David Chodowiecki, a hack illustrator of the eighteenth century, once produced a sketch to illustrate the Enlightenment which was reproduced in the Göttingen pocket calendar for the year 1792. It showed a hilly landscape, with a man on foot, a man on horseback, and a coach, all facing toward the rising sun. It was a pretty picture but suggested nothing in particular. As a German historian observed, it might equally well have borne the legend: “the mail-coach at sunrise.” This historian used it to demonstrate that though everyone in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century continually talked about Enlightenment, no one knew what Enlightenment meant. At this time many authors besides Kant wrote books on “was ist Aufklärung?” Many others have done so since.

Professor Gay will doubtless not be the last, though one might perhaps wish that he should be; for what is significant is the ideas which people hold and not the labels attached to them. In this age of comparative history many of the old labels seem a source of confusion as it becomes plain that they were used in different countries, and even by different people in the same country, to mean different things. In Germany, for example, the cameralists, or mercantilists, saw themselves throughout most of the eighteenth century as representatives of the Enlightenment and are still so described in German textbooks of economic history, notably Professor Lütge’s Deutsche Sozial und Wirtschafts-geschichte, the third edition of which was published in 1966.

In France, on the other hand, mercantilism seemed to the philosophes, and still seems, to belong to the pre-enlightened age, while its enemies the physiocrats, known to their contemporaries as the “philosophes économistes,” were, and still are, reckoned among the enlightened. The physiocrats admittedly won adherents in Germany, but only several decades after their founding father, Quesnay, had become famous in the West and inspired Adam Smith to improve on his ideas. These German converts to economic liberalism, moreover, flourished in the age of romanticism and not in that of the Enlightenment. Mercantilism reached its prime in Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great, and in the Habsburg dominions during the reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph II—that is, during the age of the enlightened despots.

The so-called German Enlightenment in the first three quarters of the eighteenth century was secular, in the sense of being opposed to the churches’ claim to control intellectual speculation and education; it was tolerant in the sense of being opposed to persecution on religious grounds; it was socially and politically progressive in the sense that it attacked the practices and prejudices characteristic of traditional societies and did so in the name of “reason.” It shared all these attributes with the French Enlightenment. Its apostles, however, until late in the reign of Frederick the Great, were believers in autocracy, in economic dirigisme, and in a hierarchical society based on legal privilege. These were indeed the means by which Prussia—to a long and still not extinct line of thinkers the enlightened state par excellence—was raised, in Frederick the Great’s words, “out of the dust,” and by which comparable transformations were effected in the Habsburg dominions.

The so-called enlightened despots were autocrats by conviction as well as by hereditary right. Most of them had no use for liberty in any of the senses in which that term was understood in France or (with the qualified exception of Joseph and Leopold) for equality either. A growing body of opinion in France in the third quarter of the eighteenth century did not in consequence find them enlightened at all. “Ne me parlez pas,” Turgot once said of Joseph II, “de cet espèce de bête sauvage.”

In these circumstances, to try to define Enlightenment is like trying to define any other concept, say freedom or democracy, to which many different meanings have been attached. The task is profitless except as an exercise in semantics. To analyze, on the other hand, the revolutionary ideas of the eighteenth century and the material circumstances in which they flourished is a necessary and important task. Professor Gay is entitled to Humpty Dumpty’s privilege of using words as he pleases—provided he can make sense of them. The only question is: how much sense can he make?

The answer must seem doubtful to anyone who reads the Preface to the volume here under review—the second of two, each of which, their author tells us, was designed to stand on its own.

In his first volume Professor Gay made it plain that by Enlightenment he meant the ideas that were held in France by the philosophes, and in other countries by people of a similar persuasion. He saw the prophets of the Enlightenment as constituting “a family of intellectuals united by a single style of thinking,” and commonly referred to them as the “little flock.” He found that they were mainly French and British, but he included among them one Italian—Beccaria—several Germans—Lessing, Wieland, Kant, Winckelmann—and one Austrian—Sonnenfels—who, however, figures among the unenlightened in volume two.


In his first volume Professor Gay was concerned with the pagan and Christian traditions in which the members of his little flock were educated. In his second volume, as he tells us in the Preface, he is concerned with these people as representative of their age. Their enlightenment was enlightenment only in “the narrower sense.” In its “wider sense” Enlightenment means “the more comprehensive atmosphere” in which their ideas were “embedded.” The purpose of this second volume is “to write the social history of the philosophes’ philosophy”; to analyze “the philosophes’ environment—the economic and cultural changes that made the philosophy of the Enlightenment relevant and in fact inevitable, the position of writers and artists which gave substance to the philosophes’ demands and to their expectations—and the philosophes’ program, their view of progress, science, art, society and politics.”

Professor Gay calls his second volume “the science of freedom…in allusion to the philosophes’ method and goal.” The two volumes together, he tells us, form a “dialectical triad” of which the thesis (the philosophes’ Christian inheritance) and the anti-thesis (their pagan inheritance) are explained in volume one, and the synthesis (the “philosophes’ philosophy,” otherwise described as “the pursuit of modernity”) in volume two.

As is plain from all this, Professor Gay is much more ambitious than earlier writers on the Enlightenment, who were concerned principally with its philosophy. He is also more obscure. Can any single person, the reader asks himself, be competent to deal with so many different branches of knowledge? How can it be possible to prove (let alone analyze) the inevitability of the Enlightenment? Does the “atmosphere of the eighteenth century” mean anything except the atmosphere in those circles which Professor Gay considers enlightened? There was plainly no one “atmosphere” throughout Europe at any time in the eighteenth century, though there were certain ideas that traveled across the frontiers and evoked varying degrees of response in their adopted countries.

What are we to understand by the philosophes’ “program”? Admittedly they held a number of ideas in common, but this does not mean that they had a program. A program is a plan of action. The people who draw it up have to reach agreement. When did the philosophes as a group ever agree, or suppose that they ought to agree, on any course of action or even, if one excepts the physiocrats, who were suspect for this reason, on any body of doctrine? How can there be a “science of freedom” when it has never been possible to agree on what freedom means?

Faced with all these ambiguities on the first page, the reader starts off in a carping mood. This is not altogether warranted. Professor Gay’s knowledge may be patchy and disorganized but its range is immense. No such comprehensive review of the philosophes’ intellectual activities can ever have been attempted before. The work is a mine of information on a great variety of subjects from the decline in epidemic diseases to epistemology and aesthetics. Many passages are well written and illuminating. It is, however, a work of bits and pieces which the framework of ideas, such as it is, cannot hold together. There are many contradictory, obscure, and misleading judgments, and much less in the way of interpretation than the author claims.

In volume one, for example, Professor Gay asserted that “the Enlightenment was not an age of reason but a reaction against rationalism.” In volume two he asserts that the spirit of the Enlightenment was “one of reason, humanity and industry.” In the first of these sentences he seems to find “reason” and “rationalism” synonymous, but usually he sees them as opposites. Sometimes rationalism seems to him to mean what system-building meant to the Philosophes, who used this term pejoratively and understood by it the attempt to explain natural or social phenomena by means of logical deductions from hypotheses, as opposed to empirical investigation. Professor Gay apparently equates the rationalist in this sense with the doctrinaire. He also, however, describes as rationalists all those who believed that reason and passion are independent human attributes, and that reason can, and should, master passion.

As for reason itself: he commonly equates it with reasonableness, although experience shows that this is a quality which the most powerful intellects often lack. In the end we do not know what he means by reason, or what the philosophes meant by it, or whether we should continue to call the eighteenth century, or even the second half of it, “the age of reason” or not. Those of his readers who, like the present reviewer, are not professional philosophers, will be unable to suppress the doubt that Professor Gay, not a professional philosopher himself, lacks the expertise necessary to handle this sort of question.


He plainly lacks the knowledge necessary to fulfill his intention of writing “the social history of the philosophes’ philosophy.” The philosophes, he tells us, for example, stood for justice and freedom. All other reformers, however, have done so too. The only question is: with what sort of justice and what sort of freedom—justice for whom, freedom from what—were the philosophes concerned? It is impossible to answer these questions adequately without a closer acquaintance than Professor Gay displays with the kind of economies, governments, and social structures that prevailed in Christian Europe in the eighteenth century.

Professor Gay rightly points out that Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois was the most influential book of the century (although he does not mention the reactionary purposes it was often made to serve). Its chapters devoted to law and justice lose much of their point if read out of relation to what the Germans call the Zersplitterung des Rechts, or atomization of law, and to the paternalistic conception of justice, which distinguished pre-industrial European societies. In these societies, every order or estate, every trade and profession, every province, every town, even every village community, had its own customs or laws, for the greater part administered by members of its own hierarchy, but supplemented by royal edicts which were issued as occasion required without regard to consistency, and enforced by royal officials with legally unlimited powers.

The result was a boundless confusion and arbitrariness which increasingly obstructed the tasks of administrators, merchants, and producers, and frustrated the desire of the growing number of the well-to-do for personal and material security. In these circumstances, Montesquieu’s belief, which was shared by all the philosophes, that “the laws should rule,” and that for this purpose they should be clearly and precisely formulated, and interpreted by professional judges immune from government or other interference, was a revolutionary belief. It was one of the most significant and characteristic of the beliefs of the philosophes, who borrowed it in the first instance from Britain.

This belief was intimately connected with other seminal beliefs—with a belief that the individual has inalienable rights; with a belief in equality, which however variously understood was always held to include equality before the law; with a belief in liberty—a term which was also understood in many different senses but was always held to include the civil liberties, and was commonly held to include some degree of economic liberty in the sense of freedom from the control over labor, and over trade, production, and property in general, which had hitherto been shared between the government and a variety of semi-autonomous corporate bodies.

Each of these beliefs laid an axe to the roots of the corporative, hierarchical, paternalistically governed communities of eighteenth-century Europe, all of which lived to a greater or less extent in a subsistence economy, as distinct from a market economy which postulates an equal legal status for buyers and sellers. These communities erected inequality into a principle; they recognized only the liberties, or privileges, of groups; the idea of the liberty of the citizen, indeed the very conception of citizenship for which there was then no word in the German language, was unknown to them. Because Professor Gay is always more concerned with what people thought than with how they lived or were governed, the significance of the philosophes’ ideas often escapes him. He is in consequence unable to make plain the nature and magnitude of their challenge to the existing social and political order.

He nevertheless exaggerates when he speaks of the philosophes’ “pursuit of modernity.” Admittedly, as he himself continually emphasizes, the ideas of the philosophes cannot be expressed in a single formula. The philosophes were the founders of the social sciences. In their thinking can be found the seeds of all the social and political creeds, apart from the specifically fascist ones, that have flourished since their day. In this sense they may justly be described as modern. On the other hand those of their ideas which were widely enough accepted to get translated into practice at the end of the eighteenth century, or in the course of the nineteenth, are no longer modern. On the contrary, they provided the ideology for a way of life and government that is now being called in question, even though the thinking of the second half of the twentieth century, like that of the second half of the eighteenth century, inevitably appropriates some of the ideas of the past.

Professor Gay’s dialectic does not afford much insight into these processes of change. It is indeed useless when it comes to accounting for the progressive disintegration of the pre-industrial European societies, of which the ideas of the philosophes were both a cause and a consequence.

This Issue

December 18, 1969