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The Enlightenment Reviews

The Enlightenment by Ritchie Robertson

The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790

Ritchie Robertson

3.75 out of 5

3 reviews

Category: Philosophy, Non-fiction
Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 5 Nov 2020
ISBN: 9780241004821

The Enlightenment is one of the formative periods of Western history, yet more than 300 years after it began, it remains controversial. It is often seen as the fountainhead of modern values such as human rights, religious toleration, freedom of thought, scientific thought as an exemplary form of reasoning, and rationality and evidence-based argument.

3 stars out of 5
16 Jan 2021

"What the Enlightenment really meant, and how it undid itself"

The Enlightenment was, as Ritchie Robertson argues, “the seedbed in which many of [our current] values germinated”. Our very tendency to critique and condemn ourselves is its legacy. But what Robertson perhaps insufficiently emphasizes is how much the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own demise. “Sensibility” is both civilizing and naturalizing; it cuts both ways. In asserting that “the beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men”, Hume was not just conferring dignity onto animals; he was also exposing humans’ unacknowledged reliance on instinct and their essential animality – an exposure that would generate Darwinism and Freudianism in the nineteenth century, and the denial of the mind in the twentieth. In the Enlightenment, we seemed to reach the apex of Reason, and, as a result, realized that we aren’t as rational, or as capable of dispassionate judgement, as we had thought.


4 stars out of 5
19 Dec 2020

"This impressive history rescues the Enlightenment from the unfair caricature of its critics"

Simultaneously, it exemplifies an aspect of 18th-century discourse that is often overlooked in more sober studies: that wit and entertainment value might be as valued as scholarship and learning. Accounts of dinners hosted by the Baron d’Holbach, a Franco-German philosopher notorious for his atheism, “make clear, first, that their purpose was intellectual conversation, not social chit-chat; second, that they were fun”. The Baron d’Holbach has long since gone to meet his maker, but readers wishing to simulate the experience of attending his dinners could do very much worse than curl up with Robertson’s book.

4 stars out of 5
19 Dec 2020

"Ritchie Robinson describes how its philosophy spread to literature, the arts, commerce, agriculture, science and medicine"

In a brilliant chapter, Robertson encompasses Adam Smith’s demonstration that even human commercial exchange rests on imagination (for if we are to trade, then I must be able to conceive how my goods may be of interest to you, and you how I may use your goods for my own benefit); Hume’s great ‘science of man’, intended to be a unified and general account of human life in all its major aspects; Diderot’s idea of universal sensibility underlying all individual action; and the growing preoccupation of German thinkers with anthropology, culminating in Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters, in which the balance in human nature is held not by reason or sensibility but by the distinctively human capacity for play.