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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Print Excerpt

The puzzle of the seventeenth century is how the greatest ever change in the mental outlook of humanity could occur in the confusions of the time. Or is the answer to the puzzle in the puzzle itself? One aim, in this survey of that age of strife and genius, is to suggest an answer.

The mind of a time is the joint output of leading minds of the time, in the form of their debates, ideas and discoveries. The story of the seventeenth-century mind is accordingly the story of its leading minds and their interactions.

It is also the study of what made those interactions possible and often urgent. In hindsight we pigeonhole for our own convenience, and we overlook important details. We now talk of the scientific revolution, and differently we talk of philosophy in that period as shaping subsequent debate in epistemology, metaphysics and political theory, and thus we proceed as if the scientific and philosophical revolutions were not the same thing – or rather, constituent parts of one larger thing. But they were indeed parts of each other and jointly of the greater mental revolution of the age.

Moreover, the revolution in question would not have been possible if it had not been possible for ideas to circulate, at least more freely than people could. So to understand how thought progressed in this period, we need to know about something seemingly so mundane as the postal services of the day. Significantly, there were several individuals who acted as – so to speak – internet servers connecting the savants of Europe to each other and facilitating the flow of information and exchange of ideas among them. One such was Marin Mersenne. His own varied work represents one of the signal features of the age's mental revolution, which was the effort to detach genuinely productive enquiry from the entanglements of mysticism, the occult, magic, Rosicrucianism – and of course from the proscriptions of religion, which was threatened by sceptical questioning of its authority, and therefore hostile to the growth of secular knowledge and literacy.

Other commentators on the seventeenth century have picked out the growth of publications in vernacular languages, and the proliferation of Protestant sects – some with their this-worldly focus on the blessings of material success ('Protestantism and the rise of capitalism' combines two well-known theses on this score) – as among its transformative features, and the points are good. But it matters that they are put into yet broader context. Attitudes towards material conditions of life are effects of a change of mind about what is important; increased literacy and the proliferation of vernacular publications – especially of pamphlets, satires, political tracts and news – are among the causes. They, in turn, are among the vehicles by which ideas are transported from mind to mind: and ideas are the drivers of change.

It would take encyclopaedic proportions to examine all those minds, their works and their interconnections in anything like satisfactory detail. But I hope the sketches offered here will illustrate the claim that the seventeenth century is truly the moment that history changed course, so profoundly that everything before it is another world, and that it and the times since are our world.

In Part II I give a survey of the Thirty Years' War and, more briefly, the Anglo-Dutch maritime wars. Later sections of the account of the Thirty Years' War are – because of the nature of the war itself – iterative and inconclusive; but this I think captures the senselessness of the prolongation of that destructive conflict. Following it to its exhausted end matters, though: it underlay the change in history. In Part III I describe the intellectual background to the century's revolution in thought, not least in the occultist ambitions of those seeking magical routes to knowledge. Part IV tells of the rise of more responsible ways of thinking and enquiry; Part V describes the application of these to society; and in the short concluding Part VI I offer my explanation of how and why the seventeenth century produced the modern world.

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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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