Thursday, March 22, 2007


by Peter Watson

Fancy that. I actually finished two books in a week. Of course it's then taken me a month to actually get this post up, but I think I can fairly claim extenuating circumstances. This one's a real mammoth and it took me about six months to get through. Not because it's boring or hard to read but (a) because of sheer length and (b) because it's so dense; full of information, history and of course, ideas...

Ideas is a world history of human thought, covering a time span from the dawn of humanity to about 1900CE. Battles, inventions and great men are mentioned, but only in order to give context to a narrative of the way in which people have viewed themselves and the world around them. It's somewhat disturbing to see just how much this has changed; it frightens me to think that even a thousand years ago most Europeans honestly believed that life was meant to be a painful and miserable punishment for Adam's sin, and if you go back further to the ancient Greeks, not to mention earlier societies in Asia and the middle east, the mindsets are truly alien to us.

The author's voice and opinions are very strongly imprinted on the interpretation of events but this didn't detract from the book at all, even when I found that I disagreed. The only complaint I would make is that it's a bit Euro-centric, at least from the midway point (the pre-renaissance) onwards, but to be fair a justification is put forward for that decision.

There's just so much interesting stuff packed into this book that it's quite impossible to give an overview of all the cool stuff I learned from it, but a few things stand out as being notable. Firstly, the so called 'axial age', the birth of the modern religions, coincides with the first appearance of another, more abstract, concept: the bad idea. Until this point it's one back-patting success after another: fire, the city, writing, civilisation, a code of laws. Once we hit about 400BC we start getting things like slavery and racism. My interpretation is of course contradicted if you buy Jared Diamond's theory that the original bad idea was moving from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one, but while it's an interesting hypothesis it's little more than conjecture.

The other thing that stuck with me was the author's link between what he calls the hinge of history (the period around 1200CE in which commerce and learning in Europe began to recover from the dark ages and set the stage for the renaissance) and the rise of the belief in the importance of the individual. I'm not sure how this triggered the acceleration of science and technology that ushered in the renaissance and the modern era, but it's an interesting synchronicity.

There's loads of other stuff I could mention, but suffice it to say that this is a pretty cool book, and it presents history through a new and thought provoking perspective.

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