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Please excuse me while I do a little happy dance over finishing The Crisis of the European Mind by Paul Hazard

What to say about a book that covers European intellectual history from 1680-1715? Judging from all my page points there is a lot and I’d like to tell you about some of the fascinating things I learned but I will save specifics for another post or two.

What I will say today is that this is a heady book. It is not a hard or complicated read nor is it slow, ponderous and dull. It moves along at a good clip and is filled with Hazard’s delightful wit and sarcasm. But it also requires attention and regular and sustained reading. I had a hard time at first because there are breaks within the chapters and I would stop reading there and not get back to the book for a few days. Bad, bad, bad. I’d find I had lost the thread and would have to go back a page or two and reread to pick it up again. Far better to read in chapter chunks. The chapters can be long though so I had to make sure to not let more than a day pass before getting back to it.

What Hazard does in this book is really interesting. He aims to show all the elements that lead into the Enlightenment period, how they were brewing long before the period and from what quarters they were bubbling up. It is ambitious. Does he succeed? Mostly.

I am not an expert on the period, my assessment comes from whether I feel like I know more about it now than I did before. And I do. I haven’t quite connected all the dots yet though. That’s where Hazard sort of slips. There is so much going on at once in so many different countries that no matter how the book is organized it would make for some difficulties. Hazard chose to not use chronology but more of a general and broad view of religion, politics, science, philosophy, art and literature. And because of this I can’t say what ideas came up first or were circulating at the same time in the different areas of thought. I can generally see how they influenced each other but that’s about it. A dated timeline would have been most helpful. If I had known of that fact early on I could have made my own timeline as I went along.

Hazard is strong on his analysis of philosophy, science and religion, weak on politics and literature.

What was really interesting was looking at ideas in their infancy that were later more fully developed in the Enlightenment period and that influenced Thomas Jefferson and other American founders. Also fascinating was how some of the things people argued about then we are still arguing about today, specifically in matters of religion and science and the role of each in society. One would hope that we might have progressed in our thinking over all this time, come to some conclusions or at least a balance. Nope. We still struggle with the same issues especially when it comes to making a god of science.

If you find yourself in the mood for a good history book that doesn’t have to do with Kings and Queens and wars and peace but ideas, then this is the book to go to. Now I am going to go see if I can’t put together some particular thoughts on particular moments in the book to share in another post or two.

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