The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters

Justin Champion applauds a vivid exploration of the ways in which Enlightenment ideas shaped centuries of history 

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Reviewed by: Justin Champion
Author: Anthony Pagden
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £20

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In late March 1794, the Marquise of Condorcet, one of the most distinguished and significant Enlightenment thinkers and author of an influential historical study of the development and progress of the human mind, died in prison at the hands of the Revolutionary Tribunal. In his urgent flight from Paris, he had exposed his aristocratic lineage by ordering a dozen eggs for a breakfast omelette, and the innkeeper had called in the guards.

Condorcet’s ideas have become an epitome of the optimistic account of the Enlightenment, which argued that 18th-century society and collective intellect had reached a ‘century of light’. Sharing a widely held conviction that the universe was governed by regular, comprehensible natural laws, he believed in progress of both the human mind and society towards “the real perfection of mankind”. Condorcet imagined a future where, through the unhindered exercise of reason and the development of science, tyrants (who he mainly identified as superstitious priests) would be vanquished. That he was destroyed by revolutionary rage is often presented as a symbol of the inherent flaw in the Enlightenment project.

Pagden’s impassioned study of the major thinkers and authors of the 150 years after 1650 outlines the philosophical origins of this emancipatory project to ‘save’ the human race from social and political injustice. The book focuses on the texture and complexity of ideas, rather than more fashionable historical debates concerning the role of informal social interaction in their transmission: written with exemplary clarity, it exposes the classical roots of the critical attack on religious traditions, and explores new discourses around a scientific study of humanity. As Pagden explains, once free of the dead hand of scholastic thinking and the irrational prejudices of organised religion and priestcraft, thinkers such as Bougainville mapped out a materialistic natural history of “the great society of mankind”. Inspired by encounters with other cultures, these minds understood that there might be a common, ‘cosmopolitan’ interest to all humanity.

It has been fashionable to mock the Enlightenment’s optimistic pretensions and to dismiss its convictions in progress and civilisation as simply Eurocentric discourse. Pagden’s book is a powerful antidote: indeed, in its conclusion, he imagines what the world might have looked like today, dominated by religious fundamentalism of many brands.

According to Pagden, the significant achievement of the Enlightenment was to detach the claims of morality from the religious world view – and to recognise that humanity had the maturity and potential to regulate its own ethical life without recourse to the divine. One immediate legacy is our commonplace ability to think globally. In transcending local politics and protecting a collective interest, Enlightenment conceptions of perpetual peace can be seen to underpin the ambitions of ‘modern’ institutions such as the UN. While Pagden pauses to consider the dark side of Enlightenment ideas, the power of the book lies in its lucid exposition of optimistic thinking, from Condorcet’s conceptual history to Hume’s brutal attack on organised religion as “sick men’s dreams”. If one wanted a handbook of optimism, Pagden’s work would be a set text.

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Justin Champion is professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can hear his Royal Historical Society lecture on the Enlightenment online at tinyurl.com/dyah4ga