The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind

AC Grayling

Bloomsbury £25

Review: Hugh MacDonald

IT may be the acme of positive thought but one had hopes that an exploration of scientific and intellectual life would be a lot of fun. Not, perhaps a toga-wearing, recreational drug-fuelled long weekend, perhaps. But a party, nonetheless.

The ingredients are all there. The venue is one of the most dramatic, revolutionary eras. The guest list is startling: in literature, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton; in philosophy, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke; in science Galileo, Pascal, Newton; in art, Rubens, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer.

The host is AC Grayling, master of the New College of the Humanities in London and its professor of philosophy, writer of articles, polemics and books, and arch-slapper of belief in a deity. An argument, therefore,is inevitable and this not only normally fuels a good party but also should sustain a book of ideas.

However, Grayling and the 17 century do not quite hit it off. It's a bit flat from the very beginning and only peaks slightly when the reader is metaphorically shuffling towards the door, grateful that the taxi service can be relied upon.

This state of disappointment at a function not living up to its promise has nothing to do with the subject matter. Grayling’s theories have much to recommend them and they are backed with examples from some of the greatest human minds. His prosecution of his case contains some spectacular set pieces, particularly those involving Marin Mersenne and Giulio Cesare Vanini, where personality and mind clash turbulently with institutions. He is adept, too, at the odd, cutting but entertaining one-liner. How is this for an observation: “heresy – a word chiefly denoting the beliefs held by the losing side of the argument’’.

Grayling is undoubtedly knowledgeable about a range of subjects and a hefty bibliography suggest he has not stinted on research. So how did the party souffle collapse with the slightest of gasps?

There is a personal responsibility in that Grayling, who can be an energetic, provocative writer, subsides into a dullness. The Age of Genius is akin to a very, very long lecture, peppered with such phrases of this genre as in “as has already been discussed”, “as we will discuss in the next chapter”. This, of course, is not inevitably fatal, particularly if the lecturer has marshalled his thoughts and the subject has a narrative drive that can be sustained.

Grayling, though, baulks at the first hurdle and his work only recovers some persistent energy towards the end. The problem is the Thirty Years War, so called because it takes 30 years to explain. Grayling is right to explore it fully, given that it was the major event in the lives and deaths of many in Europe. But an editor might have gently insinuated that the subject, though vital to the project, may have been summarised more briskly.

The tension that Grayling finds in the 17th century is obviously that between religion and science. Religion was central to the political power struggles convulsing Europe but it also provided a barrier to sincere scientific investigation. The infamous case of Galileo, neatly weighed by Grayling, is proof that scientific evidence was no defence against prosecution by the Church.

The strength, the ubiquity of religion, therefore, is central to any understanding of how wars were fought, literature was written, art was created. This potency and its significance to the individual changed dramatically in the 17th century. Grayling, for example, brilliantly points out that those watching Macbeth in 1606 would see it as evidence that regicide was such an usurpation of the natural order it would be followed by ghosts rising from the ground. Forty years later crowds would watch the execution of a king without such beliefs.

This sprint from the tenets of superstition to an increasingly revealed reality is a wonderful subject and there are moments when Grayling does it justice. However, the whole is ultimately flawed by the inability to maintain a coherence of argument, even purpose. This is forgiveable given the scope of the subject but Grayling’s jabs at religion can become tedious and are simply wrong on occasion. He states for example: “The making of the modern mind is a function of the transition of theocentric attitudes to the reasonings of the secular intellect.”

No, it ain’t. Newton, Pascal and Descartes, among many others, had God at the centre of their attitudes. Today Jesuits are among the leader in astronomical research with one of their brethren, Guy Consolmagno, holding the Carl Sagan medal for the discipline. He maintains that the sky is where the scientist finds God. He, and other scientists, may be wrong but I suggest their view is distinctly theocentric.

Grayling, too, believes Islamic fundamentalism represents the pre-17th century mind but its tenets are surely ageless in that it proclaims the supremacy of belief over material matters. This trait is shared by some Christian denominations too. This is not to make it right – or wrong – but to see that it is impervious to much of what shapes others’ minds.

Grayling, though, is astute in one conclusion. He argues that the solution to the old mind/new mind conflict is education. In this, one cannot doubt his sincerity. At Grayling’s New College of Humanities an invitation to an intellectual party comes in at £18,000 per year.

AC Grayling is appearing at Glasgow book festival Aye Write!, for which The Herald is media partner, on Saturday March 19. See