Defending the Enlightenment

(p. C7) The dishonoring of Hume, and attacks on other Enlightenment luminaries such as Jefferson and Kant, indicate that the case against the Enlightenment has escaped the faculty lounge and is now in the streets. This turbulent context will inevitably frame any modern history of the Enlightenment, and so it is with Ritchie Robertson’s “The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790.” Mr. Robertson’s study is part of a growing rearguard action. He is determined, alongside colleagues such as Jonathan Israel and Anthony Pagden, both to defend the Enlightenment on its own terms and to promote its “particularly urgent message for our time.”

. . .

What the Enlighteners offered was reason alloyed with sentiment. “In this book,” writes Mr. Robertson, “I try to present the Enlightenment not only as an intellectual movement, but also as a sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings, and more concerned for what we would call humane, or humanitarian values.”

. . .

He uses the sentimental revolution to explain important reformist causes, such as the suppression of cruelty to animals, penal reform and new models of education. A “feeling” for humanity in all its diversity, among figures such as Diderot and Burke, informed powerful critiques of European empire. Even Adam Smith—(p. C8)often misremembered as a pitiless capitalist—made feeling central to sociability in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759). According to Smith, as Mr. Robertson puts it, social and economic life was not powered by “cold calculations” but by “desire, which had to be properly channelled in order to produce happiness.”

The postmodernist attacks on the Enlightenment as coercive, disciplinarian and hierarchical, Mr. Robertson claims, ignore its softer dimension, its humane sympathy and its concern to ameliorate suffering.

For the full review, see:

Jeffrey Collins. “Let’s Be Reasonable, and Humane.” The New York Times Book Review (Saturday, March 13, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 12, 2021, and has the title “‘The Enlightenment’ Review: Daring to Feel.”)

The book under review is:

Robertson, Ritchie. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. New York: Harper, 2021.

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