Shadows on the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment: An Interpretation Volume II: The Science of Freedom

by Peter Gay
Knopf, 745 pp., $10.00

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…

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