When I see books with titles like Ideas That Changed the World I have one main reaction: Suspicion. That suspicion increases when the book is filled with splashy photos and sidebars full of soundbite-sized analysis. In the hands of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, author of Millennium and an acclaimed history of food, the genre is a success. Focusing on ideas that have offered “new ways of envisioning the big picture,” the book ranges from a discussion of cannibalism and black magic to notion of America as the “Great Satan,” the idea of genetic manipulation, and the concept of the world as “global village.” In between, he ranges over ideas concerning astronomy, physics, social relations, magic, philosophy, chemistry, sex, labor-management, race, the atomic bomb, redistribution of wealth, and much more. Surprisingly in a book of this sort, theological ideas are given due consideration, including Christian doctrines of Trinity, incarnation, the Augustinian doctrine of grace, and real presence. Each “idea” is given only a two-page summary, but Fernandez-Armesto lists several books for further study and cross-references other articles in the book. Current historiography concentrates more on how the world changes ideas than the opposite, but, while Fernandez-Armesto does not think that historical events have single simple causes, he starts from the sensible assumption that human imagination is at least as significant a factor in historical change as control of the means of production or material causes. This brief but impressively encyclopedic survey of intellectual history serves as a sustained argument for that very premise.

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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