The Shape of the New | Scott L. Montgomery

Summary of: The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World
By: Scott L. Montgomery


Welcome to the summary of ‘The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World’ by Scott L. Montgomery. In this riveting account, we explore the origins of four transformative ideas that have significantly shaped the modern era. These ideas are the free market by Adam Smith, the communist utopia by Karl Marx, evolution and natural selection by Charles Darwin, and American democracy courtesy of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. We also delve into a broader perspective on the roots of modern thinking – the European Enlightenment – and its counter-movement, the Counter-Enlightenment. Get ready to embark on a fascinating historical journey, filled with captivating insights into the influential ideas that have sculpted the world we live in today.

The Four Ideas That Shaped Modern History

An individual’s thoughts and beliefs have the potential to influence society and change the world. In the 17th to 19th centuries, several intellectuals introduced ideas that had significant consequences for modern times. The ideas that predominantly stand out include Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which presented a modern capitalist view of the free market. Additionally, Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism inspired the 20th century’s communist revolutions. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species offered a non-religious perspective of natural selection and human existence, and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton laid the foundation for modern democracy post-American Revolution.

The Counter-Enlightenment

The book dives into the European Enlightenment Movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, which brought about a sharp break with classical and medieval ways of thinking. Enlightenment intellectuals trusted reason and empiricism to observe human knowledge and considered the natural world to be a system that could be understood via experimentation, rather than religious revelation. The emergence of Enlightenment thinking faced strong opposition from those who appealed to religion and tradition, resulting in the rise of ultranationalism, fascism, and religious fundamentalism. The book explores the Counter-Enlightenment, which persists to this day, seeking to dismantle Enlightenment ideals.

The impact of Adam Smith’s ideas on modern economics

Scottish economist Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, highlights how individual liberties are essential to the success of a market economy. Smith’s idea of an “invisible hand” suggests the benefits of letting individuals freely pursue their interests in a self-regulating market. Though many advocates of free-market capitalism perceive only this vision, Smith’s ideas are more nuanced. He described the dangers of monopolies and wealth inequality, advocated for government regulations to support workers, and criticized the dehumanizing aspects of factory work. Although two factions dominate mainstream economics, conservative economists who advocate free-market absolutism and neoclassical synthesis that support government intervention in some cases, both agree that generally, the market works best as a free pursuit. In times of market failure such as the Great Depression, governments stimulate demand through spendingĀ as per the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, who drew from Adam Smith’s ideas. However, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek’s more conservative views became prevalent in the 1970s. Hayek argued for no government control of market operations as they are too complex. His ideas inspired Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and the Tea Party movement. Alan Greenspan’s advocacy for increased deregulation led to the crash of 2008. The book concludes by emphasizing how Adam Smith’s, Karl Marx’s, and Charles Darwin’s ideas, along with those of American democracy’s founders, significantly contributed to the many social, political, and economic changes in the modern world.

The Failed Utopia

Karl Marx’s utopian vision of a communist society led many countries into bloody revolutions and ultimately failed, as he overlooked the possibility of gradual improvement through reforms.

Karl Marx’s vision of a utopian society free of oppression and inequality turned out to be a bloody disaster. In his work, Das Kapital, Marx predicted that a communist revolution was unavoidable and that capitalism would ultimately fall apart. He saw history as a series of epochs, each with its mode of production, such as the slave, feudalism, and capitalism. However, his ideas led to totalitarian regimes, wars, and revolutions that resulted in the deaths of millions of people.

Communism spread to a third of the world, but ultimately it failed, as Marx overlooked the possibility that reformers living in nations subscribing to Enlightenment ideals could improve the lives of ordinary people. Communist revolutions occurred mainly in countries lacking a liberal tradition that promised gradual improvement, such as Russia and China. By the 1990s, many communist regimes had abandoned Marxism.

Marx’s critique predicted that the capitalist mode of production, particularly after the Industrial Revolution, would lead to a series of financial crises, with workers bearing the brunt of the pain through low wages or unemployment. He saw workers eventually revolting and forming a new “ruling class” with a communist mode of production. Then humanity could return to the shared idyllic state, but with the added benefit of modern technology.

However, Marx’s idea of an inevitable communist revolution led nations into bloody revolutions, ultimately resulting in more harm than good, as his purist faith failed to consider the possibility of gradual reforms. Huckabee argues that faiths like communism, like their secular counterparts, fascism, totalitarianism, and Maoism, are inherently deaf, fanatical, and violent. In conclusion, while Marx’s vision was to build a utopian society free of oppression and inequality, his failure to consider possible reforms and gradual changes led to its failure.

Charles Darwin and the Origins of Evolution

Charles Darwin is widely regarded as the father of modern evolutionary theory. His groundbreaking theory of natural selection challenged existing religious beliefs and established evolution as an essential part of science. In “Origin of Species,” Darwin explained how species evolved and adapted over time, based on advantageous traits selected through the struggle for survival. While his theories faced opposition from religious fundamentalists, they also influenced fields far beyond biology and geology, including politics, social theory, and education. Despite the ongoing debate about the origins and purpose of life, Darwin’s legacy continues to shape our understanding of the natural world and our place within it.

The Conflicting Views of Hamilton and Jefferson

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were influenced by Enlightenment ideals. However, they had different ideas about applying them to America’s democracy. Jefferson believed in a small central authority and distributing power among the people, while Hamilton wanted a strong federal government. Both were cautious about concentrating power, but Jefferson feared tyranny and Hamilton didn’t want to give too much power to the uneducated masses. This disagreement between big and small government remains a major issue in American politics today.

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