How four revolutionary ideas from the Enlightenment shaped today's world
This panoramic book tells the story of how revolutionary ideas from the Enlightenment about freedom, equality, evolution, and democracy have reverberated through modern history and shaped the world as we know it today.
A testament to the enduring power of ideas, The Shape of the New offers unforgettable portraits of Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx—heirs of the Enlightenment who embodied its highest ideals about progress—and shows how their thoughts, over time and in the hands of their followers and opponents, transformed the very nature of our beliefs, institutions, economies, and politics. Yet these ideas also hold contradictions. They have been used in the service of brutal systems such as slavery and colonialism, been appropriated and twisted by monsters like Stalin and Hitler, and provoked reactions against the Enlightenment's legacy by Islamic Salafists and the Christian Religious Right.
The Shape of the New argues that it is impossible to understand the ideological and political conflicts of our own time without familiarizing ourselves with the history and internal tensions of these world-changing ideas. With passion and conviction, it exhorts us to recognize the central importance of these ideas as historical forces and pillars of the Western humanistic tradition. It makes the case that to read the works of the great thinkers is to gain invaluable insights into the ideas that have shaped how we think and what we believe.
University of Washington professors Montgomery (international studies) and Chirot (Russian and Eurasian studies) look at three thinkers and ideas that represent "Enlightenment liberalism": Adam Smith's "invisible hand"; Karl Marx's "dialectical materialism"; and Charles Darwin's "natural selection." The fourth idea is presented as an ongoing debate, which originated with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, on the virtues of centralized versus decentralized government. After a clear presentation of these ideas, their evolution, and distortions, the authors turn to "secular and religious reactions against the Enlightenment." The prominent movements of anti-modernism include Christian and Islamic fundamentalism as well as fascism, with its "admiration of violence and direct action," focus on "the mythic origins of the nation," and "worship of a heroic national leader." The strongest chapter addresses Christian fundamentalism in relation to contemporary American politics. The authors also offer a clear exposition of the Islamic fundamentalist thinker Sayyid Qutb, which is particularly helpful in understanding the intellectual roots of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The book sometimes covers too much too quickly, but it is a solid, idea-rich examination of how formative 18th- and 19th-century ideas germinated into the belief systems that have governed the 20th and 21st centuries.