Now We Can See

The rays of Enlightenment have varied sources.

‘The Prayer of Voltaire’, French, 18th century © Bridgeman Images.

In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus defied the Gods and brought fire to mankind. He saved man from darkness, but paid for it cruelly: fastened to a rock, every day an eagle would consume his liver, which would regrow overnight. Millennia later, he would become, in the 18th century, a symbol of a radical new movement of scholarship, belief and philosophy. French and German writers described this intellectual illumination as an age of lumières or Aufklärung; in the late 19th century, the English language canonised it as the ‘Enlightenment’. Despite what the name suggests, the Enlightenment was not one cathartic moment, a revelation that could be pinned down conveniently to a seminal event. It was a gradual transformation of societal thought, liberated from the tyrannies of ancient norms and institutions that dictated what one should think and how.

In his masterful book, Ritchie Robertson provides a comprehensive overview of the intellectual landscape underpinning the Enlightenment. It is a momentous accomplishment, for, as the author emphasises throughout, this was a highly diverse school of thought, developing for over a century, in virtually all fields of knowledge. There was no single Enlightenment message: instead it was a cacophony of voices, speaking and writing in all the languages of Europe. There were great figures, many of whom are still familiar today, whose names were honoured in salons from Portugal to Austria and France to Sweden. Diderot, Voltaire and Kant were household names, but Robertson argues for a varied, inclusive and rather unhierarchical image of the Enlightenment: one in which French bishops, English jurists and German poets, most of whom are now long forgotten, participated in equal measure. These men, and some women, did not necessarily know each other, or even read each other’s work; they may have argued in contradiction to one another, or worked in entirely different fields. 

In this loose pan-European Enlightenment, one can identify three main strands that united the agendas of its adherents: scientific curiosity, driven largely by empiricism and experiment; a philosophical yearning for inner happiness, freed from the imaginary terrors of hell and the more real terrors of death and institutional oppression; and practical improvement of human society, in fields like education, public health, agriculture and crime. Their common ground was located in polite society: in the obligation of intellectual exchange at learned societies and salons and through correspondence and publication in journals.

In writing this book, Robertson faced the formidable challenge of engaging with the mountain that is Enlightenment scholarship. As his copious endnotes attest, he is not the first to grapple with the development and the meaning of the movement. He has nevertheless produced an original, engaging and exhaustive account, achieved chiefly by relying, for much of his material, on the era’s literary output. Robertson’s engagement with the treatises, plays, novels and letters published by the leading lights of the period allows him to sketch out in fine detail the development of intellectual trends. The sources provide a richness that brings the 18th century to life, but they also allow Robertson to highlight aspects of the Enlightenment that often go unmentioned. Space is devoted to emphasising the importance of emotion and sensibility to 18th-century philosophy, through a close look at the steady rise of dramatic fiction as a literary genre. Another fine chapter focuses on the Enlightenment movement within the European churches; this was not a debate dominated by atheists, or those who despised the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but often led by those with high-ranking positions within the institutional church. It was only when certain Enlightenment ideals were taken to their extreme that notable figures, such as Joseph II of Austria, wrought havoc on monasteries and religious life.

The thematic approach and the strong emphasis on a broad, decentralised Enlightenment does mean that it remains difficult at times to follow the relative state of Enlightenment in different European regions. Voltaire’s much-lauded advocacy of toleration in the middle of the 18th century focused on the situation in France; in practice, many of his ideals had long been prevalent elsewhere in Europe, including the Netherlands, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire. Although it is tricky to identify, an almost unspoken, canonical Enlightenment does lurk somewhere in the book: occasionally the author expresses surprise when certain critical thinkers do not seem to follow the norm, such as Kant’s stance against the legitimisation of suicide. What becomes clear is that 18th-century thinkers bickered as much about the Enlightenment as modern scholars do today. Diderot described his friend, Didier-François de Montamy as being:

as well informed as any man I know and as sensible and prudent in his actions … he goes to mass without placing much faith in it, but laughs up his sleeve at the jokes that are made against it, hopes for the resurrection of the soul, and in general is a bundle of contradictory ideas which make his conversation very entertaining.

A critical issue that is inadequately addressed in Robertson’s telling and represents its major flaw, is how widely Enlightenment ideas were disseminated through the population at large. The author acknowledges that some Enlightenment figures, such as Spinoza, were better known than read, but the actual exchange of ideas, the circulation of texts and the popularity of key philosophical books is not addressed. When further detail is offered, as on Pierre Bayle’s landmark Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, it becomes clear that this was an extremely dense, convoluted and complex work, partially unintelligible even to many other philosophers. Voltaire, whose satirical pen was the terror of those who crossed his path, considered that only great thinkers should dabble with atheism and that it was a concept too complicated for ordinary people. The reader warms more to Robertson’s subtle account than to the arrogance of many of his subjects. The willingness of scholars to accept Enlightenment authors on their own terms, rather than probe the contemporary impact of their views, remains a major blind spot of Enlightenment studies. Voltaire may have been the most widely read Enlightenment thinker, but even he could not compete with the popularity of religious primers and prayer books.

Ruminating on the distribution and reception of Enlightenment thought is essential, because these aspects ultimately define the success and the legacy of the movement. They also help navigate the complex relationship between the political revolutions at the end of the 18th century and the principles of the Enlightenment. Robertson is keen to stress that the French Revolution was not a direct result of Enlightenment thought. On the whole, Enlightenment thinkers appear as poor friends of the mob; Kant famously argued for the freedom of thought, but against the freedom of expression, if this happened to contradict the dictat of the Prussian king. His often repeated pronouncement that Enlightenment means having ‘the courage to use your own intellect’ holds up, but it remains unclear how most people in the 18th century received this message: how were they taught to use their own intellect? Perhaps the ideological violence of the French Revolution can be interpreted best as bastardised Enlightenment thought, a consequence of the failure of Enlightenment thinkers to take their knowledge to the people.

This issue becomes especially pertinent when Robertson injects a contemporary agenda, musing on the 21st-century prevalence of fake or false news. Yet, to solve our current ills, we need to understand how the ideals of the Enlightenment filter from the pens of their advocates to the rest of society: the people responsible for its norms and values, its media and its politicians. In this our age is no different from the 18th century.

The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790
Ritchie Robertson
Allen Lane 984pp £40

Arthur der Weduwen is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of St Andrews.