Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Age of Wonder

It's a bit of a cliche that the enlightenment was an age of rationalisation, where the hard facts of science overtook the mythological mysteries of religion. I've said as much myself in recent posts, I regret to say. As with most cliches, there's an element of truth and a larger element of mistake in the sentiment. Yes, indeed, the enlightenment was an age of scientific advance and rational thinking. But that is only part of the story.

Richard Holmes's marvellous book, The Age of Wonder, has just been published in the US, but it came out here in the UK some time ago. I went along to one of Richard's readings from it around publication time, and it was a brilliant evening. He dispels the myth that there were people of science on one side and people of the arts on the other, with no cross-fertilisation between them. Increasingly, we are coming to believe that that was the case, but Holmes neatly debunks it. He demonstrates that that scientists and artists had much in common. As the NYT review explains:

In assessing the quality of mind that poets and scientists of the Romantic generation had in common, Holmes stresses moral hope for human betterment.

The Age of Wonder, for Holmes, ended with Darwin's journey on the Beagle but, he hopes, 'we have not yet quite outgrown it.'

Yes indeed.

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