Reading History: The Enlightenment

Roy Porter on the European concept of Enlightenment.

What is Enlightenment? Immanuel Kant tackled this question back in 1784. If, two hundred years on, historians are still searching for the answer, it is not through sloth, for new works are cascading from the presses – the Voltaire Foundation alone has published hundreds of monographs in the last twenty years. This enthusiasm, however, is fairly recent. In the wake of the Romantics, the nineteenth century damned the Age of Reason, scornfully lampooning the philosophes as Panglossian poseurs, whether impractical idealists like Rousseau, or glib rationalists like Voltaire (an indictment wittily perfected in Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers , Yale University Press, 1932).

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