- The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden
Oxford, 436 pp, £20.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 966093 3
In the course of 15 years teaching history at the University of Glasgow, with between a hundred and fifty and two hundred students in my classes, I inevitably received a few complaints. Some have stuck in the memory. ‘He made us read a whole book by Hume.’ Or the student in a class on 19th-century intellectual history who grumbled about having to read books from the anthropology and biology sections of the library; surely that wasn’t part of a history degree? A tiny minority of students found fault with revisionist analysis which punctured reassuring prejudices, not least where contextualisation seemed to verge on extenuation. A Scottish nationalist once objected, for instance, that in a lecture on Jacobitism I whitewashed the reputation of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland.
More perplexing, however, was the irritation of a mature Roman Catholic student who came from the Lanarkshire rustbelt to the east of Glasgow, where sectarian tensions have outlived the heavy industries in whose cultures they once thrived. Simply by calling the Reformation ‘the Reformation’ I had caused him distress. The very term, he contended, suggested that something had been in need of reform. I stood my ground. This was widely accepted as a neutral term of art, and whatever pejorative undertones it might have were not anti-Catholic as such, given the Tridentine ‘reforms’ of the Counter-Reformation.
If any student had objected to the description of the 18th century as ‘the Enlightenment’ – none ever did – I would have capitulated without a struggle; for I have long felt mildly allergic to the expression. Indeed, I found that it had a pernicious effect on the essays students wrote about that century. All too often students would assign writers to one of two camps, the party of enlightened progress or the party of anti-Enlightenment reaction, rather than, as they usually did, treating an author’s argument on its merits. Somehow, year after year, they were so bedazzled by the term ‘Enlightenment’ that they couldn’t resist framing the complex debates of the 18th century as a clash of two rival armies.
There wasn’t a suitable term that could be used instead of ‘Enlightenment’. If anything, the expression ‘Age of Reason’ was even less satisfactory. As Anthony Pagden convincingly demonstrates in The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters, the fixation with the rationality of the Enlightenment misrepresents trends in 18th-century moral philosophy. This was an era when reason was dethroned as the monarch of human behaviour. Philosophers resorted, variously, to the sway of the passions, to the quasi-aesthetic impulse of a hypothesised ‘moral sense’, to the language of sentiment and feelings. Benevolence, it transpired, emerged less from deep-laid, rationally considered plans, than from anticipation of the warm tingle of pleasure which acts of kindness brought to those who performed them. Pagden argues that pity, which ‘had none of the patronising inflexion it has today’, played a central role in the moral vocabulary of the 18th century. Nowadays its meaning and associations have shrunk and narrowed, but then it supplied a new definition, independent of religious presuppositions, of what it was to be human: the capacity of humans as a species ‘to respond to the “sentiments”, the passions and feelings of others’.
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