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Four Ideas That Changed the World

Story by
Peter Kelley

The concepts of freedom, equality, evolution, and democracy lie at the heart of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World.  The new book, by Jackson School of International Studies faculty Daniel Chirot and Scott L. Montgomery, was published in May by Princeton University Press.

How did this book come to be, and how did you two come to take it on together?

Scott Montgomery: The notion emerged from discussions we were having over lunch or dinner about the battles in Congress, fundamentalist religion, major conflicts of the last century, and so on. It became clear to us that ideas were central in each of these contexts — ideas about the role of government and the free market, about the nature and order of the world, about the reasons that drove leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to do what they did, affecting the lives of hundreds of millions.

book jacket for The Shape of the New

"We chose to write about ideas that have been particularly influential on how people have understood the political, economic, religious, and scientific dimensions to modern existence," says Scott Montgomery. Media credit: Rachael Wright

Moreover, most of these ideas weren’t new, though they had been altered from their original expression, adapted to later contexts. So it seemed to us a book exploring these insights would be a good thing to do.

You write that you intend in this book “to pursue a different type of intellectual history…to show that ideas have been among the primary forces behind modern history during the past three centuries.” How did you present this argument to the reader?

Scott Montgomery: Our approach is simple and direct. We chose to write about ideas that have been particularly influential on how people have understood the political, economic, religious, and scientific dimensions to modern existence.

The book has two main parts. In part one, we examine the ideas of Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and also Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. These are ideas related to freedom, equality, democracy and a secular, evolving universe, all of which have become fully global today. Nonetheless, the thought of these individuals can be tied to certain parts of the European Enlightenment. In the first three cases, they appeared in specific writings, such as Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Darwin’s Origin of Species. These are books that have had immense influence and should be studied by every university student, no matter their major. We thus look at these texts in detail, as well as their historical-intellectual roots. We then trace the evolution of their expanding impact down to the present.

In part two of the book, we shift to the major reactions that have played out against the four domains noted above. Such reactions took many forms, leading to much violence in word and deed. To a large degree, they culminated in such authoritarian systems as fascism, Soviet and Maoist communism, and religious fundamentalism in both Islam and Christianity. We borrowed a term from philosopher Isaiah Berlin and called them, collectively, the Counter-Enlightenment. But we make clear, too, that they have their own origin in the more intolerant side of Enlightenment thinking itself.

All of this allows us to make some powerful statements about how large portions of modern history, again not only in the West but globally, are the result of people acting in the name of ideas and arguments that are no less present and powerful today.

...large portions of modern history...are the result of people acting in the name of ideas and arguments that are no less present and powerful today.

Among your conclusions you state, “The humanities, we believe, should expand their subject matter to include major political thinkers in all fields. This means analyzing the philosophical, political, and social ideas of economists, scientists, even mathematicians, not just of philosophers, authors, artists, and social theorists.” What would be the results of such a change in higher education, and in student education?

Scott Montgomery: At the most basic level, it would provide students with a much better intellectual understanding of the world as it really is. How can we comprehend a reality like our hostile, gridlocked Congress, the reasons for the recent global economic crisis, or a phenomenon like ISIS, without looking into the ideas that are driving forces behind them?

That Congress has been, in an important measure, replaying a struggle for the idea of “America” itself first bitterly fought between Jefferson and Hamilton can tell us a great deal. That ideas derived from Adam Smith had a direct role in decisions that helped lead to the financial crisis is well known only by some. And it is impossible to understand the actions of ISIS without knowledge of what is motivating them — knowledge that would also reveal the futility of trying to defeat the threat with military power alone.

In short, there is no substitute for the study, analysis, and critical evaluation of ideas. This is especially true for those ideas that continue to have great influence and that are involved in how leaders, groups, organizations, and nations behave.

Speaking generally, what would you like readers to take away from this book?

Daniel Chirot: Ideas are not just important, but vital. If we fail to understand what ideas govern the modern world, and where they came from, we cannot understand what is going on anywhere. The European Enlightenment, which began as a set of ideas that were anything but widely accepted, eventually triumphed and transformed first the West and then the entire world.

If we don’t educate our college and university students to understand how all this happened, they enter the wider world filled with uninformed prejudices and assumptions whose origins and consequences they barely understand. This not only makes them less able citizens, but also deprives them of necessary guidance in their own political and professional lives. Of course, even those who have long graduated from college, including our elected officials, could profit from such understanding, too.

The interview was first published in UW Today on June 30, 2015.