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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > April 2016 > Books in brief

Books in brief

The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind

by AC Grayling (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 protoscientific 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.

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In Prospect’s April issue: Sam Tanenhaus profiles Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican Party Presidential nomination and asks if Trump makes it to the Oval Office, what would he do? Stephen Glover, examines what is happening at the Guardian as the newspaper looks to cut costs. Ferdinand Mount says Tony Blair transformed Britain but he should have cared more about the Labour Party. Also in this issue: Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI5, says that Brexit would not damage the UK’s security and Christopher de Bellaigue questions whether France’s clampdown on radicals is having the right effect. Plus Miranda France looks at the legacy of Don Quixote and the Duel asks: “Should the Church of England be disestablished”?