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The Enlightenment: The pursuit of happiness 1680-1790 by Ritchie Robertson

31 December 2021

Alexander Faludy reads a revised account of the Enlightenment quest

IN 1746, the scientist Fr Jean-Antoine Nollet, future director of the Paris Académie des Sciences, arranged two hundred monks in a circle roughly a mile in circumference with pieces of iron wire connecting them. He then discharged a primitive battery (a “Leyden jar”) through the human chain — observing that each brother reacted at virtually the same moment to the electric shock, and so establishing the speed of electricity’s transmission to be very high. Arguably, Nollet thereby also demonstrated that 18th-century “Enlightenment” was, literally, a current running through Church and world alike.

Ritchie Robertson’s Enlightenment overturns stereotypes about the era, including the notion that its leading thinkers were fundamentally hostile to faith. In the main, what “Enlighteners” sought was a purification of theism, not its destruction: “scientific knowledge was the enemy of superstition, but not of religion: only of the false beliefs that often flourished under the aegis of religion.”

Enlighteners’ problem with religion was less metaphysical than practical. Inevitably, there was friction between their pragmatic aim (referred to in the book’s subtitle) of achieving happiness in this world and the Church’s belief that happiness was essentially a matter of the hereafter.

Conflict between progressive thinkers and ecclesiastics often focused on the wielding of institutional power in academe and society. Even so, Enlightened thinking was embraced by many churchmen including not only Nollet, but also the reform-minded Pope Benedict XIVth (reigned 1740-58). The latter accepted that modern science explained many supposed supernatural phenomena, campaigned against superstition, and appointed the talented female scientist Laura Bassi to a university chair.

Misconceptions about the era, Robertson argues, spring overwhelmingly from Theodore Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s influential Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). The volume presented a polemical critique of the 18th century’s dominant intellectual currents as a dehumanising triumph of abstract rationality over natural feeling which resulted in human beings’ becoming viewed as “means” not “ends”.

Thus, Enlightenment, so this argument goes, presaged 20th-century totalitarian nightmares in which personal suffering was discounted before the severe geometric “beauty” of the perfected state order. Later critics alleged that the “Enlightenment Project” grounded the twisted “logic” of Nazi racial theory through erroneous “scientific” misapprehensions about biology, and also that its esteem for personal autonomy produced unhealthily atomised societies.

Robertson argues that such criticism anachronistically reads later attitudes into earlier texts and tendentiously mistakes parts for the whole. Enlightenment and Modernity, though related, are not co-terminous: much problematic “Enlightenment” legacy results, in fact, from highly selective ex post facto thematic development by thinkers as diverse as Marx and Nietzsche, not the actual ethos of the era. Those developments relate to tendencies understood by contemporaries as eccentric minority positions (such as Rousseau’s radical political thought) or highly contested discourse (Kant’s essentialising view of race).

Robertson convincingly refutes the allegations of emotional aridity oft made against “the Age of Reason”. Indeed, by embracing the language of “sensibility”, Enlightenment thinkers such as Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and, later, David Hume (1711-76) sought to articulate the place of feeling within thought — a riposte to 17th-century Cartesian rationalism.

AlamyJean-Antoine Nollet, the Enlightenment priest and scientist, teaching a physics course at the college of Navarre in 1754, in an illustration from Les Merveilles de la Science, published in 1870

The part played by emotion in cognition — and thus its social value — are affirmed in works such as Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1773), in which “models of unfeeling masculinity are held up to ridicule.” A theological outworking of this approach is evident in the Lutheran divine Joachim Spalding’s Die Bestimmung des Menschen (The End of Man), 1748. Spalding “re-established Christianity on the basis of feeling” — founding the religion’s credibility neither on rational argument nor on the self-authenticating character of revelation. Rather, Spalding appealed to Christianity’s powerful emotive scope to answer humanity’s “innate urge towards goodness”.

Robertson’s analysis ranges from the conceptual “Happiness, Reason and Passion” (Chapter 1) through to the concrete, and bloody, “Revolutions” (Chapter 14), traversing “Sociability” (Chapter 7), “Aesthetics” (Chapter 9), for example. Readers may especially appreciate Chapters 3-5, covering, respectively, “Toleration”, “The Religious Enlightenment”, and “Unbelief and Speculation”.

Enlightenment is impressive, but overwhelming. The encyclopaedia was the 18th century’s literary product par excellence. At more than 1000 pages, this volume nods to that genre. Indeed, neat sub-chapters on topics such as “Empire” and “Voltaire” read like crisp dictionary entries. Readers might profitably approach Enlightenment as a reference work rather than a narrative history: this book is best enjoyed by dipping in rather than reading through.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


The Enlightenment: The pursuit of happiness 1680-1790
Ritchie Robertson
Allen Lane £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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