Monday, 25 September 2017
Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud - Peter Watson (2005)
When I first saw this rather large tome (1015 pages to be exact...) on the shelves at Planet Books years ago I was immediately intrigued by its title. The book presented as a fascinating angle on history, rather than the usual examination of events, wars, ruling dynasties, historical figures and so forth. What I didn’t know until I finally finished Ideas is that the history of ideas is actually a specific field of research in history and as an academic discipline it dates back to 1932 when a gentleman called Johan Nordstrom became the first professor of the new discipline at Uppsala University in Sweden. Watson’s Ideas is a hugely ambitious, but on the whole successful, undertaking; the kind of book that gets you talking with others about its contents. I read most of the book without knowing too much about the author and appropriately it turns out that Watson is extremely accomplished, having attended universities in London, Rome and Durham; he is a former journalist, an academic, intellectual and author of not only twelve non-fiction books but also seven novels.
Ideas is presented in five chronological parts: Lucy to Gilgamesh - The Evolution of Imagination; Isaiah to Zhu Xi - The Romance of the Soul; The Great Hinge of History - European Acceleration; Aquinas to Jefferson - The Attack on Authority, the Idea of the Secular and the Birth of Modern Individualism; and finally Vico to Freud - Parallel Truths: The Modern Incoherence. Each part features a series of fascinating chapters discussing the major influential ideas of that era. Watson’s style is engaging and rigorous in its intention to both be accurate and thought provoking, without being too dry and formal. Watson does what every worthwhile writer of non-fiction should do, he presents his arguments in a compelling manner, lodging them in your consciousness so that you can think about them within the context of your own evolving world view. Although Watson sometimes uses broad brush strokes there is a plethora of well researched detail to wonder over. Although Ideas took me a long time to get through, partly because for quite a while I was just reading bits here and there, a great deal of its dense text still remains with me and it has definitely altered my world view in useful and sometimes intriguing ways.
Some of the most prominent ideas that really stood out for me were the rise of statistics (yes, statistics), Romanticism, Monotheism and the utmost importance of both the Renaissance and Protestantism. Statistics is a remarkably significant and influential idea that is still significant today. The Victorians developed and used statistical methods as a way to accurately analyze human behavior, which then heavily influenced government decision making regarding such things as town planning. The initial chapter that covers the Renaissance: The Arrival of the Secular: Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism, and the chapters that follow, highlight just how much significant innovation in thought, art, the sciences and questions about humanity’s place in the cosmos occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. Having studied medieval history at university I had a reasonable idea of the importance of this period in history, but Watson’s approach was both revealing and though-provoking. Humanism, the eventual rise of Atheism (initially to be an atheist meant that you denied Jesus, but not God) and Martin Luther’s decisive reaction to the all powerful Catholic Church all served to loosen the profound influence of Monotheism and in in particular Catholicism and paved the way, for good or bad, for the modern world of secularism, individualism and ultimately capitalism. Romanticism acted as an extension to Humanism, with the significant idea that the only thing that humans could be certain of was their own consciousness. This idea was spectacularly expressed by the multitude of amazing Romantic classical composers and poets that worked during that era (1770 - 1850). These ideas are, as you’d imagine, far more complex than my simplistic summation, but fortunately Watson’s eloquent arguments are superbly realised, so your best bet is to read the book and enjoy.
Realistically is almost impossible to summarize this amazing book, however apart from the fact that it is among the most thought-provoking non-fiction books I’ve ever read, it is worth considering aspects of Watson’s concluding statements. Watson claims that the three most influential ideas in history are the soul (surprisingly not God...), the idea of Europe and the idea of the experiment. The importance and profound impact of the experiment needs no further elaboration, however both Europe and the soul seem to be unusual choices. Watson explains that the concept of Europe as a cultural entity, in opposition to that of the medieval Islamic states, who turned their back on the innovations that Europe had to offer by isolating themselves within their own belief system, was integral to providing succor to education via universities as well as significant scientific and cultural advances. As for the idea of the soul Watson points out that the ancient idea that there is a eternal soul essence within humans allowed significant control over the lives of humanity wherever and whenever this idea prevailed. Watson argues that one only needs to ponder the profound control religion has exercised over humanity by manipulating the fear associated with what would happen to the soul after death. Christianity (and Monotheism generally) stands as a prime example of how powerful this idea has been.
Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that what a truly great non-fiction book needs to do is not just inform, but to inspire the reader to make their own connections and conclusions. Ideas provided such inspiration and I certainly count it as one of the most important non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Although Watson’s arguments are both compelling and sound throughout much of the book I’m uneasy with the idea that the soul is more influential than the idea of God. The idea of God has certainly inspired humanity in positive ways, for example to better ourselves morally and to try and understand reality, however more prevalent is the negative way in which God has significantly inhibited progress throughout history and has led to the deaths of millions of humans through war and persecution. Watson himself presents all the evidence you need, in particular the way in which the Catholic Church attempted to inhibit intellectual progress for centuries. Lastly if you are wondering, like I certainly did, why Ideas ends on the cusp of the twentieth century, it is because Watson had dedicated a previous book to the last hundred years or so, called A Terrible Beauty: the People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind (2000). A book I will no doubt get around to reading at some point in the coming years.