Book review: The Age of Genius by AC Grayling

March 24, 2016
Bloomsbury, £17.99

The 17th century was “the epoch in the history of the human mind.” This is the bold claim put forward by AC Grayling in his new book The Age of Genius. Grayling, a Prospect columnist, argues that during this era the worldview of the leading thinkers changed from being “medieval” to “modern.” The influence of religion began to be supplanted by a more rational, scientific approach. Though the transition wasn’t completely clean—he describes the fascinating endeavours undertaken by proto-scientific medieval magicians—once it got going, it took place at breakneck speed.

Grayling has a knack for picking neat examples to support his case. In Macbeth, first performed in 1606, the killing of King Duncan was portrayed as sacrilegious—in response owls prey on falcons and horses eat one another. For the audience to have found such descriptions convincing, they must have faith in the divine right of kings, says Grayling. But only 43 years later, Parliament ordered the execution of Charles I. A swift transformation indeed.

Grayling isn’t only concerned with changing systems of thought, but with the context in which they changed. He wonders whether the violent nature of the 17th century—the Thirty Years War killed one in three German-speaking people—encouraged radical thinking. As society broke down, the chaos allowed new ideas to flourish, he reasons.

His central theses are grand, but the book often reads more like a list of events than a sustained case. The Age of Genius is slightly heavier on description than you would expect from a man with his love of argument.