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 opposed to the philosophes, such as Vico, Haller, Burke, and Samuel Johnson. What then set the philosophes apart?
Commitment to a cause. Engagement. The philosophe was a new social type, known to us today as the intellectual. He meant to put his ideas to use, to persuade, propagandize, and change the world around him. To be sure, earlier thinkers had also hoped to modify the world. The religious radicals and the humanists of the sixteenth century were devoted to their causes. But the philosophes represented a new force in history: men of letters acting in concert and with considerable autonomy to push through a program. They developed a collective identity, forged by common commitment in the face of common risks. They were marked as a group by persecution, just enough to dramatize their daring and not enough to deter them from undertaking more. They developed a strong sense of “us” against “them”: men of wit against the bigots, honnêtes hommes against exclusive privilege, the children of light against the demons of darkness.
They were also an elite. Despite the levelling tendency inherent in their faith in reason, they aimed to take over the commanding heights of culture and to enlighten from above. This strategy led them to concentrate on the conquest of salons and academies, journals and theaters, masonic lodges and key cafes, where they could win the rich and powerful to their cause and even gain access, by back doors and boudoirs, to the throne. They reached a broad public among the middle classes, but they drew a line above the peasantry. Better not teach peasants how to read, said Voltaire; someone had to plow the fields.
This view, I realize, is heresy. It is politically incorrect. Although it allows for the influence of royal mistresses and grandes dames in the salons, it concentrates on men. It is elitist, Voltairean, and incorrigibly Parisian. What about the famous cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment? And the great thinkers not merely outside Paris but beyond the boundaries of France? Although I consider Paris as the capital of the Republic of Letters in the eighteenth century, I agree that the Enlightenment spread from many sites: Edinburgh, Naples, Halle, Amsterdam, Geneva, Berlin, Milan, Lisbon, London, and even Philadelphia. Each city had its philosophers, of whom many corresponded with the philosophes and quite a few outdid them. If one measures depth and originality of thought, it is difficult to find a Parisian who compares with Hume, Smith, Burke, Winckelmann, Kant, and Goethe. Why then concentrate on Paris?
That is where the movement came together and defined itself as a cause. In an earlier phase, one that I would call the pre-Enlightenment, philosophic writers like John Locke, John Toland, and Pierre Bayle crossed paths throughout England and the Low Countries. They shared itineraries and ideas, including Bayle’s vision of an international Republic of Letters. But it was not until their intellectual heirs, the philosophes, set up camp and began campaigning that the Enlightenment emerged as a cause, with partisans and a program. Its adherents forged their collective identity in Paris during the first decades of the eighteenth century. As their movement gathered force, it spread; and as it spread, it changed, adapting itself to other conditions and incorporating other ideas. But it did not reach everywhere and cover everything in the spectrum of intellectual life.
To equate the Enlightenment with the totality of Western thought in the eighteenth century is to get it badly wrong. By viewing it as a concerted campaign on the part of a self-conscious group of intellectuals, one can reduce it to its proper proportions. This perspective does justice to its character, for the philosophes concentrated less on developing systematic philosophy than on mastering the media of their time. They excelled in witty conversation, letter writing, manuscript bulletins, journalism, and all forms of the printed word, from the massive tomes of the Encyclopédie to the pamphlet “pâtés” served up by Voltaire.
The diffusionist view also allows for the spread of the Enlightenment to other parts of Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century and to the rest of the world thereafter. By 1750, like-minded philosophers in other sites began to think of themselves as philosophes. Paris drew them like a magnet, and the Parisians enlisted them in the cause, delighted to find reinforcement from original thinkers like Hume and Beccaria. But the foreign philosophe, with his imperfect French and incorrectly curled wig, felt his foreignness in Paris. He often returned home determined to strike out on his own. (Despite the lionizing in Paris, Beccaria hustled back to Milan as fast as his coach would carry him and turned from criminology to aesthetics.) The philosophe en mission in London, Berlin, and Milan also discovered alien sources of thought, many of them distressingly Christian. Fissures opened, divisions developed, branches stretched out in new directions. Such is the nature of movements. They are always in motion, multiplying and dividing.
An emphasis on diffusion does not imply indifference to ideas, either among the philosophes or the historians studying them. Nor does it imply passivity on the receiving end of the messages sent out from Paris and from other transmission points along the circuits of intellectual exchange. On the contrary, the foreigners talked back. Back talk, personal interaction, mutual exchange of letters and books kept expanding “the Church,” as Voltaire called it. And the cause carried conviction because the ideas of the philosophes were idées-forces, like liberty, happiness, nature, and nature’s laws. But they were not particularly original. Thinkers in Stockholm and Naples did not need to read Voltaire in order to learn about tolerance and natural law.
Those ideas belonged to the common stock of concepts accessible to the educated classes everywhere. Philosophers worked them over in new ways without any need for nudging from Paris and often without any alignment with the Enlightenment. What Voltaire and his co-conspirators provided was not original matter for thought but a new spirit, the sense of participation in a secular crusade. It began with derision, as an attempt to laugh the bigots out of polite society, and it ended with the occupation of the moral high ground, as a campaign for the liberation of mankind, including the enserfed and the enslaved, Protestants, Jews, blacks, and (in the case of Condorcet) women.
From deflation to diffusion and from diffusion to the study of a spirit, this approach to the Enlightenment may well seem suspect. For if we are not to make an inventory of ideas but rather to take the pulse of a movement, will we not be forced to rely on groping in the dark for a Zeitgeist? I prefer to think that we can pursue a more rigorous historicity. Movements can be mapped. One can follow them in space and time, as groups cohere and messages flow through communication systems.
The Enlightenment grew out of a great crisis during the last years of the reign of Louis XIV. For a century, the power of the monarchy and the prestige of literature had grown apace; but after 1685 they grew apart. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, the persecution of Jansenists and Quietists all came to a head while France suffered through a series of demographic, economic, and military disasters. With the state on the verge of collapse, men of letters attached to the court—Fénelon, La Bruyère, Boulainvilliers, Vauban, Saint-Simon—questioned the basis of Bourbon absolutism and the religious orthodoxy it enforced. La ville went its own way as la cour succumbed to paralysis, waiting for the death of the aged king. A new generation of esprits forts and beaux esprits took over the salons and breathed new life into the libertinism developed during the seventeenth century. In 1706 twelve-year-old François-Marie Arouet, later known as Voltaire, made his debut in the libertine society of the Temple. By the death of Louis XIV nine years later, he had established a reputation as the sharpest wit in town; and the town, or the wealthy, worldly part of it known as le monde, had given itself over to witticisms, most of them at the expense of the Church and whatever passed for dignity in the governing circles of the Regency.