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This magisterial history—sure to become the definitive work on the subject—recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness.
One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: religious tolerance, freedom of thought, speech and the press, of rationality and evidence-based argument. Yet why, over three hundred years after it began, is the Enlightenment so profoundly misunderstood as controversial, the expression of soulless calculation? The answer may be that, to an extraordinary extent, we have accepted the account of the Enlightenment given by its conservative enemies. Ritchie Robertson goes back into the “long eighteenth century,” from approximately 1680 to 1790, to reveal what this much-debated period was really about.
Any account of the Enlightenment must be in large part a history of ideas. But Robertson argues that it is not solely a philosophical movement; the Enlightenment saw the publication of the Encyclopédie, which is not only a historical and philosophical compendium, but also an illustrated guide to all sorts of contemporary machinery, handicrafts, and trades aimed to improve people’s lives in immediate and practical ways. Robertson chronicles the campaigns mounted by some Enlightened figures against specific evils such as capital punishment, judicial torture, serfdom and witchcraft trials, featuring the experiences of major figures like Voltaire and Diderot with ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary moment. Robertson gives due attention to philosophical and theological debates, but also looks to literature, music, and the visual arts as prominent means of conveying enlightenment ideas.
In seeking to correct one-sided views of the Enlightenment, Robertson ultimately puts forward his own. He does not reduce this transformative period to a formula, but instead makes the claim that indeed the Enlightenment was an attempt to increase human happiness, and to claim that happiness was possible in this world, without needing any compensatory belief in a better one beyond the grave.