Terrible Beauty: A History of the People & Ideas That Shaped the Modern World by Peter Watson - review by A C Grayling

A C Grayling

A Prodigious Feat

Terrible Beauty: A History of the People & Ideas That Shaped the Modern World


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 640pp £20 order from our bookshop

History is accelerating, chiefly because the growth of knowledge is increasing exponentially, and knowledge is a powerful fuel. Travel, political decisions, the exchange of information, the inception of war, deals and trades in the world’s markets, discoveries in science and medicine and their effects on human societies, all happen so much more rapidly than ever before that it is as if as much history takes place in a contemporary hour as used to unfold in a year or even a decade. As a result, it takes vastly more ink to write a history of modern than of ancient times, and not simply because the amount of available data is greater. Time itself has changed: it has become fuller.

This is even more so when the history in question is not one of kings and wars, but a narrative of ideas in art, science, literature and politics, and their complex interactions. Peter Watson has undertaken just such a project, offering an integrated intellectual history of the twentieth century, ranging across Europe, the Americas and the Far East, and addressing every aspect of development from the ‘hard sciences’ to art and music. Received wisdom has it that if you wish to be boring, leave nothing out; but in a project like Watson’s, nothing can be left out – and the result is fascinating. Terrible Beauty is an encyclopaedic survey of the thinkers and doers responsible for the century’s pyrotechnics of change, giving us vignettes of each along with an account of what their ideas mean and how they influenced each other. It is a book of enormous scope, and one cannot praise too highly the skill Watson displays in keeping the huge story moving forward in balance, never letting the excitement or the interest flag.

Although he rightly regards science as the key to the twentieth century, Watson is just as careful to trace developments in the arts, philosophy, literature and ideology. It now seems hard to believe that, at the century’s beginning, man had yet to manage powered flight, was only just beginning to

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