Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud

by Peter Watson
824 pages,
ISBN: 029760726X

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Developing Man
by Patrick Watson

At a crucial point in the education of the boy called The Wart, who will become King Arthur, in T. H. White's enchanting novel The Sword in the Stone (1938), the great magician Merlin takes his pupil on a magical visual tour of the history of the universe. It is a kind of high speed film-in-the-mind, in which they watch the blackness of the void producing gases, then nebulae, then stars, one of which spins off flaming planets. The image closes in on the third planet as it cools, throwing off a satellite in the process. Mountains heave up out of the boiling lava, clouds cover the globe and thin out to reveal the rain, that has formed the oceans, still falling.
Then we are actually in the oceans, witnessing the first formless shapes that evolve into swimming creatures. One of these creatures grows legs and walks out onto the shore, transforming as it goes into a series of animals, and eventually into a man. Another man appears. And, in one of the few dark moments in this whole brilliantly written romp through the Arthurian legends, the first man picks up a spear and kills the second.
Peter Watson's similarly high-speed whiz through the history of ideas begins approximately where Merlin's ends, except that Watson takes time to drive us briskly through the details of most of the ideas he deals with, and takes over 700 pages to do so. Nonetheless he gives the reader a breathless sense of whirling through vast layers of time, place, and ingenuities, with fascinating side-trips into implications, corollaries, and conflicting interpretations. It is a narrative encyclopaedia of invention and discovery, often illuminating, occasionally even breathtaking with insights and perceptions, but, in one crucial respect excruciatingly remote from T. H. White's magical tour.
For while White was a writer of elegance, wit and grace,Watson is excruciatingly sloppy. And he has not been rescued by his editor. Perhaps he did not have an editor. If he did have one, it was some semi-literate who permitted errors by the dozen, page after page of irritatingly ill-structured stuff, and a number of maddeningly ambiguous sentences.
Here are some samples: In referring to the tool-making accomplishments of the Neanderthals, Watson writes: "If they never managed to conquer the cold, whereas modern man did, this could be due to the invention of the needle . . . " Well, we can figure out what he meant, after stopping for a moment, and going ahead a few lines and then checking back, but how did this piece of ineptitude get through?
Here is another: ". . . the Hebrew language . . . has . . . no fully expressed vowels." This time I guess most of us know what he means (written Hebrew does not display the vowels), but alas he does not say that, and such carelessness is common throughout the book.
In fact, Ideas is riddled with mistakes that will make an even moderately knowledgeable reader wonder if anybody actually read it through before it went to the printer. Examples: Queens University (one of whose professors is frequently cited) is located in Toronto; Lao Tzu's great and famous work, the Tao Te Ching, is called-wait for this-the Lao Tzu (page 121, check it out); autopsies (first used for medical study in ancient Greece) are, in the same sentence, referred to as "vivisections".
Professor Watson loves to show off with Latin words and phrases, but one begins to distrust him when he gives sapentia instead of sapientia (wisdom). Like many ill-read speakers and some writers he uses 'fortuitous' to mean 'fortunate', and 'comprise' when he needs 'compose', and one of his more outrageous goofs comes when he is talking about the role of the clergy and tries to show off his learning by calling them 'the clerisy'-an archaic and happily forgotten word which means not the religious, but scholars.
Every reader will, of course , find a favourite idea-or perhaps many-left out of this book. I think it very strange that there is nothing on melancholy, grief, sorrow, mourning. These are concepts and experiences that have engendered some of the world's great literature, and probably contribute to making life tolerable for many if not most of us (as well as supporting the immense funeral industry). But while Robert Burton did 800 words about these themes, still in print after almost 400 years, Professor Watson does not even pause to reflect on their existence. Another example: Henry VIII of England is noted as a great Catholic, named Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo, and yet there is not a single sentence about that same King's role in bringing about the English Protestant Reformation.
And yet, despite its provocative failings, this remains a terrific book. The range is astonishing. There will be unexpected substance and insights for almost every reader. And, of course, there is always that engaging challenge of trying to see if one can come up with something of consequence that has been left out.
Watson effectively begins with the moment at which the protohumans began to walk on two feet, and with the earliest tools, a few thousand years before the harnessing of fire, despite the subtitle. And although it may seem a bit of a stretch to consider the bipedal stance as an idea, he leads us to imagine that these early adventurers of the genus homo may have, in some way, reflected upon the bipedal posture, which I guess would give it the status of an idea. In any case, walking upright is so rapidly followed by the invention of tools that it seems undeniably to have been part of the process of a wider awareness.
The control of fire arrives some time after tools, and I learned to my surprise that iron comes before any metal is smelted; that is, maybe not before fire, exactly, but before iron is put to the fire, because early toolmakers found iron from meteorites and made ornaments with it, and perhaps early tools.
Unless the reader has been paying close attention to archaeology, finding the whole story inside one set of covers like this brings some lovely surprises about the antiquity of great ideas. Those great and exquisitely beautiful cave paintings go back 60,000 years. I would not have guessed them to be so old. The first wheel and axle turn up (in Zurich) in the 4th millennium BCE, the first codes of law around 1700 BCE (Hammurabai). And Watson's great sweep through human development-from vertical walking to tools, weapons, dwellings, clothing, speech, war, a god in the sky, the bow, the sling, the mace, numbers, individualism, property, the codification of language, national boundaries, the immortal soul, quantification (and accuracy!)-includes myriad unexpected side trips and extras.
Other discoveries: banking (in the 13th C of the 'Common Era'), libraries, clocks, secularism, conspicuous consumption. Electricity is discovered fairly late (1729), and oxygen even later (1774). The tales attached to all of these discoveries, even if you already have them stored somewhere in your old memory, are great tales. He may be sloppy as a writer, but the Professor identifies and tells some powerful stories.
I'm going to single out a couple of these: While acknowledging that humans have somewhat arbitrarily given the number three a cardinal and almost mystical primacy, Watson identifies what are for him the three most important ideas that we have come up with. They are "The Soul", "Europe", and "The Experiment"-this last, he argues, being the greatest of all.
The soul we can accept as a great idea; that's easy. And yet, this is a writer of steely secularism and unconcealed contempt for the way in which the Christian clergy have throughout so much of history systematically resisted inquiry and liberty in their quest for power (I shall deal with one of his important exceptions presently). Initially, therefore, it seems a bit odd that he names "The Soul" as the first of the great ideas. But his account of how the idea of the soul leads to the consideration of the mind, of the nature of the idea itself, of individualism and moral obligation-all this makes for fascinating reading. The idea of the soul, Watson persuades us, has had a vast effect on human perception and behaviour. One ends up ready to agree that it is one of the vastly consequential ideas.
The third, and for him the most important idea, is "The Experiment"-almost an enemy of the indemonstrable notion of "The Soul". Watson argues convincingly that the experiment is not only the underpinning of science but the single most important weapon for independence from the tyranny of religious authority, and an essential tool in the building of democracy and indeed all genuine social goods.
But now, "Europe", as the second of the Great Ideas, is more difficult to grasp. Calling it "an idea", suggests that some people sat down somewhere at some point and said, "Let's make a Europe". However, once you begin to follow Watson's tramp through the grounds of circumstance that build what becomes this Europe thing, you find yourself nodding in at least partial agreement. It's an intriguing argument. The tribes composed of linguistically homogeneous groups that coalesce into nationhood have found their way north and west into lands that are extremely fertile in the growing season, but habitable only if people develop tools, furniture, and heated dwellings and workspace to get through the cold winter.
Regrettably, Watson ignores the crucial role of the now vulnerable Gulf Stream in making Europe habitable to begin with. But he does call our attention to the layout of the rivers of Europe, large and important numbers of which run north-south, thereby encouraging travel and trade across a number of climate zones, each with its own saleable agricultural particularities. Europeans make huge advances in shipbuilding and navigation, connecting the great seas with the inland cities (and with the offshore Britons.) These are people who began their cultural Odyssey heavily laden with tribal superstitions, hereditary imperatives, and a social cohesion largely based upon fear and hatred of Others. But the lure of moving up or down river to see what may be traded with the tribes who live there starts to modify those tribal absolutes and superstitions. Credit and banking make their appearance. The clock is invented, and people come up with the idea of having hours of equal length, and setting standards regarding the work day and the calendar.
The Church, a negative force in so many ways as it matures, spreads Latin and gives the would-be traders a common language. For nearly two centuries the Cathedrals of Paris become the single most important educational institutions on the continent. This part is one of the best in the book. Unlike the withdrawn and exclusive monasteries, the Cathedrals were built in cities, to attract thousands of worshippers. And they employed thousands of workers. The guilds were all involved. At Chartres, each guild wanted its own stained glass window. Ordinary citizens, children, merchants, clergy and nobles began to congregate around the growing marvel that was slowly becoming their cathedral. Soon it became clear that the century-long work on that cathedral would be made easier if these people were better educated. Latin classes were started, drawing in the brighter of the poor kids. Libraries were built. As people learned to read, they wanted to know more, not just about Latin and composing hymns and interpreting scripture, but about law and medicine, about arguing and analysing and "natural history". The classes expanded to hold as many as 300 students-in a single class-in those church and cathedral schools of Paris.
Ironically, this came out of the same Catholic Church, which, in its ruthless transformation into The Power Structure of the West, had closed down all inquiry and brought us the dark ages from about the 5th to the 10th centuries CE. By the 13th century, learning and the arts were in flower again, the Renaissance was gathering momentum, and the invention of Protestantism became inevitable.
And so, while the reader's journey through this remarkable book entails stumbles and irritations every few pages, the journey is more often than not compelling, even as it cruises into matters of relatively recent memory, among them the atomic and other scientific discoveries of the last century.
It is a commonplace in book reviews these days that the computer has wrecked editing, and that fine book after fine book is marred, like this one, by editorial inattention. Ideas is also weakened by an anaemic index. We can expect, however, that this big and heavy tome will go through quite a few editions, and that Peter Watson, who will by now have been mercilessly teased by his colleagues about Queens University in Toronto, and about that book called the Lao Tzu, will insist that his publishers engage an editor who is as bright as, and almost as widely read as he is. So if you wait for the paperback, you'll probably be spared a lot of the trash.
But I'm not sure you should wait.

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