19.8.17

BRIEF LIVES

Derek Wilson. Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans. Robinson, 2017.

It is hard to summarise the purport of this book, since no single thread appears to link the parts of it together. The author admits as much in his introduction, when he writes that “I shall be attempting in the following pages to…record the activities and opinions of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the debate about ‘life, the universe and everything’”.

Quite what this is supposed to mean is anyone’s guess, and inevitably the scope of the book becomes so enormous that it is impossible to define its argument and what one ends up with is a kind of dictionary of the lives of individuals whom he admires. The title of the book suggests that it ought to be about the conflict between science and superstition, and it is true that the book contains some accounts, such as those of the travails of Giordano Bruno and Galileo at the hands of the Catholic Church; but the book is not really about the conflict between science and superstition, and at no point does the author attempt to define either term, nor is there any discourse on the subject. In the light of our present knowledge of particle physics, was our ancestors’ acceptance of Newtonian physics ‘superstitious’? If not, then neither was the prevailing Aristotelian weltanschaung of the Middle Ages. These are issues on which the author is silent.

The author records the lives of many others such as Newton (who was more sinning than sinned against) and Hume, both of whom appeared free to pursue and publish their works without significant interference or conflict, and in general the author skips happily from individual to individual without troubling to explain any connection to the title or to the preceding case study. The logic of his approach is that when one reaches the penultimate page, there is no conclusion, the author stating that “to add an epilogue boldly labelled ‘Conclusions’ would be presumptuous in the light of the vastness of our subject”. More likely it would be impossible to write one.

Having said that, I found the author’s style readable and the book can most certainly be recommended as a sort of dictionary of intellectual biography mainly covering the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in Europe, the caveat being that the method of selection, is to my mind, somewhat idiosyncratic. The lives and discoveries of the usual suspects are there (Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton inter alia) and inevitably each reader will find examples of individuals whom he will be surprised to find missing. Amongst the writers and philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find Leibniz, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau, but no Bishop Berkeley, Montesquieu or Kant (for example). No effort is made by the author to explain his methodology in selecting his “great minds”. Are we to conclude that his approach is entirely subjective, and that he has just written about a number of people he is familiar with?

The strength of the book lies in its pen portraits, which often include fascinating detail, such as the description of Tycho Brahe’s island researches paid for by the King of Denmark or Newton’s vindictiveness towards his rival Robert Hooke. These I found entertaining even where the subject-matter was familiar to me, and for someone unversed in the intellectual history of the period, this book could serve as an enjoyable introduction. But a better title ought to be devised; I would suggest: Brief Lives - Some Great Minds From the Renaissance to the Eighteenth Century.

Some readers may find it questionable that more than a few pages have been devoted to the lives of religious reformers. I can live with the inclusion of Calvin and Luther on the basis that they were both “great minds”, although not necessarily good; but I was baffled by the inclusion of several pages in the last chapter devoted to John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield. Is there really any place for them in this book to rank alongside Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau etc.? I conclude (and, unlike the author, I am happy to do so) that this is yet another example of the book’s almost total lack of thematic unity. – Robin Carlile

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