A.C. Grayling:

"The Age of Genius" (2016)

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Anthony Clifford Grayling deals with one of the most underrated eras of Western history. While everybody knows about the Renaissance, the industrial revolution and the digital era, few pay attention to the 17th century that, according to Grayling, is actually the pivotal era that changed the world into what it is now: a world of science and technology. For tens of thousands of years, humans had the same view of the universe and of the Earth. Then the 17th century dramatically changed the history of humankind by changing the way we look at the universe and ourselves. This happened in a Europe that was apparently imploding politically and militarily, amid massive, pervasive and endless warfare Grayling refers to "the flowering of genius": Galileo, Pascal, Kepler, Newton, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Racine, Moliere, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rubens, El Greco, Rembrandt, Vermeer and so on and on. Knowledge spread, ideas circulated more freely than people could. But this happened in the most unlikely of circumstances, while Europe was going from one bloody massacre into the next one.

Grayling narrates the Thirty-Year War in great detail, arguing that it set the course for the society of states. Instead he only superficially describes the three wars between the Netherlands and England that, according to him, enabled England to become the dominant power of globalized commerce. Then suddenly the book shifts gear into philosophy, but in an unorthodox manner. A chapter explains how knowledge spread in such a turbulent era, thanks to people like Mersenne who enjoyed writing letters to intellectuals and thanks to a reliable postable network. Three chapters discuss magic and the occult, how it influenced the mindset of people like Newton. Then we get a (very partial) summary of developments in science and some selected considerations on three or four philosophers. Then something rather superficial about the development of military engineering. Overall the book feels like a collection of relatively random notes, and some intriguing trivia, given a structure after the fact. The omissions are colossal, both in philosophy and in science, as well as in literature, music and visual arts. A decent summary of the era would take a much thicker book. Nonetheless, the book contains interesting ideas about how the 17th century laid the foundations for the modern era.