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The Enlightenment, and Why it Still Matters

By Robert J. Mayhew | Posted 18th June 2013, 14:34
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The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters
Anthony Pagden
Oxford University Press  456pp  £20

There has been a great deal of argument in the past decade about ‘the Enlightenment’. Scholars have argued for one that, spawned of Spinoza’s quill, would form a virulent cell leading to revolution; for another which took on different forms in different places; and for an Enlightenment which, contrary to received wisdom, could be clerical and conservative. Add to that the small group of academics who tend to deny its reality and you have a very cluttered scholarly landscape.

Anthony Pagden’s version of the Enlightenment is in several ways a traditional one. First, it is not many things but a singularity, a shared platform of beliefs which united the scholars of (predominantly) western Europe and the Americas. Second, it is centred on Paris, with subsidiary centres in Scotland, Italy and Germany. Pagden has a clear sense of a core project built in key metropoles: Paris, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and (to a lesser extent) Naples are its incubators. Finally, Pagden’s is a resolutely anti-clerical and a largely anti-Christian Enlightenment, however much some of its protagonists were in holy orders.

Pagden argues that the core platform was scepticism about the irrationalisms of faith and its attempt to build a coherent worldview built around a Godhead who, interpreted by the Church, must be obeyed without question. In its stead, the literati of the 18th century wanted to build a secular science open to scrutiny by rational individuals and grounded in the empirical analysis of human societies across the globe. Such a science would show us how climate, history, war and not God mould societies.

Human science showed that societies progress in their wellbeing and values from savages to civility. In that progress, the development of sympathy for one’s fellow beings was a key quality and one which could lead towards the goal of the Enlightenment project, a cosmopolitan society sharing legal and cultural values, which would engender mutual global peace and prosperity.

Pagden’s study is especially important in two regards. First, the book is especially strong on the ancient groundings of so many Enlightenment discussions. The denizens of the 18th century routinely read and thought through ancient exemplars and Pagden’s familiarity with this material guides the reader through these areas in a way most general treatments do not. Second, Pagden is keen to assert the contemporary relevance of the Enlightenment project. The world of Voltaire, Hume et al may lie two centuries in the past, but for Pagden the lines of descent from them to modern liberalism, the efforts of the United Nations and the frameworks of international law are direct and easy to detect. Here, however, Pagden seems less at ease, more keen to assert than to demonstrate these claims. He is surely aware that it would take another book to plot those lines with the requisite rigour.

Pagden writes beautifully and he has a wonderful eye for apt quotations, many of which eloquently capture the spirit of the Enlightenment literati. In the end, then, this is a stylish, traditional version of its subject matter. While I doubt that opponents or supporters of Pagden’s conception of the Enlightenment will find much to change their opinions, much to make them break ranks and convert one way or the other, this book does keep what Michael Oakeshott called ‘the conversation of mankind’ going, encouraging us to revisit the Enlightenment and to rethink our debts to it. To the extent that the Enlightenment was all about replacing conflict with cosmopolitan conversation, then, Pagden’s book both depicts and embodies those values.

Robert J. Mayhew is the author, most recently, of a study of Thomas Robert Malthus, to be published by Harvard.


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