Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought

By Crane Brinton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
A NEW COSMOLOGY

The Agents of Enlightenment

With the eighteenth century the intellectual historian finds himself faced with a difficulty that faces all historians of the last few centuries: He is overwhelmed with materials. You can make exhaustive lists of medieval thinkers; and a conscientious scholar could master, or at least read, all the Greek and Roman writings that have survived. But with the invention of printing, with the proliferation of writers of all sorts who could be supported by a society with increasing command over its material environment, the mass of writings in all fields is too much for any single scholar, and indeed for any organized company of scholars. Moreover, there seems to be an increasing range of taste and opinion. A process like that which multiplied Protestant sects multiplies opinions of all sorts in all fields of noncumulative knowledge; and cumulative knowledge continues to pile up in something like geometric progression. Now possibly this range and complexity can be explained by the printing press and good rag paper (unlike our modern newspapers, which will disintegrate into unusable shape in less than half a century, even the periodical and fugitive writings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries have survived in full legibility). The Middle Ages may have been as many-minded as our own. But we have to go by what we have, and what we have is -- well, all but a tiny fraction of the over eleven million books and pamphlets in the Library of Congress were published since 1700.

Our generalizations must, then, be based on but a small sampling of the immense amount of information available. We cannot even pay as much attention to the great seminal minds as we have been able to pay hitherto, for we must concentrate on ideas as they get to work among the nameless many. We can but suggest that the reader go himself to the work of the men and women who put the last touches on our intellectual inheritance, who gave our Western culture its characteristic modern

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