The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind
By A.C. Grayling
Review by Robert Morris
Why did A.C. Grayling write this book? His purposes are suggested in the first chapter: "The puzzle of the seventeenth century is how the greatest ever change in the mental outlook of human [at least in the western hemisphere] could occur in the confusions of the time. Or is the answer to the puzzle in the puzzle itself? Our aim in this survey of that age of strife and genius, is to suggest an answer.” That answer is provided within “the story of the seventeenth-century mind [that] is accordingly the story of its leading minds and their interactions.”
Those “leading minds” were active during one of the most volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous periods throughout until then. Grayling focuses on those who had the greatest impact, for better or worse. He also examines major developments in politics, religion, exploration and settlement, and science. I am especially grateful to him for explaining how and why the mind-set of those best-informed in the 17th century transitioned so quickly from medieval to modern. He also provides a brilliant multidimensional analysis of the Thirty Years War.
Thanks to Wikipedia, here’s an overview on one of the greatest influences throughout Europe during the seventeenth century: “The Thirty Years’ War was a series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history,] as well as the deadliest European religious war, resulting in eight million casualties.
"Initially a war between various Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers. These states employed relatively large mercenary armies, and the war became less about religion and more of a continuation of the France–Habsburg rivalry for European political pre-eminence. In the 17th century, religious beliefs and practices were a much larger influence on an average European than they are today. During that era, almost everyone was vested on one side of the dispute or another, which was also closely tied to people’s ethnicities and loyalties, as religious beliefs affected ideas of the legitimacy of the political status of rulers.”
These are among the hundreds of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also provided to suggest the scope and diversity of Grayling’s material:
o Heliocentric model of universe (Pages 9-11, 238-239, and 242-252)
o Copernicus (10-13 and 242-247)
o Planets and opal neatly motion (11-16, 76-77, and 242-243)
o Renaissance (18-19, 216-217, and 300-301)
o Galileo (19-20 and 76-77)
o Emperor Ferdinand II (27-28, 37-38, 52-55, 57-60, 66-68, and 79-82)
o France and the Thirty Years War (31-33, 66-68, 81-82, 84-87, and 93-101)
o Ernst Graf von Maisfeld (51-55 and 57-58)
o Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly (51-53, 66-67, and 69-73)
o Duke Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein (51-57-60, 72-75, and 79-80)
o Cardinal Richelieu (56-58 and 83-84)
o Spain and the Thirty Years War (66-67, 79-81, and 98-99)
o King William III (111-112, 278-279, and 289-290)
o Marin Mersenne (118-122, 128-133, and 138-139)
o Dr John Dee (163-181, 168-172, and 217-218)
o Rosicrucianism (183-203 and 200-221)
o Scientific revolution (231-265)
o France and absolute monarchy (277-287)
A.C. Grayling characterizes the seventeenth century as “a very special period in human history. It is in fact [begin italics] the [end italics] epoch in the history of the human mind.” Near the book’s conclusion, he observes: “In this mythopoetic version of the revolution in thought, the heroes are the serious enquirers, some of then martyred for the cause; the villains are the occultist, Aristotelians and priests; the enemy is ignorance; the prize is truth and progress. And the prize was won, through the flames of the Inquisition pyre, in a battle against the mighty weight of history and its army of ghosts.” What a story!
Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine could possibly do full justice to the quality of material in this book I hope I have indicated why I think do highly of and of its author. I envy those who have not as yet read it.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Robert Morris. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.