The Age of Genius: The 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind

Written by A. C. Grayling
Review by Mary F. Burns

This is the book for you if you need to know anything about the 17th century in Europe and Great Britain. As a compendium of information, there is something about every innovator, artist, philosopher, scientist, writer or musician from Monteverdi to Newton, Descartes to Vermeer, Hobbes, Cervantes and Milton. Defining events—wars, plagues, reformations, political and regime changes, upheavals of all sorts—are described in almost dizzying detail (hard to keep track of the players).

Grayling focuses on major accomplishments/themes through the century: the use of vernacular languages instead of Latin or Greek in major areas of study; the growing displacement of the aristocracy by the innovative individual who rises to prominence because of his (yes, mostly his) intellect and achievements, and the increased use of scientific instruments and methodology to study the natural world, displacing the previous theological, quasi-mystical approach to understanding nature.

It’s heavy going without sufficient narrative to retain interest; however, as a resource book on the century and its impact on the growth and development of what we call the “modern world,” it provides a rich field of information for historical fiction writers who want the realism of the lives and times of people in the 17th century.