Ideas

A History from Fire to Freud

Peter Watson

I picked this hefty 1000-pager up a few years ago. I’m not sure it would have caught my attention if it wasn’t for the subtitle. A vast “history of ideas” just seems dry and daunting. “From Fire to Freud” does accurately describe the book’s scope (Watson doesn’t venture far into the 20th century), but it also brackets the project with subjects that resonate richly in the imagination. Iced with good alliteration, and you’ve a subtitle that turns a dull prospect into an exciting one.

That said, it sat on my shelves for a long time before I plucked up the resolve to tackle it. It zips along, though. Especially early on, when you’re zooming through millennia each chapter. Actually, I was slightly disappointed with Watson’s prehistory. On the one hand, he seemed in a bit of a rush to get to the “real” stuff, i.e. the things like monotheism and science that have most drastically shaped our current world. On the other hand, there was a bit of cognitive dissonance in finding the “goddess scholarship” of people like Marija Gimbutas folded into the narrative without much critical attention. Part of me felt this to be refreshing, especially given the recent tendency towards “over-correction” in debunking such ideas. But even I don’t take such stuff on board these days without caveats. In such a broad survey, the tendency is naturally, and for good reason, towards a slight conservatism of opinion, so bits like this seemed odd.

I relished the “Axial Age”, the formation of the world’s great religions, classical Greece; also other crucial eras such as the Renaissance. I’ve absorbed history over the years without a tremendous grasp of how all the bits fit together, so this was a good work-out for my wide-perspective vision (surely one of the major aims of this kind of writing). But also it’s fantastic to get digestible run-downs of other hugely important, but typically down-played (in the West) times and places in the history of ideas: especially early science in Islam, India and China.

In all, if you’ve the time, this is a fantastic book—a real achievement on Watson’s part, often a delight to read, and a juicy addition to recent attempts to take everything in.