Summary and book reviews of The Age of Genius by A.C. Grayling

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
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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Out of a 'fractured and fractious time,' the author asserts persuasively, the medieval mind evolved into the modern. Another thought-provoking winner from Grayling." - Kirkus

The Age of Genius explores the eventful intertwining of outward event and inner intellectual life to tell, in all its richness and depth, the story of the 17th century in Europe. It was a time of creativity unparalleled in history before or since, from science to the arts, from philosophy to politics. Acclaimed philosopher and historian A.C. Grayling points to three primary factors that led to the rise of vernacular (popular) languages in philosophy, theology, science, and literature; the rise of the individual as a general and not merely an aristocratic type; and the invention and application of instruments and measurement in the study of the natural world.

Grayling vividly reconstructs this unprecedented era and breathes new life into the major figures of the seventeenth century intelligentsia who span literature, music, science, art, and philosophy--Shakespeare, Monteverdi, Galileo, Rembrandt, Locke, Newton, Descartes, Vermeer, Hobbes, Milton, and Cervantes, among many more. During this century, a fundamentally new way of perceiving the world emerged as reason rose to prominence over tradition, and the rights of the individual took center stage in philosophy and politics, a paradigmatic shift that would define Western thought for centuries to come.

1
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...

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Building a book-length argument around his contention that 'the seventeenth century is the moment when one world-view was displaced by another because the scientific displaced that of faith,' Grayling paints a picture of astronomers, mathematicians, medical doctors, and even alchemists often reaching conclusions that even they dearly hoped weren't true – because the answers meant opposing Christian doctrine, unwise if you wanted to keep your job, freedom or head...To my ear, though, the tone of the Grayling's prose is rather flat – think "textbook" and you've pretty much got it – so many of these unexpected sidelights are not presented as compellingly or dramatically as one might hope. But on balance, Grayling has put forward a powerful argument for independent thinking as a vehicle of salvation, and if he gets lost in the weeds from time to time, at least it's nice to be in the presence of someone who hasn't mistaken the grasslands of the earth for the fabled Garden of Eden.   (Reviewed by James Broderick).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus

Starred Review. Out of a 'fractured and fractious time,' the author asserts persuasively, the medieval mind evolved into the modern. Another thought-provoking winner from Grayling.

Library Journal

Grayling does a fantastic job of proving his assertion that the 17th century saw a dramatic shift in Western thought. [A] highly engaging book.

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The Philosopher's Stone

Its powers are said to be remarkable. It is the source not only of great wealth but also, perhaps, freedom from mortality. It was sought after for centuries, often by some of the greatest minds in history. Its legend has lived on in movies, novels, video games, music, and comic books. Its fabled existence has fired the human imagination for centuries. And it played a key role in the growth of the Western way of thinking, according to A.C. Grayling's The Age of Genius.

The Philosopher's Stone, "the magic mineral which would transmute base metals into gold and give us eternal youth," according to Grayling, intrigued the most fertile minds throughout the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, when "science emerged from a period in which ...

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