With support from the University of Richmond

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An Inspiring History of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment. By Ritchie Robertson.Allen Lane; 1,008 pages; £40. To be published in America by Harper in February; $45.

In september the University of Edinburgh expunged the name of David Hume from an ugly teaching block. In response to a student petition, the university agreed that the views of the 18th-century thinker on the possible inferiority of non-white races, voiced in a tentative footnote to his essay “Of National Characters”, “rightly cause distress today”. Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, used almost identical language. So did Immanuel Kant.

In contrast, many thinkers of the Enlightenment argued forcefully for the “basic unity of humankind”. Johann Gottfried Herder, a German polymath, scorned the notion of race itself, and saw all peoples as related parts of “the same great painting”. In his epic survey of Enlightened minds, ideas and policies across Europe and the Americas, Ritchie Robertson deems Hume-style prejudice “indefensible even in its own time”. At least as typical of the era was the ceramic medallion produced by potter-philanthropist Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 to support the abolition of slavery, on which a chained African figure pleads: “Am I not a man and a brother?” As this masterly book shows, Wedgwood’s brooch better encapsulates the mood of the age: its universal principles, wide-ranging sympathy, social activism—and commercial nous.

The Enlightenment argued fiercely with itself, in terms still in use. When today’s Westerners quarrel over race, empire, gender, religion, science, the state or the market, they often do so with weapons and tactics honed three centuries ago. Or more: in 1673 the maverick pastor François Poulain de la Barre wrote in “On the Equality of the Two Sexes” that “there is no such thing as sex”. Yet revisionists like to frame the heyday of the writers, scholars and progressive rulers presented here as “the apotheosis of hyper-rational calculation”. Supposedly, their influence disenchanted the world and seeded a motley harvest of modern evils from neoliberalism to Stalinism.

Mr Robertson begs to differ. A professor of German at Oxford, he is a champion of the thinkers who promoted “the advance of reason, good sense and empirical enquiry” against superstition and tyranny, from the late 17th century until the French revolution. Isaac Newton’s gravitation, Adam Smith’s political economy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s cult of sentiment—indeed, Hume’s outrageous near-atheism—all feature. But Mr Robertson lays special stress on the pursuit of happiness boldly invoked in the American rebels’ Declaration of Independence. That led to the first purpose-built Enlightenment state—“a very British affair” in its intellectual foundations. “The ultimate end of man is happiness,” claimed Rousseau’s fellow-Genevan Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui. By itself reason (which must anyway be “slave of the passions”, insisted Hume) would not ensure felicity.

Read entire article at The Economist