The debate over the Enlightenment began with the Enlightenment itself, and it still matters. This wonderful book is both a detailed history and a contribution to that debate which all interested readers will enjoy. It is rigorously argued without being polemical, robust...See more
The debate over the Enlightenment began with the Enlightenment itself, and it still matters. This wonderful book is both a detailed history and a contribution to that debate which all interested readers will enjoy. It is rigorously argued without being polemical, robust without being shrill, and takes a clear position without being unfair, selective or partisan. The book is wide-ranging, eminently reasonable, enjoyable, companionable and humane. All of which are, appropriately, characteristics identified by Robinson as being essential to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment suffers from association with stereotypes which have been present from its own beginnings and amplified since. The caricatures are instantly recognisable – this is the period of Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and Carlyle’s deluded philosophes, the origins of free-market fundamentalism and the racial ‘science’ that soothed the consciences of brutal colonisers, the point at which working men and women were reduced to components in a machine calibrated to maximise productive profits at the expense of living humanity. Well, not quite. And just as stereotypes in the real world can’t long survive contact with actual people, they prove themselves to be always incomplete and sometimes nonsensical on deep acquaintance with what was actually said, written and done, as this book demonstrates. Significantly, Robinson takes issue with the concept of “The Age of Reason”. Reason, rationality and the questioning of established tradition were, of course, essential components of what we now call The Enlightenment. But when the Enlighteners spoke about “reason”, they were not only referring to the cold application of mathematical logic. The idea also encompassed qualities like civility, compassion, benevolence, concern for other individuals and people in general, what we would now call “being reasonable” (the adjective) rather than “logical reasoning” (the verb). When philosopher David Hume wrote that “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions” – by which he meant, simply, the emotions – he was not arguing against the Enlightenment. In fact, Robinson demonstrates, he was stating one of its most important tenets. (Certain modern-day controversialists who continually, and it must be said rather emotionally, insist that they are guided by “facts not feelings” and thus pose as guardians of an Enlightenment tradition need to go back to their Hume to refresh their memory about why that’s a completely meaningless statement – but that’s another story.) The book is excellent on the history of ideas, not only summarising the most important thinkers (Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Diderot, the generally unsummariseable Goethe, Rousseau – who was not an Enlightener – and Voltaire, whom Robinson much prefers) but also locates them in context, detailing not only what they wrote but what was done in response to those writings. Thus there are numerous intriguing sections on the lived experience and concrete applications of the theories discussed, mostly but not exclusively collected in a chapter on “Practical Enlightenment”. We explore Enlightenment as it related to – among other things – family life and education, experimental science, medicine, trade, the environment, policing and criminal justice, law and government, agriculture and the arts. Robinson, unlike many authors, isn’t dazzled by the idea of ‘Enlightened’ aristocratic salons – he frankly admits that they sound a bit pretentious and boring – but he brings to life the much more dynamic, egalitarian and frankly much more fun atmosphere of the 18th Century coffee house. This book is as bracing and entertaining as one imagines an afternoon at Will’s or the Café Procope must have been, constantly bumping up against new ideas, new personalities, new things to learn. So, what about the ‘dark side’ of the Enlightenment? Was it really the foundation for systematic racism and the most inhumane excesses of industrial capitalism? Robinson thinks not. First of all, the very fact that we object to those things and have a vocabulary for thinking about and expressing our objections, identify us as inheritors of Enlightenment ideas. The concepts of liberty, human rights, equality before the law and every individual’s right to pursue their own happiness, whatever that may mean for them, are absolutely rooted in that discourse. Second, it was Enlightened philosophers who first used those concepts to protest against the very conditions that the Enlightenment has been blamed for. Mary Wolstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman still bears reading today. Robinson notes that Toussaint L’Ouverture was inspired partly by Denis Diderot’s ferocious attack on colonialism in the Histoire des Deux Indes (and a recent biography of Toussaint, by Sudir Hazareesingh, places that book at the centre of his developing political thought). This is a history book – a richly detailed and deeply insightful one – and not a political polemic, but in his concluding chapter the author confronts these issues directly and sensibly. Weak points are difficult to identify. The illustrations in the book are mostly title pages of important publications; interesting, but I would like to have seen more images of the various charts, diagrams and what we would probably now call ‘mind maps’ which the Encyclopedists used in their gloriously over-ambitious project to organise the totality of human knowledge. These sound fascinating, although admittedly from Robinson’s description they also sound utterly unwieldy and it is difficult to see how they could be made to fit into a book like this without major alterations to the format. (The original publishers struggled.) And he does quote the bewilderingly overrated Better Angels of our Nature by Stephen Pinker in the last chapter, though fortunately none of his arguments relies on it. But this is a positively microscopic peeve. This book is warmly recommended as both deeply interesting and highly enjoyable for anyone interested in the history of ideas and why we think the way we do.