TCS Daily

Living in the Seventeenth Century

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - October 1, 2003 12:00 AM

Like half the other geeks in the world, I just finished reading Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver. This won't be a review -- you can read those here and here and, of course, here. The book has also already inspired this collaborative web-annotation that fleshes out the book's history, and helps readers separate fact from, er, invention. All I'll say is that it's not Cryptonomicon, but it's good, I enjoyed it, and I look forward to the sequel.


Stephenson's book, though, is part of a growing number of books about the seventeenth century that have appeared recently. On the nonfiction side there are such works as, James Gleick's biography of Isaac Newton (Gleick's treatment of Newton is far more sympathetic than Stephenson's) and Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (which must have been divinely inspired, because it was written by a committee, and yet it's written well). On the fiction side, there are books like Eric Flint's popular series beginning with 1632, a time-travel story that puts modern American
ideas in head-to-head competition with those from, well, 1632.


So I think it's fair to say that the seventeenth century, and its ideas, are getting more attention nowadays. And that's interesting, because the seventeenth century has always been a bit of an also-ran as centuries go: too late to be part of the age of knights and chivalry, too early for the age of steam-engines and Napoleonic warfare. You got a lot more King Arthur on one side, and Horatio Hornblower on the other, than you did of the stuff in the middle.


Yet our time is probably more like the seventeenth century than the eighteenth. In the seventeenth century, modern science was just beginning. Thoughtful men (and a few thoughtful women) could look ahead and see that the future was likely to be very different -- but the precise fashion in which it was to be different was far from clear. Occultism still fought it out with science -- even within the minds of the era's brightest individuals, such as Isaac Newton, as both Stephenson and Gleick note. Developments that would revolutionize the future, like calculus and celestial navigation, were still embryonic. Similarly, today we're on the verge of scientific breakthroughs, like nanotechnology, that we know will be big, but whose consequences we can't predict, even as Deepak Chopra and his ilk sell far too many books.


But though books about Isaac Newton tend to focus on scientific developments, one of the biggest changes brought about by the seventeenth century -- and one of the most ignored, especially by Americans -- was the wave of political change that it produced. In  fact, the American Constitution, commonly thought of as an eighteenth-century document (since that's when it was drafted, after all) is really a document infused by seventeenth century ideas and experiences.


The English Civil Wars -- also something of which most Americans are disappointingly ignorant -- prefigured almost all the unfortunate political events that Europe has experienced since: rule by powerful dictators (Cromwell), mass executions (all sides), efforts to disarm the populace and terrorize them with standing armies, the relegation of many businesses to government-dominated monopoly, religious persecution, informers, Star Chamber prosecutions (not just a figure of speech then, but literally involving the Court of the Star Chamber) and so on.


After the Glorious Revolution and the passage of the English Bill of Rights in 1689, the memory of these events waned in England, and lost much of its influence by the latter half of the 18th Century. But so many Americans were descended from those who had fled the tumult in England that the memories of these problems remained much fresher on this side of the Atlantic, and the United States Constitution was the result of their effort to ensure that nothing like that happened again, by limiting the sphere of government, and bolstering the power -- economic, political, and physical -- of citizens as a check on abuses.


Those seventeenth-century ideas, as implemented in the eighteenth century, have served the United States well, as Neal Stephenson wrote in another book, In the Beginning Was the Command Line:


The twentieth century was one in which limits on state power were
removed in order to let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they
screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir...
We Americans are the only ones who didn't get creamed at some point
during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have
inherited political and value systems fabricated by a particular set
of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But
we have lost touch with those intellectuals.


Despite the passage of, well, centuries -- or perhaps because the passage of centuries has made it easy to forget them -- the lessons of the seventeenth century, and the experiences of the intellectuals who learned them are likely to have special relevance today. I suspect that Stephenson's goal is, in part, to put us back in touch with those intellectuals. And that seems like a good idea.


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