NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY KIRKUS REVIEWS
One of our most renowned and brilliant historians takes a fresh look at the revolutionary intellectual movement that laid the foundation for the modern world.
Liberty and equality. Human rights. Freedom of thought and expression. Belief in reason and progress. The value of scientific inquiry. These are just some of the ideas that were conceived and developed during the Enlightenment, and which changed forever the intellectual landscape of the Western world. Spanning hundreds of years of history, Anthony Pagden traces the origins of this seminal movement, showing how Enlightenment concepts directly influenced modern culture, making possible a secular, tolerant, and, above all, cosmopolitan world.
Everyone can agree on its impact. But in the end, just what was Enlightenment? A cohesive philosophical project? A discrete time period in the life of the mind when the superstitions of the past were overthrown and reason and equality came to the fore? Or an open-ended intellectual process, a way of looking at the world and the human condition, that continued long after the eighteenth century ended? To address these questions, Pagden introduces us to some of the unforgettable characters who defined the Enlightenment, including David Hume, the Scottish skeptic who advanced the idea of a universal “science of man”; François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, the acerbic novelist and social critic who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church; and Immanuel Kant, the reclusive German philosopher for whom the triumph of a cosmopolitan world represented the final stage in mankind’s evolution. Comprehensive in his analysis of this heterogeneous group of scholars and their lasting impact on the world, Pagden argues that Enlightenment ideas go beyond the “empire of reason” to involve the full recognition of the emotional ties that bind all human beings together. The “human science” developed by these eminent thinkers led to a universalizing vision of humanity, a bid to dissolve the barriers past generations had attempted to erect between the different cultures of the world.
A clear and compelling explanation of the philosophical underpinnings of the modern world, The Enlightenment is a scintillating portrait of a period, a critical moment in history, and a revolution in thought that continues to this day.
Praise for The Enlightenment
“Sweeping . . . Like being guided through a vast ballroom of rotating strangers by a confiding insider.”—The Washington Post
“Fascinating.”—The Telegraph (London)
“A political tract for our time.”—The Wall Street Journal
“For those who recognize the names Hegel, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Voltaire, and Diderot but are unfamiliar with their thought, [Anthony] Padgen provides a fantastic introduction, explaining the driving philosophies of the period and placing their proponents in context. . . . Padgen’s belief that the Enlightenment ‘made it possible for us to think . . . beyond the narrow worlds into which we are born’ is clearly and cogently presented.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The Enlightenment really does still matter, and with a combination of gripping storytelling about colorful characters and lucid explanation of profound ideas, Anthony Pagden shows why.”—Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Blank Slate
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Anthony Pagden is distinguished professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was educated in Chile, Spain, and France, and at Oxford. He has been the University Reader in Intellectual History at Cambridge, a fellow of King’s College, a visiting professor at Harvard, and Harry C. Black Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of many prize-winning books, including Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West; Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present; and European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. Pagden contributes regularly to such publications as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The National Interest.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
What Is Enlightenment?
in 1794 marie-jean-antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, sat in hiding in a tiny room in the house of Madame Vernet in the rue Servandoni in Paris. By the light of a candle, shaded so as not to reveal his whereabouts while the forces of the French Revolution closed in on him, he wrote a brief fragment of what was intended to be a much longer work, the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. Condorcet was one of the great mathematicians of his or any other age, one of the creators of differential calculus, and the first person to attempt to predict the possible outcome of human decision-making by using mathematics, which makes him the forefather of modern political science. He was also a champion of equal rights for women and for all peoples of all races and an abolitionist who devised the world’s first state education system. Like all men of his class in the eighteenth century, he was deeply involved in politics.1 He had been an active supporter of the Revolution in its early stages, becoming the Paris representative of the National Assembly in 1791 and then its secretary. Although a member of the Girodins, the more moderate of the two revolutionary parties, he continued until his death to see the Revolution as a force that had accelerated the normal course of history, and he looked upon the French constitution, as did its authors, as not merely a constitution for a new republican France but a constitution for humankind.2 When, in December 1792, the National Assembly put the king, Louis XVI, on trial as a traitor, Condorcet supported the move, believing, like the Anglo-American radical Tom Paine—now a naturalized French citizen—that it would show the world that kings, too, could be held accountable for their crimes. But because, like all good liberals—like Paine, indeed—he rejected the idea that the state had the right to take human life, he passionately opposed the idea of his execution. This did not win him friends among the revolutionary hard-liners, and when in 1793 he voted against the new constitution proposed by the Jacobins, he was branded as a traitor and an enemy of the Revolution. A warrant for his arrest was issued on July 8, after which he went into hiding in the rue Servandoni. On March 25, 1794, sensing that the forces of the Terror were closing in on him and fearful that his continuing presence might prove dangerous to the good Madame Vernet, he fled Paris, taking with him only a volume of the poems of Horace. He seems to have spent the night of the 26th in the countryside around Clamart, some nine kilometers outside Paris, and on the 27th, exhausted, famished, and apparently wounded in one leg, he stopped at an inn and ordered an omelette. The innkeeper asked him how many eggs he wanted. “Twelve,” replied Condorcet. He was immediately arrested and taken to Bourg-la Reine to await prosecution by the dreaded Revolutionary Tribunal. (Only aristocrats ever ate so many eggs at one sitting.)3 Two days later, on March 29, 1794, he died in prison, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the victim of what the conservative Anglo-Irish orator, philosopher, and political theorist Edmund Burke nicely called “the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians.”4
Condorcet was one of the most prominent, distinguished, and widely loved victims of the revolutionary fury, yet for the enemies of the Enlightenment, on both the extreme left and the far right, he became one of the worst exponents of the confidence in human rationality that had supposedly made the Revolution possible. “That philosophe so dear to the Revolution,” the arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre said of him, “who used his life to prepare the unhappiness of the present generation, graciously willing perfection to posterity.”5 Maximilien de Robespierre, the sanguineous theoretician of the Terror, thought no better of him. “A great geometrician,” he called him after his death, “or so say the men of letters; a great man of letters in the opinion of the geometricians, and later a timid conspirator despised by all parties.”6
Much of this hostility, and De Maistre’s in particular, was not directed at Condorcet’s mathematical writings, although his vision of a life regulated by the certainty of predication struck some—as it did the Romantic literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve—as a recipe for “universal mediocrity,” in which there would be no place “for great virtues, for acts of heroism,” a bright new world whose unfortunate citizens would all die of boredom. It was directed instead at the Sketch, which was his most accessible and would become his best-known work.7
As its somewhat provisional title makes clear, the Sketch is a universal history of mankind, divided into ten “epochs.” It starts in prehistory with small wandering bands whose condition can only be inferred by “examining the intellectual and moral faculties and the physical constitution of man.” It then takes the reader through the successive stages of human social evolution until it arrives at the current condition of the “enlightened nations of Europe.” The final epoch lies in the future. It is here that all the promises of that period, which, like his contemporaries, Condorcet referred to as the “century of light” or the “century of philosophy” and we today call the Enlightenment, “would finally be realized.” The natural sciences, he argued, which had achieved such astounding successes in the seventeenth century, are based upon one single and unwavering belief: that all the laws of the universe are “necessary and constant” throughout time. As humans are part of this universe, the study of their history, although it is unlikely to uncover laws as certain as those of physics, will at least allow the historian to “predict with great probability the events of the future.” What, then, will the future bring? Given the conditions in which he was writing, Condorcet was perhaps being unduly optimistic. But he remained convinced that
Our hopes for the future state of the human species may be summed up in three important points: the elimination of the inequality between nations; progress in equality within the same peoples; and finally the real perfection of mankind. All peoples should one day approach the state of civilization attained by the most enlightened, the most free, and the most free from prejudices, such as are the French and the Anglo-Americans.
Today we have grown wary of the word civilization, after the uses to which, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was put. But Condorcet understood it not as some undifferentiated cultural and political state that all peoples should be compelled to adopt but what he called an “equal diffusion of enlightenment,” a condition in which all mankind would acquire
the necessary enlightenment to conduct themselves in accordance with their own reason in the common affairs of life, and to maintain them, free of prejudices, so that they might know their rights and be at liberty to exercise them according to their own opinion and their conscience, where all might, through the development of their faculties, obtain the certain means to provide for their needs.
In 1794 these conditions clearly did not yet exist. But Condorcet assured his readers that the “progress which science and civilization” had made was such that there was “the strongest reasons to believe that nature has set no limit to our hopes.” Even now, or so he thought, the principles behind the French constitution were shared by all enlightened beings across the world. Soon they would be shared by all mankind. Soon, what he called the “great religions of the Orient”—by which he meant not only Islam but also, and most especially, Christianity—which for so long had kept their cringing adherents trapped in a state of “slavery without hope and a perpetual infancy,” would finally be revealed for the lies, tricks, and deceits that they were. When that day arrived, “The sun will rise only upon a world of free men who will recognize no master other than their own reason, where tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments, will exist only in history or in the theatre.” When that day arrived, as he had told the doubtless skeptical members of the Académie française twelve years earlier, “We will have seen reason emerge victorious from that struggle, so long and so painful, [so] that at last we will be able to write: truth has triumphed; the human race is saved!”8
Some aspects of Condorcet’s imaginary future can today sound uncomfortably like a precursor to the objectives of the civilizing missions that would flood so much of the world in the nineteenth century. Yet for all his belief in the goods that the inescapable forward march of western civilization would finally bring, he was also acutely aware of the depredations that that civilization, in its insatiable quest for “sugar and spices” in Africa, Asia, and America, and “our betrayals, our bloody contempt for men of a different color or belief, our insolence and our usurpations” had inflicted on “those vast lands.”9 But he firmly believed that now that the perpetrators themselves had thrown off the kings and priests who had been largely responsible for these horrors, these depredations would soon be only a distant memory, and the peoples of Africa and Asia (alas, it was already too late for the poor American Indians) would be waiting patiently for the day when they might become the “friends and disciples” of new, enlightened Europeans.
Condorcet’s vision of the future, although challenged and derided, has had and continues to have a powerful hold over the imagination of the we...
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