It is very difficult to uncover accurate connections between ideas and events in history. A.C. Grayling is a philosopher and polemicist with a particular story to tell about the rise of freedom in the 17th century. In the introduction to his new book he writes:
I hope the sketches offered here will illustrate the claim that the 17th century is truly the moment that history changed course so profoundly that everything before it is another world, and that it and the times since are our world.
He replaces the conventional division of history into everything that happened before the birth of Christ and everything that has happened afterwards, with a new bifurcation: everything that happened when humans thought the world was the centre of the universe, and everything that has happened since.
England’s 17th century was a time of unprecedented constitutional crisis and regime change, which encompassed the civil war, the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, the restoration of Charles II, the short reign of James II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that brought William of Orange and his wife Mary (the daughter of James II) to the throne. It was not until 1707 that England and Scotland joined their parliaments to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
It was also a century of European fighting, during which England engaged in the Dutch-Portuguese War (1602–61); the Anglo-Spanish War (1625–30); the Anglo-French War (1627–29); the Portuguese Restoration War (1640–68); the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53); the First, Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–74); the Franco-Dutch War (1672–8) and the Nine Years War (1688–97).
Finally, it was a century of scientific advancement, including the discoveries of luminaries like Robert Boyle, William Harvey, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, harbingers of the modern world; an epoch of international correspondence networks of the kind maintained by the ‘intelligencier’ Samuel Hartlib, a Polish refugee; and a time of new learned societies, such as the
Royal Society, founded in London after the restoration to improve knowledge of the natural world.
Grayling asks: ‘How does one account for the coexistence of the flowering of genius alongside the attrition of such conflict?’ At the risk of sounding
Pollyannaish he twice evokes the old adage: ‘It’s an ill wind that blows no good.’ He argues that fractured and fractious times encourage change, ‘even if inadvertently’. The wars and tumults of the century, he argues, made intellectual progress possible
in the breakdown of systems of control over the movements of people and their ideas… The comparison is with the way border posts might be abandoned in a time of war, so that people can cross into neighbouring territories unhindered and unobserved.
He concludes that civil and foreign war gave rise to greater freedom in England, out of which the liberal, secular ‘modern mindset’ was born.
To illustrate the transformation in mentality that is at the heart of his narrative, Grayling contrasts the attitudes of the audience at the premiere of Macbeth in the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall in 1606, with those of the crowd that assembled in the same venue to watch the beheading of Charles I in 1649. In Macbeth, Shakespeare portrayed the killing of a king as so subversive of nature’s order that afterwards horses ate each other and owls fell upon falcons and killed them. Forty-three years later, Grayling imagines that some of the same audience might have been watching as their own king was beheaded.
He argues that the idea of the sacred nature of kingship, as premised in Macbeth, had been rejected, by the time of the civil war, in favour of new ideas about the nature and exercise of political authority. And although it was a further generation before those ideas were fully translated into the practicalities of a permanent
settlement (in England at least — at the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when
Parliament deposed a king and installed a replacement of its own choice), the difference was already palpable.
Setting aside the speculation about overlapping audiences, this is wildly exaggerated: the history of ideas painted with a brush so broad as to obliterate most of the nuances that those labouring in what Grayling calls ‘the industry of historical scholarship’ have patiently recovered. The idea of the sacred nature of kingship did not just fizzle out before the civil war. Writing his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in the next century, Adam Smith noted that the idea that
kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed or punished as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy, but it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own sake, to tremble and bow down before their exalted station.
Smith revised his text for the last time in 1790, after the French revolution, and did not remove this passage about kingship, which was integral to his study of social deference and political authority.
Grayling is almost jingoistic in his account of how the government of England progressed and that of France regressed in the 17th century. Conceding that Louis XIV’s absolute monarchy brought great prestige and power to France, he claims that, ‘the eventual cost of absolutism was the French revolution, and Louis XIV might be regarded as the last great despot ruling by a supposed divine right’. The Terror that overtook revolutionary France was, according to Grayling, yet another long-term consequence of Louis XIV’s absolutism.
He does not hesitate to martial the facts to fit his story. Never mind that Newton and many other members of the Royal Society continued to pursue their interests in alchemy and astrology alongside their more ‘scientific’ investigations, they were on the path to the future, or rather, our future: ‘And as always with important history, one learns much from it about one’s own time and circumstances.’ So history that does not tell us much about our own time and circumstances is unimportant?
Grayling keeps insisting that the 17th century is ‘the epoch in the story of the human mind’. It is odd to approach history as some kind of quidditch match between the centuries, with the 17th and our own tying in first place, the 16th and the 18th vying for the runner-up slots and the rest consigned to the category of also-played. It is also peculiar to situate ‘the human mind’ at the centre of history: an indeterminate protagonist if ever there was one. Grayling explains:
The mind of a time is the joint output of leading minds of the time, in the form of their debates, ideas and discoveries. The story of the 17th-century mind is accordingly the story of its leading minds and their interactions.
It is impossible to tell if the echo of Hamlet is intentional: ‘The time is out of joint — O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right.’
In his conclusion Grayling announces that despite its forward march from the 17th century until today, the modern mind is newly under threat from the old mind, in the form of terrorists and religious fundamentalists intent on turning their backs on science and progress:
The old mind is trying to pull the new mind back, even trying to extirpate it, yet using its discoveries in a severity of self-contradiction that approaches madness.
The solution he proposes to this alarming and confusing state of affairs is education. ‘What a cliché that seems: yet like most clichés it is so deeply true that we cease to see its truth.’
Grayling is a natural educator. His prose reads like a series of lectures, full of assertions and examples and announcements about what we have just learnt, or will be learning in subsequent chapters. He pays due respect to leading scholars in the field — Frances Yates, Anthony Grafton, Quentin Skinner — and he provides concise and helpful summaries of pertinent events and ideas. Problems arise when he tries to connect the two. A long section on the intricacies of 17th-century wars is followed by a detailed account of the ‘cumulation of ideas’ in the Republic of Letters. But connections between these two sections remain slight and contingent — certainly not enough to support the claim that there was a close causal connection between war and intellectual progress in 17th-century England. Evidence for such a claim requires a sharper focus on intellectual biography and a more patient understanding of how pioneering thinkers moved through their own times, remote from ours.