We are all familiar with history in terms of wars and revolutions, victories and defeats. Yet how much do we know of the ideas that were at the root of these events? In this acclaimed and unprecedented work, historian and archaeologist Peter Watson gives us a new history of the world, by explaining the ideas that have shaped civilisation. From the first stoneflint tools and the earliest languages to the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century, Ideas: A History is a fascinating insight into the development of human thought.
What is the most important human idea of all time? Is it the harnessing of fire, the invention of the wheel, or the concept of God? Peter Watson’s dazzling history of human thought proposes an answer to this and many other questions. To many archaeologists, the most momentous idea is the domestication of plants and animals, which allowed early humans to settle in farming communities, and civilisation to begin. Watson’s fascinating narrative explains the origins of language, the first civilisations, and how the primitive sky gods developed into the great faiths of Hinduism, Confucianism and Judaism. He shows how, unlike other early civilisations, the Greeks focused on the human world, and gave us philosophy, tragedy and comedy, the first naturalistic art, political theory, the beginnings of science and atomic theory, and the first democracy. Watson reveals both why these ideas were born in Greece and nowhere else, and why their legacy is ‘the greatest the world has yet known’.
After the fall of Greece and Rome, learning in Europe stagnated while a host of empires and civilizations flourished elsewhere: in India, China and the Islamic world. What caused the decline of these great civilisations, and why, after the 11th and 12th centuries, did the intellectual focus return to the continent of Europe? In the chapter devoted to this crucial East–West shift, we learn how Europe benefited from the unifying idea of Christianity, and the common language of Latin. When Christianity began to incorporate classical learning, a new and crucial element of secularism was introduced, which would bring about seismic changes in science, philosophy, art and literature.
The history of ideas is, in Peter Watson’s hands, a vivid narrative, filled with colourful incident and brilliant analysis. He shows why the Israelite concept of religion was so revolutionary, and why the crusades were much less influential in the spread of learning than has been supposed. He reveals the true origins of the Italian Renaissance in the economic revolution spearheaded by the Medicis; the reason why Europeans discovered America, and not the other way around; and the impact of great thinkers and scientists such as Copernicus, Newton, Hobbes and Montaigne. In his portrait of 19th-century Germany, where the educated class was turning away from the sphere of political debate, he uncovers the roots both of psychology and of Hitler’s rise to power. With the discovery of evolution, the electron and the unconscious, the stage is set for the turbulent events of the 20th century.
The Folio Society is proud to introduce members to one of the most exciting achievements of the past decade. In this brilliant and widely acclaimed work by historian and archaeologist Peter Watson, thousands of years of human intellectual development are encapsulated in a gripping narrative. Peter Watson’s gift is to make complex ideas, from Neo-platonism to string theory, easy to understand and absorbing to read about. Never before has the history of ideas been explained so clearly or made so fascinating.
PETER WATSON is an author, historian, archaeologist and journalist. He is the author of 18 books including The Death of Hitler and Nureyev, and of many articles for numerous publications. Since 1998 he has been Research Associate at the McDonald Institute of Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.