These days, the study of Western Civilization is about as popular as a skunk-drunk MAGA uncle at a family barbecue, but Charles Freeman makes a spirited case for why we should peer backwards in his sumptuous work, "The Reopening of the Western Mind." A John Grisham page-turner this ain't, and yet this variegated history is vital to discerning our institutions, from art to religion to technology to government.

Many of the humanistic ideas that had emerged in ancient Greece and Rome fell beneath the scythe of the Dark Ages (a misnomer coined by the poet Petrarch). By the ascent of Charlemagne in the eighth century, monks were flailing, ignorant of Latin, and dependent on flawed codices as they labored in their chambers, early purveyors of disinformation.

While Charlemagne is the first in a line of figures whose passions and careers revived rigorous standards, other tributaries, from apostates to the expansionist Arabic caliphate, fed the river of medieval thought. Abelard (1079-1142) was arguably the finest logician since Aristotle; his philosophical treatises were ahead of their time, pondering free will, much as neuroscientists do today, and, in proto-linguistic fashion, the suspect relationship between a word and the thing it signifies. "Abelard's championing of doubt was an important moment," Freeman writes. "Progress in knowledge is impossible if conventional thinking is never doubted."

"The Reopening of the Western Mind" picks up velocity once Freeman pivots to the Italian Renaissance; and while this is well trampled ground, he lays out his arguments in dazzling detail. From the 14th to the 16th centuries, Florence saw the rise of public-private partnerships, creation of public spaces, an uptick in primary education for both sexes. His chapter on the construction of the Duomo, Brunelleschi's singular achievement, is worth the price of the hardcover.

Freeman reminds us that strict chronological categories — ancient, medieval, the Enlightenment, even modernity — are fluid rather than sharply demarcated. Ptolemy's declaration that "'only mathematics can provide sure and unshakeable knowledge'" would fit seamlessly into Cormac McCarthy's recent novel, "Stella Maris." The scholar Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) articulated a theory of translation virtually identical to Edith Grossman's "Why Translation Matters" (2010).

And with the spread of vernacular versions of Greek and Latin texts — Dante was a fervent advocate for his own Tuscan dialect — "A much wider reading audience was being catered for, the reader usually 'performing' a text before an audience. (Here was the birth of the audiobook!)"

While the sceptered isle lagged behind the rest of Europe, the Elizabethan era ushered in a potent literature inscribed in its own language, chipping away the walls between socioeconomic classes. Freeman observes of London in the 1600s: "In the major cities coffee houses became new centers of debate. Coffee was cheap and classes could mix together — 'a boatman and a Lord smoke at the table,' as one French visitor observed."

"What's past is prologue," Shakespeare noted; and Freeman connects all the dots in "The Reopening of the Western Mind," opening many doors, many minds, in this meticulous, illuminating book.

Hamilton Cain reviews for a range of venues, including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Brooklyn.

The Reopening of the Western Mind

By: Charles Freeman.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 816 pages, $50.