I’ve been slowly reading The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot. Slowly because it’s too big to carry in my bag on the tube. It’s an intriguing history of the modern world as shaped by – yes – Big Ideas. The authors’ argument is that: “Ideas have been among the primary forces behind modern history during the past three centuries.”
And as Keynes famously said at the close of The General Theory:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” (The quotation is usually shortened but it’s better in full.)
The Shape of The New does though have a distinctive version of the ideas that created our world. The first four chapters cover Adam Smith (morality and self-interest in political economy), Karl Marx (the desire for revolutionary redemption), Charles Darwin (embedding humanity in nature, the scientific method turned on ourselves) and the Jefferson-Hamilton debates (the nature and meaning of democracy). I knew the least about the last of these, so found it particularly interesting. The second half turns to the backlashes: the counter-Enlightenment all the way through to Fascism; and Christian and Muslim counter-reactions to modernity.
As the book concludes, the debates are still live, although of course taking new forms constantly. Those of us who hold Enlightenment values dear have to fight for them.
However, it ends with a bit of a damp squib, the conclusion being that the humanities are essential in higher education, and one of the most important aspects of study should be the history of ideas. I do happen to agree (even in economics), but it’s a rather low key ending to an ambitious and interesting book.