The Age of Genius by AC Grayling | Bloomsbury, 351pp, £25
The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, remarked of his Cabinet colleague, the historian Macaulay, “I wish I was as damned cocksure about anything as Tom Macaulay is about everything.” I feel about AC Grayling, one of our leading public intellectuals, rather as Melbourne did about Macaulay: admiration diluted by scepticism and irritation.
His argument in this very interesting book is essentially simple. In the 17th century, science – that is, knowledge based on observation and experiment – began to oust religion – that is, faith based on revelation, tradition and dogma. The universe was discovered to be no longer geocentric; the way was being prepared for the comparable displacement of Man as a special creation of an Almighty God – though this would have to wait till Darwin and the Theory of Evolution. As evidence of this change – this birth of the modern mind – the terrible Thirty Years War (1618-48) which devastated Germany was the last of the religious wars. Grayling devotes 80 pages, about a quarter of his book, to an outline history of that war, and though he is neither a political or military historian, gets most of it right, even admitting that at least the second half of the war was more about power politics than religion.
His account of the transition from magic to science is fascinating, and he demonstrates persuasively that the 17th century did indeed see a revolution in habits of thought and the understanding of the physical world. Curiously, his bibliography makes no mention of Herbert Butterfield’s Origins of Modern Science, perhaps because Butterfield took 1300 as his starting-point or because he remained a Christian, despite, like Grayling, showing how science changed the way men thought about the world. Grayling is a fierce advocate for the primacy of his favourite 17th century, and it may be that another of Butterfield’s observations is to the point: “our customary periodisation of history has become an encumbrance and an anachronism”.
For Grayling “the making of the modern mind is a function of the transition from theocentric attitudes to the reasonings of the secular intellect.” Undoubtedly there is much truth in this. As Orwell remarked, one of the distinguishing features of the 20th century was a decay of belief in personal immortality. Nevertheless many still hold to that belief, and many – most? – of Grayling’s 17th century scientists were themselves devout Christians, as indeed was Darwin. Grayling is an old-fashioned Whig historian, eager to trace the line of progress from a dark, intellectually barren past to an enlightened present. As such he is, like Macaulay, a splendid simplifier. The French Revolution of 1789 was “the long-term consequence of the absolutism that Louis XIV practised” – a statement that would invite a question-mark in the margin if offered in an undergraduate essay.
Few of us here in western Europe would dispute the main thrust of Grayling’s argument: that, on the one hand, the scientific revolution has given us a new, and in a way diminished, view of man’s place in the cosmos; while on the other hand this same knowledge has enabled the development of technologies (including medical technologies) which have “transformed … [our] existence – not always for the better, but largely so…” This is “the world-view that drives almost everything of significance in our world, from technologies to economies…” And this is, mostly, for the better.
This may all sound a bit too Panglossian: “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”. Of course Professor Grayling is far too intelligent to subscribe completely to the Panglossian world-view. He recognises, as he must, that in the Islamic world, religious fundamentalism “keeps the pre-17th century mind actively in control of people’s lives”. He recognises too that the “reasserters of the old stories and beliefs 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 etc…” Yet he is an optimist; he believes that what he calls the “new mind”, imbued with the truth, will prevail. Perhaps it will. We must hope it does – even though the new rational technocratic mind has spawned its own horrors: the Nazi death-camps, the Soviet Gulag, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki – all more awful than even the Thirty Years War.
• AC Grayling will be appearing at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow on 19 March, www.ayewrite.com