and sometimes the small print on that mirror reads, “objects appear larger than they really are.” Disrupting the natural course of history…
…Historians know that at times the change was fuzzier, less immediate, and they tend to seize on the transitional and thereby obscure the cataclysmic- obliterate the surprise. This is partly because, for over the last two centuries, the dramatic changes in belief have not come except through political action- as in the revolution in Russia. This can make us blind, dull our thoughts and feelings, and intensify any surprise that history may have in store for us in the very near future.
One of the reasons the human story possesses, at times, such dramatic and swift changes of course, or appears to as we look back, is that historians, expert in political, military, or diplomatic history, are most at sea with the history of ideas-or rather, with explaining how ideas become social attitudes. Take two situations: the rise of science and the abolition of slavery. Both are astonishing and totally at variance with what at the time appeared to be the natural course of history.
The ancient Greeks, the even more ancient Babylonians, the Hindus, Muslims, and Chinese, all produced mathematicians of great skill, observers of physical phenomena of great exactitude, and technological inventors of great ingenuity. Archimedes for example, with his screw. The Greeks also produced a philosophy of science. Still, apart from the effects of technological invention, the impact on society was small. No one thought that the scientific attitude could explain the physical universe, or the nature of man. Science was, even in seventeenth century Europe, a minor aspect of intellectual life. It would have seemed to a discerning historian in 1650, had they had the facts at their command, that science and technology were likely to play the same part in Europe as they did in imperial China.
The surprising thing about the modern world is not that imperial China never developed a scientific attitude, but that Europe did. And yet, within one hundred years of 1650, a scientific attitude had become a social attitude: scores of men with quite simple education like Josiah Wedgewood, believed with utmost conviction that all things in the physical universe would yield to experiement and be understood in material terms- an attitude that within the next hundred years luxuriated like a weed- with, of course, monumental social consequences in culture and belief.
And yet, how the ideas and attitudes of a handful of intellectuals became, quite suddenly, a powerful social force remains as mysterious as the oracles of Delphi. And we should be astonished by what happened.