above). Here is a close up I took of some of the decoration at the entrance:

Facade, Västerlånggatan 68, Old Town, Stockholm

Facade, Västerlånggatan 68, Old Town, Stockholm

This is a red four-story building in Baroque style, called von der Lindeska house, named after the merchant Erik von der Linde, who had built it in 1630. In 1646 the house was sold to Queen Christina , who in 1648 donated the house to her half brother, Gustaf Gustafsson af Vasaborg . The building has a façade in the Dutch Renaissance style. The entry is adorned with the heads of two gods, Mercury and Neptune . On the wall are two cartouches with texts in German, in translation: Everything depends on God’s grace (An Gottes Segen ist alles gelegen); Put your hope in God alone (Auf Gott allein setze die Hoffnung Dein) (Source)

I wonder about the lessons to be learned from the sad ending to this illustrious man and his valuable work. He was only 53, but he had already given the world a way of seeing things which still reverberates between those who prefer faith to reason, and vice versa. A reading of his biography may give an answer to this. Here’s a place to start: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Descartes.