We live in an age of inflation: inflated money, inflated grades, inflated letters of recommendation, inflated reputations, and inflated ideas. The general puffery has affected our understanding of the movement at the beginning of modern political culture, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, because it, too, has been blown up to such a size that it would not be recognized by the men who first created it. Having been floated at first with a few bons mots in some Parisian salons, it became a campaign to crush l’infâme, a march of progress, a spirit of the age, a secular faith, a world-view to be defended or combatted or transcended, and the source of everything good, bad, and modern, including liberalism, capitalism, imperialism, male chauvinism, world federalism, UNESCO humanism, and the Family of Man. Whoever has a bone to pick or a cause to defend begins with the Enlightenment.
We scholars have added to the confusion, because we have created a huge industry, Enlightenment Studies, with its own associations, journals, monograph series, congresses, and foundations. Like all professionals, we keep expanding our territory. At last count, there were thirty professional societies on six of the seven continents (Antarctica is still resisting), and at our last world congresses we listened to papers on the Russian Enlightenment, the Romanian Enlightenment, the Brazilian Enlightenment, the Josephinian Enlightenment, the Pietistic Enlightenment, the Jewish Enlightenment, the musical Enlightenment, the religious Enlightenment, the radical Enlightenment, the conservative Enlightenment, and the Confucian Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is beginning to be everything, and therefore nothing.
I propose deflation. Let us consider the Enlightenment as a movement, a cause, a campaign to change minds and reform institutions. Like all movements, it had a beginning, a middle, and, in some places but not others, an end. It was a concrete historical phenomenon, which can be located in time and pinned down in space: Paris in the early eighteenth century. Of course, it had origins. What movement does not? They extended back to antiquity and covered the map of Europe. Cartesian doubt, Newtonian physics, Lockean epistemology, the cosmologies of Leibniz and Spinoza, the natural law of Grotius and Pufendorf, the skepticism of Bayle, the biblical criticism of Richard Simon, the toleration of the Dutch, the Pietism of the Germans, the political theories and freethinking of the English—one could list philosophical sources at length, and many historians have done so. But to compile the sources is to miss the point, for the Enlightenment was less than the sum of its philosophical parts, and few of the philosophes were original philosophers.
They were men of letters. Only rarely did they develop ideas undreamt of in earlier generations. Compare Voltaire with Pascal, Condillac with Locke, Diderot with Descartes, Laplace with Newton, Holbach with Leibniz. The philosophes worked variations on themes set for them by their predecessors. Nature, reason, toleration, happiness, skepticism, individualism, civil liberty, cosmopolitanism—all can be found, at greater depth, in the thought of the seventeenth century. They can be found among eighteenth-century thinkers unconnected or…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.