The Age of Genius

This book was sent to me by the publisher at no cost. Unknown.jpeg

This was a really interesting book; I’m just not sure it’s entirely the book that AC Grayling thinks it is.

I adore the concept of exploring a century as a turning point; in fact for Grayling, the seventeenth century was “the epoch in the history of the human mind” (p3, his italics). Obviously other historians have disagreed, as he acknowledges, but even if there are strong arguments for other times – or even suggesting that such a claim is ridiculous – it nonetheless should make for an interesting book.

Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely an interesting book and I’m not sad I read it. But Grayling spends the first one hundred pages talking about the Thirty Years War, which I really hadn’t expected. I did actually enjoy that aspect because it’s one of those areas where I had Zero Knowledge (it’s modern; it’s politics with a veneer of dust) and I quite liked the exploration of the twisty deals and politicking and battles. But I’m not great with spatial visualisation so I got pretty lost trying to figure out where all the armies were (the one map at the start of the book? It places the Germanic states right in the fold, so it’s nigh impossible to use for this section of the book). Also there are a lot of players, so a dramatis personae would have been useful. And why did Grayling include it? Well, part of his thesis is that the drama and disruption of these wars (and other issues elsewhere) helped to encourage the flourishing of minds and science. So fair enough I guess. But a hundred pages seems unnecessary.

Anyway. THEN Grayling gets into the meat of his ‘the seventeenth century changed everything’ bit. Basically what he’s doing is showing how ideas and perceptions altered over the course of the century: for example, from John Dee (awesome alchemist and ALSO mathematician and scientist) to Isaac Newton (awesome scientist and ALSO devoted alchemist-type). One of the things that often staggers me is when I realise who’s active at the same time, or which events are concurrent; I’m very good at compartmentalising (French Revolution and white colonisation of Australia! At the same time!). Grayling does this quite well. His main focus is on science, with just a short section on language (which even then is tied into ‘belief’) – I would have liked more here. I would also have liked a lot more acknowledgement of women, since he acknowledges their existence in the beginning and then seems to forget to follow through.

The most awesome new thing I learned from this book: a bit of the history of the postal service. I am now desperately in need of a good book about the history of the postal service, and fortunately there is one referenced in his notes. Couriers in the service of the Signoria of Venice, basically all of them from one extended family, ends up extending the service to other parts of Europe to the point of becoming Imperial Court Postmaster (that was Baptista Taxis) who was rich enough to loan money to the Holy Roman Emperor, who also just btw ennobled him: thence ‘von Taxis’. Hans Holbein painted the portrait of the Taxis who did the post for England; they became barons, counts, marquises, dukes and princes; when France signed a treaty with the family in 1844 the parties were “His Majesty the King of the French and His Most Serene Highness the Prince de la Tour and Taxis” (126). A postie signed a treaty with a king!!

Swoon.

Two… well, warnings, I guess. The first is that this is almost entirely Eurocentric. I noticed this throughout the Introduction where the focus was on Europe; then you get phrases like “… the world under the Romans or, in China, the Tang dynasty” (8). Alternatives: “[Italy/Europe] under the Romans or, in China, the Tang dynasty” OR “life under the Romans or the Tang dynasty”. The opening of Part II states that

To get a general sense of an historical period one learns much by looking at what generated its legacy, which in the case of the seventeenth century is nothing less than the world – apart from China and Japan – that we know today.

There are five references to China in the index. Now of course I am not saying that this book needed to be enlarged to include non-European contexts. However I do think there needed to be greater acknowledgement of its Eurocentrism (and, frankly, western Eurocentrism), and at least a passing condescension that perhaps this is a thing that needs greater thought – or that his claims for changing the human mind need a bit of refinement or addition or something. I don’t know exactly what because I’m no scholar of Asian history. And then there’s the Islamic world and African societies….

The other thing is Grayling’s anti-religion stance. When I looked at the About the Author, after finishing the book, I nodded and said “ah”. His other books include The God Argument and The Good Book: A Secular Bible. So it won’t be a surprise to those who know his work that Grayling takes this view. But even given this I don’t think that bringing your personal views into a book like this, to the extent of making references to the modern world, is appropriate. For example: governments after the Thirty Years War

rejected religion as an object to fight for… This applies to Europe and the world it influenced; alas it is not true for the more zealous among today’s devotees of Isalm, and perhaps never has been (27).

Or, talking about the change to a more ‘scientific’ mindset and world view:

it is not by far the world-view of everyone even today… but it is the world-view that drives almost everything of significance that happens in our world… with the resulting impact on the social and political organisation of almost all societies, even the ones where the majority of people still hold to a version of the pre-seventeenth-century mind-set (321).

For a start, class, shall we interrogate the idea of significance? And then there’s:

The second twist is that the active reassertion of the old stories and beliefs is under way in parts of the world where they never fully or even partially lost their hold. The reasserts are happy to use the technologies that the new mind has created in order to reassert the old mind’s dominion: terrorists use anti-aircraft missiles and mobile phones to communicate with each other… (323).

His solution, by the way, is education, although teachers have to do better.

I was able to read around the anti-religion comments, mostly, although I did sticky-note them; I’m also white so the European bias wasn’t fundamentally offensive on a personal level. Your mileage, as they say, may well vary.

One response

  1. Reblogged this on The Missal.

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