This is a monumental (984-page) book on a monumental subject: the primarily European intellectual movement running from roughly 1680 to 1790, which sought to increase human happiness through science and reasoning. In the preface, Robertson explains the Enlightenment also represented:
a sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings and more concerned for what we would call humane or humanitarian values. […T]he greatest motive for studying this subject is the awareness that the Enlightenment, though distant in time, remains vitally important. In an age that seems dominated by ‘fake news’, widespread credulity, xenophobia and unscrupulous demagogues, it matters more intensely than even to hold on to reliable knowledge, to be aware of our common humanity, and to pursue the possibility of human happiness.
He’ll get no argument from me, there.
The Enlightenment is a fascinating read. It overturned a number of assumptions I’d made about the period. I was surprised, for example, to discover just how many ‘enlighteners’, as Robertson calls them, seem not to have been atheists; how coffee-houses and salons played only a very minor role in the movement; and how little Enlightenment thinking influenced the American and French revolutions—although it did provide a significant input into the American Constitution.
A few of the many other major topics covered in this book include the Scientific Revolution, religious enlightenment, how enlightenment thinking affected the study of history and human society, and the growth of cosmopolitanism.
I can’t possibly do justice to this massive book in a short review, but, if, like me, you’ve often thought you ought to find out more about this fascinating period in our species’ intellectual development, this is the book for you.