Book review: ‘The Enlightenment’ by John Robertson

The Enlightenment

I’ve always struggled to get my head around what precisely was meant by the Enlightenment. To me, it means a period in the eighteenth century, in which intellectuals tried to be a bit more, well, enlightened. It speaks to me of science, and networking, and the idea of progress—including a gradual abandonment of religion, and the adoption of more secular thought. But it was never clear to me whether how I thought of the Enlightenment was consistent with how everyone else thinks of it. So, when I saw Oxford University Press’s short introduction to this very subject, I thought it was time to find out once and for all what the Enlightenment was all about.

It turns out my general confusion was far more reasonable than I’d imagined. As Michael J Benson explains in this rather high-brow, and often difficult-to-understand ‘introduction’, the concept of the Enlightenment meant different things to different people at the time, and has evolved to mean different things to different people today. Benson goes to great lengths to explain the different takes on the concept, making a particular distinction between what it meant (and means) to philosophers, and what it means to historians. As a person who is neither, however, I found his early description of the Enlightenment as “a distinct intellectual movement of the 18th century, dedicated to the better understanding, and thence practical advancement, of the human condition on this earth” a useful one-line summary.

Benson clearly knows his subject inside-out, and his writing is necessarily succinct. At times, however, it becomes so succinct as to be incomprehensible to the lay-person. Well, to this lay-person, at least. Here’s an example (from p.54):

In the Catholic intellectual world, meanwhile, the problem of sociability came to the fore by another route. The catalyst was the Lettres Provinciales (1657) by Blaise Pascal (1623–62). Inspired by rigourist Augustinian theology, the Provinciales were a scathingly ironic attack on the moral casuistry and missionary compromises of the Jesuits. Insisting on the passion-driven concupiscence of the fallen man, Pascal effectively denied the capacity of natural law, or of its ancient philosophical progenitor, Stoicism, to render and keep men sociable. But if the Fall had made natural sociability impossible, how then did men manage to live in societies? [ …]

(No, me neither.)

Such personal cluelessness aside, I did, however, particularly enjoy Benson’s chapter on ‘Enlightening the public’. This was more in line with what I looking for from this book: a description of how Enlightenment ideas were communicated to the public by way of coffee houses, the printed word, literary salons, and so on.

A useful but difficult book.

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