I just finished reading A.C Grayling’s “The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind”.
This book covers a lot of territory in 324 pages. In summary, it’s about how the scientific revolution of the 17th century amidst the tumult of religious war resulted in humans coming to see the world very differently at the end of that century compared to the beginning.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the educated elite of Europe still believed in geo-centrism; by the year 1700, most of the educated elite believed the earth revolved around the sun, among other things.
One of Grayling’s most controversial assertions is that the 30 years war(1618 – 1648) acted as a midwife of the birth of the modern mind. This war was the most destructive in European history until World War I. Millions of people were killed as a result of the 30 Years War, mostly in Germany(which was then called the “Holy Roman Empire”, a loose confederation of German-speaking states primarily divided by religion) where it is estimated that 1 in 3 Germans perished. Many other historians and philosophers disagree with Grayling, believing this war greatly hindered scientific and social progress.
Grayling argues that however devastating this war was, it greatly weakened the Catholic church which had long suppressed free-inquiry, which is essential for science. Wars can also have a direct effect on material science, as rivals figure out how to better engineer weapons(he makes an analogy with the vast improvement of rocketry during World War II by the Germans).
Grayling also argues that the scientific advances of that era were essential for or at least concomitant with social and philosophical advances that led to modern secular democratic states. It just makes sense that if humans are no longer assumed to be at the center of the universe, lots of other erroneous assumptions can also be questioned and pushed aside, including the divine right of kings. This kind of thinking played a huge role in the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. This paradigm shift also paved the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid 19th century which put an end to the idea that humans are God’s special creation(as I said before, this book is like a prequel of Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”).
One little thing that surprised me was the author’s contention that the scientific revolution influenced language, particularly English, French and German. The clarity and precision required for scientific thinking and writing also influenced language in general, according to the author. He even contrasts the long-winded, opaque writing of English authors of the early 17th century with the more clear, economical writings of late 17th century authors to make his point(also remarking that one of the things classicists of the era most admired about ancient Greek and Latin writers was their directness and clarity).
One thing that surprises many people is how practically all the early scientists who launched the scientific revolution were not only very religious but were also alchemists or occult enthusiasts forever searching for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. Doing real science was more like a side project for some of them. I was already aware of this(in particular when it comes to Newton), but he goes into great detail about how much science had to disentangle itself from alchemy and pseudoscience to become science as we practice it today.
Toward the end of the book, while Grayling celebrates the triumph of scientific rationalism, he warns about attempts at reversing the progress we’ve made since the scientific revolution and Enlightenment. Reason and free speech are under assault, and not just by the religious but by political extremists. I’d also add that the “new age” and various pseudoscience movements are also a threat.
All in all, a good book if you’re into the history of ideas and understanding how the world came to be the way it currently is.