Enlightenment’s Errand Boy

David A. Bell

  • Calvet’s Web: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters in 18th-Century France by L.W.B. Brockliss
    Oxford, 471 pp, £55.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 19 924748 X
  • The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon by Colin Jones
    Allen Lane, 651 pp, £25.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9039 2

The French Revolutionaries identified the Enlightenment as the work of a small, brave band of 18th-century philosophes, whom they rushed to entomb as heroes in the gloomy crypt of the Panthéon. In the corrupt and desolate wasteland of the Ancien Régime, the Revolutionaries proclaimed, the philosophes had cast welcoming rays of light and reason, stirring the dull roots of popular discontent. On the other side of the political spectrum, angry defenders of religious and political orthodoxy accepted this image, but in photo-negative: for them, the wasteland was a happy garden; the rays of light were menacing shadows; and the angelic philosophes were demons, casting Europe into perdition. Thus the fiery gospel of the abbé Barruel and Joseph de Maistre, to which reactionary Catholics and many others held fast throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries.

For two hundred years, these popular images of the Enlightenment have retained considerable force. Textbooks (including Colin Jones’s superb new one) have repeated them to new generations of readers, while literary historians such as Daniel Mornet have taken them for granted and proceeded to tell the story of the Enlightenment’s steady diffusion outwards from its Parisian source. In the 1960s, Peter Gay gave them new power in his brilliant extended essay The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Gay recognised the international dimensions of the Enlightenment, and included Scots, English, Germans and Italians as well as French in what he called the ‘little flock of philosophes’. He recast it as a dialectic in which ‘modern paganism’ overcame Christianity and ushered in ‘the science of freedom’ – which he found best expressed in the American rather than the French Revolution. But at heart Gay’s Enlightenment remained the exploit of a handful of brave 18th-century souls.

Yet there have always been challenges to this view. Some critics have tried to expand the Enlightenment’s geographical and chronological boundaries. Others, more daringly, have denied its essential unity. J.G.A. Pocock, in his ongoing study of the intellectual worlds of Edward Gibbon, insists on the existence of multiple Enlightenments, some of them remarkably conservative, religious and devoted to erudition. The most radical critics of all have gone far in the other direction, subsuming the Enlightenment into even larger, sweeping historical shifts. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s notorious (and notoriously abstruse) Dialectic of Enlightenment traced ‘Enlightenment’ thinking back to the age of Homer. Foucault recast 18th-century Europe as the scene of a dramatic break in Western habits of thought, and darkly associated it with new, menacingly ubiquitous patterns of discipline and repression. Subsequent authors have often mistaken these radical critiques for attacks on the Enlightenment of convention, and proceeded to blame the Parisian philosophes for all the ills of modernity, crediting them with a repressive, even proto-totalitarian ‘Enlightenment Project’. This sort of thinking amounts to vulgar Postmodernism, and enjoys an alarming degree of popularity on American and British university campuses.

L.W.B. Brockliss is no Postmodernist, vulgar or otherwise, and his elegantly instructive study falls into older traditions of critique. Like the great early 20th-century historian Paul Hazard, Brockliss wants to push the boundaries of the Enlightenment beyond the ‘little flock of philosophes’, and in particular to identify it with the intellectual phenomenon known as the ‘Republic of Letters’ – an international network of correspondents born in the late 17th century and committed to unfettered critical inquiry. Hazard made this argument by showing that the founders of the Republic anticipated the philosophes in many of their lines of thought. As Diderot himself later acknowledged, ‘we had contemporaries during the age of Louis XIV’ (Jonathan Israel has recently restated this argument in a new form in Radical Enlightenment, focusing on the Netherlands and the circle of Spinoza). Brockliss takes a different tack. He wants to show, first, that the Republic of Letters survived into the late 18th century and, second, that its membership shared the principal concerns and beliefs of the narrower group of philosophes. ‘The Enlightenment,’ he concludes, ‘should be subsumed within the Republic of Letters and the philosophes treated as the citizens of a singular mini-Republic within a broader federation.’ In fact, Brockliss would like to get rid of the term ‘Enlightenment’ altogether.

It is a tempting suggestion, not least because of the way it would discomfit those who mutter so ominously about the ‘Enlightenment Project’. To make his case, Brockliss, rather than writing yet another sweeping survey, has chosen the path of microhistory, looking at the career of a single republican of letters about whom remarkably abundant information has survived: an Avignon doctor called Esprit Calvet. By illuminating the ideas of Calvet and his correspondents – ‘Calvet’s web’ – Brockliss hopes to ‘put some flesh’ on a period of European intellectual history usually observed from its commanding Parisian heights.

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