On 1 November 1755 an earthquake in Lisbon, followed by fire and floods, killed between thirty and sixty thousand people. The disaster, all the preachers said, was God’s punishment for sinfulness. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw it as divine vengeance for the cruelties of the Portuguese Inquisition. He had identified a minor earthquake near a racecourse in Yorkshire as another such intervention: God ‘purposely chose such a place, where there is so great a concourse of nobility and gentry every year’. In December 1797, a belief in divine control of human events led George III to order a general thanksgiving for recent British naval victories. One preacher who took part thanked God for whipping up a gale at a key moment, thereby thwarting a Dutch landing of ten thousand men on the coast of Scotland. No doubt he convinced his congregation. But by this time many people were starting to feel that gales, like earthquakes, had natural causes.
This shift in opinion is one of the subjects of Ritchie Robertson’s capacious book on the Enlightenment. Nearly a thousand pages long, cogently expressed and scrupulously documented, it examines the new concern in 18th-century Europe with abandoning false beliefs, particularly those disseminated by the clergy or relating to the supernatural. The aim was to arrive at an understanding of the world based not on received authority but on a combination of reason and empirical observation. Robertson reminds us that when a Berlin pastor asked Immanuel Kant in 1784, ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ (‘What is enlightenment?’), Kant answered that it was the process of growing up, achieving intellectual independence and thinking for oneself (Selbstdenken). Its motto was: ‘Sapere aude!’ ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding!’
By that time the growing up had long been underway. Any account of the origins of the Enlightenment has to take in two of the most fiercely independent intellectuals of the 17th century, Hobbes and Spinoza, both of whom challenged accepted verities. Spinoza was ostracised by the Jewish community in Amsterdam for his supposed atheism; Hobbes was denounced in England and beyond for his unrelenting anticlericalism. In Leviathan (1651), he caused much pain with a satirical passage comparing the Catholic Church to the kingdom of fairies: ‘The fairies marry not; but there be amongst them Incubi, that have copulation with flesh and blood. The priests also marry not.’ Voltaire couldn’t have improved on that.
Many 17th-century writers pursued ideas of material progress, or ‘improvement’. In The Invention of Improvement (2015), Paul Slack interestingly showed how a word that originally referred to profitable agrarian innovation took on a more general meaning as a progressive slogan for beneficial change of any kind. ‘Improvement’ was the application of reason and ingenuity to the task of increasing a country’s wealth and the happiness of its inhabitants. It could take many different forms, from better crop rotations to the building of canals; its spirit would animate the Industrial Revolution.
A very visible example of improvement was the street lighting installed in European cities and towns in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Robertson devotes only a paragraph to it but as Roger Ekirch, a historian of the night, has observed, street lighting transformed the texture of urban life. It opened up the evening as a time for both labour and leisure, and provided a new and enduring metaphor. The coming of the light symbolised the escape from the moral and intellectual darkness of ignorance, illiteracy, innumeracy, superstition and intolerance.
In March 1706, in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession, Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, wrote excitedly to the Swiss biblical scholar Jean Le Clerc. ‘There is,’ he declared, ‘a mighty light which spreads itself over the world, especially in those two free nations of England and Holland, upon whom the affairs of Europe now turn; and if Heaven sends us a peace soon … it is impossible but letters and knowledge must advance in greater proportion than ever.’ Peace was still seven years off, but Shaftesbury’s ‘mighty light’ would shine ever more brightly in the age of what would eventually come to be known as the European Enlightenment. This wasn’t the way it was understood at the time. Contemporaries spoke of the spread of enlightenment, of Lumières or Aufklärung, but they had no concept of the Enlightenment as a purposeful movement or a distinct era in history. That changed with Hegel. His Lectures on the History of Philosophy, which he began in 1819, led the 18th century to be seen as the Age of Reason, the moment when religion itself was put into question.
The governments of European states did not go quite that far. But many were prepared to offer a degree of toleration to those who felt unable to adhere to the country’s official faith. John Locke, writing at the end of the 17th century, had been in favour of such toleration, not as a right of conscience but because he thought persecution didn’t work. He excluded Catholics, whose allegiance to a ‘foreign prince’ meant that they couldn’t be trusted to be loyal citizens, as well as atheists, whose disbelief in divine punishment robbed them of a powerful incentive to keep their promises. Only a very few of Locke’s contemporaries – Spinoza, for instance, and the Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle, author of an encyclopedic history of ideas – regarded freedom of religion as a natural right. By the 1760s, however, Voltaire was describing tolerance as ‘the hallmark of humanity’, and Kant followed by arguing that ‘tolerance’ was the wrong word: religious freedom should be permitted as a matter of course. Tom Paine thought the same.
The Enlightenment placed heavy emphasis on the need to expand the reservoir of useful knowledge. The inspiration was Francis Bacon, whose The Advancement of Learning (1605) asserted that intellectual research should seek to identify the best route to health, wealth and the betterment of the human condition. This was the objective of the 18th-century philosophes. In his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot (1751), Jean Le Rond d’Alembert cited Bacon as the most important of those predecessors who had, ‘silently in the shadows, prepared from afar the light which gradually, by imperceptible degrees, would illuminate the world’. Bacon’s contribution had been to formulate an ideology of scientific progress; it was left to others to make that progress. By inventing new instruments – the telescope, the microscope, the air pump and the pendulum – and by discovering fundamental laws of nature, the natural philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries made great advances in what we now call ‘science’, which would be so central to the Enlightenment.
In 1771, Joseph Priestley – famed in his time for inventing carbonated water – remarked that ‘all things (and particularly whatever depends on science) have of late years been in quicker progress towards perfection than ever.’ The second half of the 18th century was indeed a period of considerable scientific progress, both theoretical and practical. It witnessed the discovery of carbon dioxide by the Scottish chemist Joseph Black; the invention of the hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers; the building of the third Eddystone Lighthouse by the great civil engineer John Smeaton; and the development of the steam engine by James Watt. There were also the achievements of James Cook, the son of a Yorkshire labourer, who, after surveying Newfoundland between 1763 and 1767, made three voyages to the Pacific, charting the coasts of New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and the west coast of North America. Cook’s journals and the reports of other enlightened travellers, including William Marsden’s History of Sumatra (1783) and Arthur Young’s studies of French agriculture (1787-89), were intended as major contributions to knowledge. Marsden’s work was inspired by his regular attendance at the Royal Society’s ‘philosophical breakfasts’ in Soho Square.
There were equally important developments in the writing of history. The year 1776 was notable for the publication of two key works: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon praised Smith’s book as ‘the most profound and systematic treatise on the great objects of trade and revenue which had ever been published in any age or in any country’. It was a contribution to history as well as economics; it offered a penetrating analysis of the relationship between changing modes of subsistence and forms of political authority. It showed that the four stages of economic development – hunter-gathering, herding, agriculture and trade – were reflected in the parallel transitions from household government to the formation of tribes and clans, and subsequently, via feudalism, to absolute monarchy and finally to the free states of modern commercial society. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was just as significant, a scholarly landmark and literary masterpiece. But its theme was more pessimistic: ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’. Robertson usefully compares Gibbon’s meditations on the ruins of Rome with the melancholy reflections on the remains of Palmyra by Constantin François Chasseboeuf, alias ‘Volney’ (‘Vol’ from ‘Voltaire’ and ‘ney’ from Voltaire’s home at Ferney). ‘Thus perish the works of men,’ Chasseboeuf wrote, ‘and thus do nations and empires pass away.’
Much of the knowledge produced by the Enlightenment was contained in the 35 volumes of the French Encyclopédie, published – initially under Diderot’s editorship – between 1751 and 1780. It was also disseminated through the new public museums, which had grown out of the private collections of monarchs and aristocrats. The British Museum opened its doors in 1759 and the Louvre followed in 1793 after the Revolutionary assembly made the royal collections national property. Robertson mentions the foundation of the BM only briefly, but the act of Parliament that established it was explicit about its enlightened aspirations. The museum’s purpose was to advance and improve all branches of knowledge; it would be open to anyone ‘desirous of seeing and viewing’ its contents, so as to further ‘the improvement, knowledge and information of all persons’. Entrance was free from the start: this was to be a universal museum.
At a less practical but more refined level, aesthetics was developed as a body of thought that included reflections on the nature of taste, the concepts of genius and originality, and the experiences offered by art. In Aesthetica (1750), Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten argued that beauty lay not in the object itself but in what the observer brought to it. In 1764, Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s monumental history of ancient art saw the Ancient Greek images of the human body as coming closest to exemplifying a timeless aesthetic ideal. The music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, the sculpture of Antonio Canova and the paintings of Jacques-Louis David all aspired to this condition.
Museums – and great art – were understood to give pleasure as well as instruction. The Enlightenment was concerned with the pursuit of happiness, not just for oneself but for everyone. The philosophes believed that the main purpose of government should be to make its people happy, and in 1776 the American Declaration of Independence claimed the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. A decade later, Jeremy Bentham, a true child of the Enlightenment, devised the ‘felicific calculus’, an algorithm for working out just how much pleasure any specific action was likely to bring. This firmly consequential view of morality can be traced back to 1725, when the Glasgow-based philosopher Francis Hutcheson declared: ‘That action is best, which accomplishes the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.’ Those who shared this view implicitly believed that the goal of life was happiness in this world rather than salvation in the next. The belief was made explicit by atheists such as Baron d’Holbach, whose Système de la nature (1770) reproached the clergy for making people’s lives miserable while comforting them with the delusory hope of a happier life in the hereafter. The mainstream Enlightenment, by contrast, was not against religion as such: what its advocates wanted was a more humane religion that rested on reason and experience rather than authority, and which brought happiness in this world too.
Robertson stresses just how revolutionary this new concern with happiness was, coming as it did after centuries of teaching that life was a vale of tears. He calls it ‘a tectonic shift in outlook, a far-reaching change in mentality’ and ‘sensibility’, as the feelings of others came to matter as never before. To show how durable that change has been, he could have pointed to today’s exemplars of this ideal: Richard Layard’s Wellbeing Programme at the LSE, for instance, which makes the case for measuring national happiness alongside calculations of GDP.
National happiness, of course, is a difficult thing to recognise, let alone measure, and it isn’t always clear what past philosophers meant when they spoke about making people ‘happy’. In part, the ideal they were advancing was a negative one: they hoped to spread happiness by diminishing unhappiness, removing such obvious causes of misery as slavery, judicial torture and brutal criminal codes. Voltaire, Guillaume Raynal and Diderot denounced slavery passionately. The Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria opposed torture and the death penalty – though, as Robertson points out, the alternative of forced labour was almost as lethal. Reforming the penal system was a major preoccupation of the so-called enlightened despots, the Holy Roman emperor Joseph II and Catherine the Great.
Robertson’s own sympathies are clear. The Enlightenment, he believes, has an urgent message for our time. Human happiness can only be attained by discarding false beliefs, fake news and oppressive institutions. An honest discourse arising from a rational and empirically based understanding of human nature and society is essential. Robertson shows that, for the enlightened, ‘reason’ was not a matter of cold calculation but expressed itself in sociable argument – in provincial academies, ‘philosophical’ societies, Masonic lodges and coffee houses. But the Enlightenment was far from being concerned with reason alone: sentiment and sympathy mattered just as much.
It’s easy, however, to exaggerate the extent to which happiness was a universal goal. The later 18th century saw the flourishing of Pietism in Germany and the evangelical movement in England, both in the Anglican Church and among Methodists. These politically conservative movements stood against the hedonistic pursuit of worldly happiness, and put their stress on human sinfulness and the need for personal conversion and dogmatic religious belief. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church was hostile too. Faced by what they regarded as unreasonable criticism of ‘priestcraft’, its members denounced the philosophes as a band of atheists and materialists who wanted to destroy religion and ecclesiastical authority. In the 19th century, the Church demonstrated its opposition to enlightened ideas: the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary was proclaimed in 1854 and papal infallibility in 1870.
There were other doubters. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, himself a product of the Enlightenment, lamented that his age of material progress was also one of moral decline. The Romantics hated the Enlightenment for its rationalism – a conspiracy, as they saw it, to rob the world of its spiritual content. In The Excursion (1814), Wordsworth rejected what he saw as ‘A proud and most presumptuous confidence/In the transcendent wisdom of the age’. He scorned Voltaire’s Candide as ‘this dull product of a scoffer’s pen,/Impure conceits discharging from a heart/Hardened by impious pride’. What Wordsworth feared was reason unmixed with compassion. As an example of where that could lead, he could have cited Bentham’s panopticon, a scheme derived from a similar proposal by Bentham’s brother Samuel for an ‘inspection house’, a circular building with an observation post at the centre, from which the work of unskilled men would be supervised.
Modern critics have argued that this potential hell on earth was not the only negative consequence of enlightened thinking. Nearly 75 years ago, Adorno and Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment. Writing in the wake of fascism, the Holocaust and the first weapons of mass destruction, they argued that the domination of nature by technology had entailed the oppression of human beings by the capitalist system. Implausibly, they identified the Marquis de Sade as a typical Enlightenment figure (even though, as Robertson says, Sade’s novels, with their impossible sexual contortions, are ‘best read as prolonged exercises in black humour’). They presented the Holocaust as an illustration of cold rationality in action: the gas chambers were the product of modern science and the camp system’s bureaucratic efficiency was the work of an enlightened government machine. Their argument is difficult to defend, since there was nothing at all enlightened about the Holocaust’s objectives. If Adorno and Horkheimer had wanted to show the way a project to improve the human condition could go wrong, they would have done better, as Robertson observes, to focus on the Soviet Union, where terror, famine and the Gulag followed from fine intentions.
Robertson has little time for the ‘presentism’ of those modern critics who disparage the Enlightenment as the work of ‘dead white men in periwigs’ who used their superiority in science and technology to impose Western imperialism, racism and gender inequality on native peoples. He admits that the Enlightenment had its defects. It was too Eurocentric, too willing to accept social hierarchy and despotic power, too contemptuous of other races and cultures, too elitist. ‘We write only for those who read and reason,’ Holbach declared in 1770. ‘The (common) people do not read and reason even less.’ Voltaire once wrote to congratulate an author who had insisted that the common people should not be taught reading and writing: ‘I am grateful to you for forbidding study for ploughmen.’
Yet despite the prejudices of its supporters and the distortions of its opponents, it’s hard to find fault with the values that were central to the Enlightenment. Justice, truth, freedom of thought, religious toleration, liberal education and personal fulfilment all had potentially universal application – and, even if that universal application is still a long way off, posterity is trying to make it happen. It’s possible, too, to recognise an anticipation of postcolonial critique in the contributions of the abbé Raynal, Diderot and others to the Histoire des deux Indes (1780), which combined a factual account of European expansion into Asia and America with a searing description of the atrocities that accompanied it. In an age when statues of slave owners were being erected, there were already those who would happily have seen them pulled down.