The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind by A C Grayling
|The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind by A C Grayling|
|Reviewer: John Ewbank|
|Summary: AC Grayling's exploration of the birth of rationalism in the 17th century describes a fascinating historical period but is let down by a turgid opening and a pompous writing style.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: March 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
The 17th century was a turbulent period in European history. It was an era dominated by war and political upheaval, notably the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648. But it was also a time of intellectual upheaval: scientists and philosophers were proposing bold new ideas, leading to a dramatic shift in how people saw and thought about the world. In "The Age of Genius", the philosopher AC Grayling argues that the 17th century was "the" epoch in the history of the human mind, marking the transition from superstition to science, from religion to rationalism.
Despite this promising set up, the book does not start well. The first 100 pages consist of an extremely detailed history of the Thirty Years' War, a seemingly endless parade of battles, peace treaties, sieges, princes and politics. I understand that context is important, but this level of detail was completely unnecessary. The essential point – that Europe was going through a period of turmoil – could have been made in a couple of pages.
Things do pick up, however, once Grayling finally gets around to the topic at hand. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book deals with magic and the occult, and the struggles of science to disentangle itself from these murky practices (celebrated scientists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle both dabbled in alchemy). Science also faced the perils of upsetting the religious authorities, who forced Galileo to recant his view that the earth revolves around the sun, to avoid being burnt at the stake. Crucial in the establishment of science was the development of the scientific method by philosophers such as René Descartes and Francis Bacon. Also critical was the shift towards science as a communal activity based on the sharing of knowledge, leading to the founding of London's Royal Society in 1660. Rationalism also blossomed in the fields of politics and society, through the writings of John Locke and others. By the end of the book, one is left in no doubt as to the significance of 17th-century ideas in shaping modern thought.
Apart from my reservations about the opening third of the book, I did enjoy "The Age of Reason". It's a fascinating subject and Grayling does a good job of bringing the people and key events to life. I found Grayling's writing style a little pompous though; he never uses a short word when a long one will do, and obscure words like simulacra, usufruct, and salvific appear with an alarming frequency. He also has the irritating habit of using 'of course' to preface statements that are by no means obvious. As a result, the tone is closer to a third-year philosophy lecture than a book for the general public.
Overall I'd say the book is worth reading, but I'd recommend skipping the bit on the Thirty Years' War (the Wikipedia page will tell you all you need to know) and having a good dictionary to hand.
Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing the review copy.
For more on the seventeenth century, we can recommend Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook or Willoughbyland: England's Lost Colony by Matthew Parker. You might also appreciate The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict by Peter Beaumont.
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