A magisterial history that 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: that enlightenment necessarily implied hostility to religion or support for an unfettered free market, or that this was “the best of all possible worlds”. Ritchie Robertson goes back into the “long eighteenth century,” from approximately 1680 to 1790, to reveal what this much-debated period was really about.
Robertson returns to the era’s original texts to show that above all, the Enlightenment was really about increasing human happiness – in this world rather than the next – by promoting scientific inquiry and reasoned argument. In so doing Robertson chronicles the campaigns mounted by some Enlightened figures against evils like capital punishment, judicial torture, serfdom and witchcraft trials, featuring the experiences of major figures like Voltaire and Diderot alongside ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary moment.
In answering the question 'What is Enlightenment?' in 1784, Kant famously urged men and women above all to “have the courage to use your own intellect”. Robertson shows how the thinkers of the Enlightenment did just that, seeking a well-rounded understanding of humanity in which reason was balanced with emotion and sensibility. Drawing on philosophy, theology, historiography and literature across the major western European languages, The Enlightenment is a master-class in big picture history about the foundational epoch of modern times.
About the Author
Ritchie Robertson is Professor of German at Oxford University, a fellow of the British Academy, and a lead reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement.
“[Mr. Robertson] is [a] splendid writer, astoundingly versed in European letters and gifted at vividly sketching the views of the “Enlighteners.”… Robertson, armed with a prodigious knowledge of the Enlightenment’s literary output, has captured the tone and spirit of this milieu."
— Wall Street Journal
"Robertson expands the conception of the Enlightenment from familiar topics like the scientific revolution to include areas as diverse as public administration and manners. He portrays not only well-known philosophers but also the many civil servants and functionaries, from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg, who gave practical shape to Enlightenment ideals. For Robertson, this period was ultimately “an age of feeling, sympathy and sensibility,” in which the goal was human happiness in this life."
— The New Yorker
"Deeply impressive…bracingly eloquent narrative…a big, enthusiastic book."
— Christian Science Monitor
“There’s a certain kind of book that defies a direct approach. It arrives on the doorstep, several inches thick, dense with learning … Ritchie Robertson’s thousand-page The Enlightenment [is] a beautifully written account of a period that everyone has heard of but few pause to think about."
"Robertson’s far-flung thematic survey probes the work of philosophers and ideologues, among them Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant, and expertly interprets the period’s art and literature, including Samuel Richardson’s melodramatic novel Clarissa, which set all of Europe to weeping. Thanks to Robertson’s elegant prose and lucid analyses, this massive and deeply erudite work serves as a stimulating and accessible introduction to a watershed period in the intellectual development of the West."
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A long, thoroughly satisfying history of an era that was not solely about reason but was “also the age of feeling, sympathy and sensibility.” Robertson, a professor of German at Oxford, has clearly read all the original sources and most modern scholars and arrived at his own conclusions, which are alternately unsettling and stimulating and consistently engaging."
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Distinguished German scholar Robertson has produced a monumental work on a monumental topic....indispensable for advanced students and readers of history, especially those wishing to learn more about this pivotal era."
— Library Journal
"Fascinating… fresh and expansive.”