3/5 – This book left me with mixed feelings – especially as Grayling is one of the most respected modern philosophers and I had been excited to read the book (which I would suggest is good for those who already have knowledge about the time period). I agree with Grayling that the seventeenth century was an amazing time in history and the birth of the modern mind – that the ball of science and reason began accelerating into what culminated in the Enlightenment. That being said, his seeming contempt for religion is apparent straight from the beginning of the book. Those who study the seventeenth century will understand how important religion was to the everyday man and woman – to hold them in some kind of pitiable light is, in my opinion, disrespectful to the people of that time. I also disagreed with his views expressed in the opening chapter on the importance of revisionism in history – I am not a huge fan of revisionist history, particularly of the politically left kind that I feel has plagued academia since the 1960s.
The book improved significantly after the second chapter, when it began to be about the Thirty Years’ War. Count Tilly was mentioned more than I had ever read before, which was a plus. The rest is a very good overview of the literature and science of the 16th and 17th centuries. That being said, the entire book was punctuated (and ultimately let down by) Grayling’s personal political biases. (Before anyone says I have a problem with atheism, let me just state that I was a member of the National Secular Society for a couple of years and I even had a very nice chat with Grayling one evening several years ago – he’s a very affable person and an excellent conversationalist). I am, however, very keen on the seventeenth century and couldn’t help but feel that he was using that century to fit his own agenda. It’s hard to place it exactly, but I felt that his atheist and progressive views came across at times with a zeal similar to that which is seen in the work of very religious writers.
Grayling’s strongest point is his wonderful knowledge of philosophy – for which he is justly respected. The history was presented well, but once again, the only thing that detracted from the book was this sense that we are better than most people were in the past. He seems so certain of his views, in much the same manner that many writers from the seventeenth century thought they were right. That being said, I did like the book because of the subject matter and it was very well written.