Excerpt from The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Age of Genius

The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind

by A.C. Grayling

The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling X
The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 368 pages

    May 2017, 368 pages


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James Broderick
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Seeing the Universe

If you step outside on a warm clear night and look up, what do you see? Imagine answering this question 400 years ago. What did people see then, gazing at the stars? It is remarkable that in seeing the same thing we see today, they nevertheless saw a different universe with a completely different set of meanings both in itself and for their own personal lives. This marks a highly significant fact: that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the mind – the mentality, the world-view – of our best-educated and most thoughtful forebears was still fundamentally continuous with that of their own antique and medieval predecessors; but by the end of that century it had become modern. This striking fact means that the seventeenth century is a very special period in human history. It is in fact the epoch in the history of the human mind. In the pages to follow I support this large claim.

The seventeenth century is among the most extensively explored in the study of history. I enter this field with appropriate disclaimers therefore: my interest here is how – to speak in the most general way – the mind-set of the best-informed people in that century changed from being medieval to being modern in so short and tumultuous a time. To do this in a single book means selecting, sampling and surveying; there is no possibility of comprehensiveness. But seeing the pattern in a major movement of thought is like taking an aerial view of a landscape: one seeks out the larger contours, and because in explaining the seventeenth century the principal themes are science, philosophy and ideas, it is an arena where the philosopher and historian of ideas venture with propriety.

There is a polemical point to be made. The industry of historical scholarship requires periodic revisionism for its continuation, a good thing on the whole because it keeps debates alive and sends out fresh challenges to our understanding of the past and therefore the present too. One of the revisions offered to the thesis that the seventeenth century was the crucible of the modern is that it was not the crucible of the modern: 'the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment are no longer considered pivotal stages in the triumphant progress of scientific reason, and such developments are no longer seen as marking the decline of belief in the supernatural and the origin of the "disenchantment" of the world', writes a reviewer of a book about how belief in occultism persisted into the eighteenth century.1 Both reviewer and reviewed, and whoever no longer regards the period in question as being pivotal, fail to grasp a fundamental point: that yes of course superstition and the old beliefs persisted – they still persist in many quarters – but the revolution in world-view that occurred in the seventeenth century made them functionally marginal; where they had once been the central and dominating outlook of all minds, they began to move towards the sidelines of metaphysics and morals, and politics and international relations, as they moved also into the more private spaces of individual lives.

My interest in the intellectual history of the seventeenth century has been a long-standing one. Over the last twenty-five years, in a scholarly examination of the thought of George Berkeley (1685–1753), a biography of René Descartes (1598–1650), a book about concepts of freedom as they grew out of debates over liberty of conscience and enquiry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in a number of essays about Locke, the scientific revolution and the following Enlightenment, I have come to think of the seventeenth century as especially significant. I claim that it is the epoch in the story of the human mind: there have of course been other epochs – indeed, many – but none of them changed the outlook of humanity on the universe so dramatically. Because this change occurred as Europe tore itself apart in continuous warfare, amid insecurities and oppressions, with vertiginous new systems of thought challenging old certainties, it makes for a deeply absorbing as well as intriguing spectacle. And as always with important history, one learns much from it about one's own time and circumstances.

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Excerpted from The Age of Genius by Frank W Abagnale. Copyright © 2016 by Frank W Abagnale. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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