Porn, Propaganda, and the Enlightenment

The Widening Circle: Essays on the Circulation of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Europe

by Robert Darnton, by Bernhard Fabian, by Roy McKeen Wiles, edited by Paul J. Korshin
University of Pennsylvania Press, 204 pp., $15.00

Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France: A Social and Political Study of the Curés in the Diocese of Dauphiné, 1750-1791

by Timothy Tackett
Princeton University Press, 368 pp., $19.50

Lafayette: A Biography

by Peter Buckman
Paddington Press, 288 pp., $10.00

In The Widening Circle, a collection of three essays on the reading public in England, France, and Germany respectively in the eighteenth century, Bernhard Fabian, the author of the essay on Germany, quotes a classification of “habitual readers” that was made in 1799 by the German romantic novelist known as Jean Paul. “In Germany,” Jean Paul said, “there are three publics or publica: (1) the general, almost uneducated and unlearned of the lending libraries; (2) the learned consisting of professors, candidates, students, and reviewers; and (3) the educated, which is composed of men of the world and educated women, of artists and the higher classes educated at least through social intercourse and travel. (There are certainly frequent interrelations between these three publics.)”

Professor Fabian observes that though Jean Paul’s survey was not complete and may seem imprecise by modern standards of scholarship, it “offers a broad and authentic view of the contemporary reading scene.” Its terminology nevertheless sounds odd to modern ears and was evidently not always accepted even by eighteenth-century Germans. The editor of a Hamburg journal, The Patriot, whom Professor Fabian also quotes, identified the general reader not with the people in Jean Paul’s first category but with those in his third. The general reader, this editor said, was someone who was neither learned nor unlearned, and it was for him that The Patriot catered. The editor in consequence felt obliged to ensure that “every contribution [I accept] is neither too badly done nor too elementary to satisfy the learned, nor too esoteric and incomprehensible to appeal to the unlearned, but rather is intelligible to everyone and demands only a proper use of ordinary intelligence.”

As is plain from Professor Fabian’s essay, it is possible to define the eighteenth-century general reader in various ways. The definition provided by the editor of The Patriot, nevertheless, applied to a class of people which Jean Paul also recognized and whose existence has never been in doubt. These were the people for whom the great philosophers wrote and whose tastes Montesquieu, for example, had in mind when, in his De l’Esprit des lois, he divided his argument into short sections, and used only short sentences, in order that his complicated ideas might be understood as readily as possible.

The philosophes catered to a type of reader who felt he should keep himself au fait with the principal developments in the fields of politics, the arts, philosophy, and the sciences, and whose prototype was Frederick the Great—the patron of the philosophes and their hero for much of his life, although admittedly toward the end of it Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, and others concluded that his government was a despotism and he himself a tyrant who did not deserve to be called enlightened. D’Alembert, a distinguished mathematician, also came to feel exasperated—after three months of the royal company in Potsdam without other intellectual companionship—because, as Frederick himself admitted, “I am only what the Italians call a …

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