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c. 1660

During the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment emerged as a social, philosophical, political, and literary movement that espoused rational thought and methodical observation of the world. The term "Enlightenment" refers to the belief by the movement's contributors that they were leaving behind the dark ignorance and blind belief that characterized the past. The freethinking writers of the period sought to evaluate and understand life by way of scientific observation and critical reasoning rather than through uncritically accepting religion, tradition, and social conventions. At the center of the Enlightenment were the philosophes, a group of intellectual deists who lived in Paris. Deists believe in the existence of a creative but uninvolved God, and they believed in the basic goodness, rather than sinfulness, of humankind. Because this view of God contradicted the tenets of the established Roman Catholic Church, the philosophes were considered very dangerous. The Church wielded considerable power, so the philosophes were subjected to censorship and restrictive decrees carrying harsh punishments. Yet the philosophes continued to spread their views, and as the Church's political power was challenged in the decades leading up to the French Revolution, the Enlightenment gained momentum. In fact, by the 1770s, many philosophes collected government pensions and held important academic positions.

Scholars do not agree on the exact dates of the Enlightenment. Most literary historians support the claim that it ended with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789, and they place the beginning somewhere between 1660 and 1685. Although it was centered in France, the Enlightenment had adherents in other European countries and in North America. Contributors to the movement include France's Denis Diderot (who edited Encyclopédie), Voltaire (Candide), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract), Germany's Immanuel Kant (who is also associated with Transcendentalism), England's David Hume, Italy's Cesare Beccaria, and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in the North American colonies. Most of the major contributors knew one another and were in contact despite great distances. The Enlightenment's influence extended both geographically and chronologically, as reactions to it became evident in subsequent literary movements such as Sturm und Drang and Romanticism.


Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Denis Diderot was born on October 5, 1713, in Langres, France. His father was an artist and had a great influence on the technical craftsmanship of Diderot's masterpiece, the Encyclopédie, a compendium of knowledge on a wide variety of subjects of which he was the editor and a major contributor. Diderot distinguished himself as a student at the University of Paris, from which he graduated in 1732. As an adult, his personal life was often tumultuous and mysterious. He secretly married an uneducated woman named Antoinette, and their relationship was difficult. In 1755, he carried on a secret love affair with Sophie Volland, and his love letters to her are ranked among the best ever written.

Diderot was able to establish himself professionally while in his twenties and enjoyed a fruitful career as a translator and encyclopedist. His greatest accomplishment is his contribution to the Encyclopédie, a multiple-volume (the number of volumes ranges from eleven to thirty-five in varying editions) work that took Diderot and the other contributors more than twenty years to complete (1750-1772). The success of this work earned Diderot fame and the respect of such high-profile figures as Catherine II of Russia.

Diderot's other work includes fiction (most notably The Nun, 1782, and Jacques the Fatalist, 1784), drama, dialogues (simple theatrical presentations involving two characters discussing or debating issues and ideas), philosophical treatises, literary criticism, and essays. His particular concern was the rightful place of the artist in society, with attention to the difference between the appreciation for the artist by his contemporaries and by future generations. Diderot saw how the artist in eighteenth-century Europe endured the scrutiny of religious and political leaders and faced limitations imposed by censors. Despite a career subjected to such pressures, Diderot was respected by his peers because of his imagination, cleverness, and conversational ability.

Diderot often withheld his writing from publication to protect it from censorship and for fear that his contemporaries would not understand it. He preferred that it be preserved for posterity, and, in fact, much of his work has been more fully appreciated in the generations since his death. Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex theory was influenced by one of Diderot's dialogues. Diderot himself offered early theories of psychology and evolution, and he predicted the inventions of Braille, the typewriter, and the cinema. Many scholars conclude that Diderot was far ahead of his time.

Diderot died after a long illness in Paris on July 31, 1784. His work had a major impact on future writers, especially the German writers of the Sturm und Drang movement, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume was born on April 26, 1711, at his family's estate near Edinburgh, Scotland. His interest in philosophy began at an early age, and when he was eighteen, he abandoned his plans to study law in favor of pursuing philosophy. His first work, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), was poorly received, but his next effort, Essays, Moral and Political (1741), was praised by critics and readers alike. Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748) is among his most respected works. He wrote numerous philosophical and political treatises and enjoyed a varied career as a tutor, political secretary, and librarian. During the years he spent in Paris (1763-1766), he was acclaimed and invited to the most elite salons. Although Hume attracted his share of critics, his work was largely admired. When he left Paris to go to London, he took along French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but after a series of public quarrels, the two parted ways. He returned to Scotland in 1769, where he occupied a grand house in Edinburgh. It was there that he died peacefully on August 25, 1776.

Considered one of the most important philosophers of modern thought, Hume advocated a form of philosophical skepticism that claimed that all knowledge attained by experience is uncertain. His writings about perception and cause-and-effect extend to various areas, including religion, politics, and ethics. Hume was particularly interested in the processes people use to secure knowledge and to deem it reliable.

G. E. Lessing (1729-1781)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born in Kamenz, Saxony (part of present-day Germany) on January 22, 1729. As a young man, he studied medicine and theology, expected to follow in the footsteps of his clergyman father. Lessing was more interested, however, in theater and became an important critic and playwright. His tragedy Miss Sara Sampson (1755) and his comedy Nathan the Wise (1779) are considered classic examples of German Enlightenment playwriting. As a critic, he urged playwrights to stop imitating the French and to create a German national theater. Lessing himself wrote many philosophical treatises arguing for religious tolerance and freedom of thought over religious dogma. In 1776, he married Eva Krönig; she died two years later in childbirth. Lessing died on February 15, 1781, in Braunschweig, Germany.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, Norfolk, England, on January 29, 1737. Paine received an education as a child, which was not common and proved him to be an exceptional student, but he ad trouble keeping his jobs as an adult. After the death of his first wife, Paine worked as a customs officer and became involved in politics. Falling into trouble, Paine was forced to sell his possessions and was also separated from his second wife. Paine met Benjamin Franklin in September 1774, and Franklin advised him to move to colonial North America, which Paine did two months later. He became deeply involved in the revolutionary movement for freedom from British rule. His pamphlet Common Sense (1776) convinced many colonists that independence was necessary. Paine was a fanatical supporter of the French Revolution, to the extant that he became involved in French politics despite not speaking the language. He was arrested in France in 1793 and narrowly avoided execution the following year, just before he finally won release. Paine wrote The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology (1794, 1795, and 1807), a critique of organized religion, while in France. He returned to what was by then the United States in 1802, as a friend to President Thomas Jefferson. He died in New York City on June 8, 1809.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 8, 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a writer, botanist, social theorist, and musician. When his mother died a few days after his birth, an aunt and uncle agreed to rear him. Although Rousseau was an engraver's apprentice, he ran away at the age of sixteen to be the secretary and companion of a wealthy woman named Madame Louise de Warens, who was enormously influential in the young man's life. At the age of thirty, he left for Paris, where he was a music instructor and political secretary. His friend Diderot commissioned him to contribute music articles to Encyclopédie, and Rousseau's writing career began. He wrote social commentary and essays espousing the belief that science and rationalism offer the way to truth. Rousseau's social commentary drew fire from Voltaire, and the two became rivals.

In 1756, Rousseau left Paris and went to Montmorency, France, where he wrote The Social Contract and Émile, both published in 1762. The Social Contract is considered one of the formative documents of the ideology of the French Revolution. Rousseau believed that the will of the people should guide government and that individuals should be free of pressures from church and state. The novel Émile presents an unorthodox view of educational theory, couched in a fictional work about a tutored student. Rousseau's views made him unpopular with authorities in France and Switzerland, so he went first to Prussia (a kingdom comprising parts of present-day Germany and Poland; it ceased to exist after World War II) and then to England with Hume. A series of disagreements, however, led them to publicly denounce each other, and Rousseau returned to France in 1768. He died on July 2, 1778, in Ermenonville.

Rousseau's major contributions to the Enlightenment were The Social Contract, Émile(both 1762), and the autobiographical Confessions (published posthumously in 1782). These works are regarded as some of the most inspired and original of the Enlightenment, and they had farreaching effects on political theory and education. While early Enlightenment thinkers championed rationalism above all else, Rousseau introduced a note of emotion. His work represented the merging of the two approaches without weakening the Enlightenment stance that truth is revealed through individual inquiry rather than through blind adherence to tradition and authority.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Born in Paris on November 21, 1694, François Marie Arouet wrote extensively using the name Voltaire. As a young man, he gravitated toward writing and was soon considered one of the most intelligent and witty Parisians to frequent the salons, gatherings of distinguished guests, artists, and writers held in private homes. Voltaire's sarcasm and irreverence toward authority earned him two jail sentences, after which he spent two years in London. In the ensuing years, he moved from one patron to another in France and Germany, as his critical and sarcastic writings alternately intrigued and enraged members of the ruling class. He finally settled in Ferney, France, in 1758, where he lived for the remaining twenty years of his life. There, he continued his literary career, completing such masterpieces as the novel Candide. His mature work criticized religion, politics, economics, and philosophy, broadening and strengthening the Enlightenment spirit. He died in Paris on May 30, 1778.

Voltaire is considered one of the most influential of the Enlightenment writers, and most scholars writing on the Enlightenment include references to Candide (1759). A prolific writer, Voltaire wrote fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, history, satire, essays, and philosophical treatises. In these diverse genres, Voltaire explored science, philosophy, and the emerging consciousness of his day. Critics often cite the elegance, wit, and thoughtfulness of his work, but Voltaire is also criticized for being overly concerned with historical detail and philosophical persuasion.


The Age of Reason

Paine's treatise against organized religion, The Age of Reason, was published in three parts in 1794, 1795, and 1807. Paine advocated deism, or belief in a supreme being that does not intervene in the universe it created. In his book, Paine disparages miracles and revelations, preferring reason to divine inspiration. He also criticizes the Church for corruption. Deism and Paine's criticisms were not new; however, his writing style was particularly accessible and the book was sold at an affordable price, making ideas accessible to almost anyone that were once available only to the elite who could afford to attend school.


Voltaire's novel Candide (1759) is a satire attacking the philosophical leanings of his day. In the story, Candide and his traveling companions (Pangloss, an optimist; Cunégonde, his love; Martin the Pessimist; and Cacambo, his valet) endure hardships and witness the worst of humankind's cruelty and folly. In the end, Candide concludes that it is best to end the philosophical debates and simply cultivate one's own garden.


  • Candide was adapted to film in 1961 by the French companies Courts et Longs Métrages and Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma. It was then given English subtitles and distributed in the United States by Union Films.
  • Television adaptations of Candide were made in 1973 by the British Broadcasting Corporation and in 1986 by Public Broadcasting Service.
  • In 1989, a musical version of Candide was produced by the German company Deutsche Grammophon and the American company Video Music Production, featuring compositions by Leonard Bernstein.
  • The original text of The Age of Reason is available for free on many Web sites, including the highly esteemed Project Gutenberg. Paine's book can be read or downloaded from Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3743.
  • The United States government maintains a Web site with high-resolution scans of the original Declaration of Independence. The Web site, accessible at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration.html, also has several articles which examine the history and meaning of this historic document and a feature whereby one can add his or her name to the Declaration of Independence and print it out.

The winding, episodic plot of Candide includes incidents that Voltaire's contemporaries readily recognized as paralleling events of their time. Voltaire takes aim at philosophical optimism and pessimism, nobility, war, and religion. He reveals hypocrisy and abuse of power by the Church and the state. Supporters of Enlightenment thinking praised Voltaire for his bold depictions of these social realities, while more conservative thinkers condemned him. In the early 2000s, students of the Enlightenment look to Candide as an example of the type of fiction favored by the philosophes and for its presentation of Enlightenment ideology.

Declaration of Independence

With the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the thirteen North American colonies officially separated from England. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to establish a government separate from England's, to declare war against England (with whom North Americans were already fighting), and to solicit foreign aid for the war effort. In addition, the document outlines the colonists' grievances in light of the treatment they had received from England's monarchy. When the Continental Congress decided to pursue independence, it formed a committee to create a draft of the document declaring this intention. Thomas Jefferson, who loved France and was impressed by Enlightenment thinkers, undertook the job of composing this important document. With the Declaration of Independence, Enlightenment ideas were put into political action. The concepts of self-rule, civil liberties, and a social contract that benefits both the ruled and the rulers are all embodied in the Declaration ofIndependence. Although his draft was edited by the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson is still considered the architect of the document.

The Declaration of Independence opens with the Preamble, which states the purpose of the document and lists the goals of the emerging government. The Preamble asserts that citizens are entitled to basic rights, which the government has no authority to violate. Twenty-seven grievances against England's King George III are listed. These serve to demonstrate the type of government the future United States set out to avoid, while explaining why the Americans feel compelled to create their own government system. The federal government of the new United States asserts its right to wage war, collect taxes, carry on trade, be involved in international affairs, and otherwise function as an independent nation.


Rousseau's didactic Émile (1762) was published the same year as his political treatise The Social Contract. In Émile, Rousseau presents his innovative ideas about education. He follows the fictional title character from infancy to adolescence, demonstrating the ideal education for him as a tutor teaches him privately. Rousseau believed that the purpose of education is not to provide information in an attempt to increase the student's knowledge but rather to approach each child individually with the goal of drawing out the abilities that child possesses. Rousseau's student-centered approach is more focused on talent and innate intelligence than on uniform standards and requirements.

The year 1762 was a turning point for Rousseau. With his radical ideas on politics and education reaching the public, he was considered a scandalous figure. The controversy over The Social Contract was more heated, but some of the religious content of Émile caused it to be banned in France and Switzerland. In the early 2000s, however, the book is considered a classic work on educational theory, and Rousseau is regarded as a man ahead of his time. Although his theories are not carried out intact, the ideas introduced in the novel do influence teaching methods. Some scholars go so far as to claim that Rousseau was a crucial figure in the development of child psychology.


The Encyclopédie (1751-1772) is regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of the Enlightenment. Diderot and the other contributors spent more than twenty years working on it, and it is a masterpiece of compiled information in accessible but thought-provoking language. Although it was originally meant to be a translation of another work, Diderot envisioned a greater undertaking that would summarize the most important knowledge of the day. Its content ranges from technological and craft processes to the history of and topics associated with philosophy. Diderot's articles on the latter are among his most inspired. While encyclopedias in modern times are objective, the Encyclopédie included point-of-view articles about science, politics, world cultures, religion, and philosophy. The philosophes spoke through these volumes to challenge existing theology and philosophy, while explaining Enlightenment ideals. Diderot shaped the Encyclopédie to be a source of information available to people who wanted to look beyond the traditional resource, the Church.

Nathan the Wise

The Lessing tragedy Nathan the Wise (1779) is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade (1189-1192). In this play, a German Templar falls in love with Recha, the foundling daughter of a rich Jewish merchant named Nathan. Nathan has raised Recha to be spiritual without reference to a particular religion. The Templar initially spurns Nathan because he is Jewish but is brought around by his love of Recha. Nathan's servant reveals to the Templar that Recha was born a Christian. The play resolves when it is revealed that the Templar and Recha are not only sister and brother, but also niece and nephew to the Sultan Saladin, so they are not Christian, but Muslim.

The character of Nathan was based upon Lessing's good friend, Moses Mendelssohn, a German Jew. This play and an earlier one, The Jews (1749) were controversial in their day for their positive portrayals of Jewish people.

The Social Contract

Rousseau's 1762 political treatise The Social Contract asserts that a government has a set of moral responsibilities to the people it governs. As Rousseau saw it, most governments violate these responsibilities: "Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains." Real authority arises from a just agreement between the government and the governed, and Rousseau terms this agreement "the social contract."

Diverse theorists and philosophers influenced The Social Contract, including John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and certain Ancient Greek philosophers. When it was published, The Social Contract was received with indignation and outrage. Rousseau was hated throughout France, and efforts were made to suppress The Social Contract. Although Rousseau died in 1778 and therefore did not see the French Revolution (1789-1799), his theories supported its ideology. In 1794 (during the French Revolution), Rousseau's body was exhumed and transported to Paris for a hero's burial in the Pantheon.


Superiority of the Intellect

The philosophes claimed that humans have the ability to perfect themselves and society and that the state has the potential to be an instrument of that progress. Part of their criticism of the existing government was that it impeded such progress in its refusal to surrender power or resources to the people so that they could take control of their lives. The philosophes lamented the social conditions of contemporary France, but they remained confident that its people could attain happiness and improve living standards. Armed with these concepts and fortified by science and reason, the philosophes attacked Christian tradition and dogma, denouncing religious persecution and championing the idea of religious tolerance.

At the center of the belief in the superiority of the intellect was the Enlightenment reaction against traditional authority, namely the Church and the ruling class. The philosophes claimed that rather than depend on these authorities for physical, spiritual, and intellectual needs, individuals could provide for themselves. By using their minds and demanding morality of themselves and others, people could actually change their realities for the better. This idea is evident in Rousseau's The Social Contract and in the Declaration of


  • A central tenet of Enlightenment thinkers was that humankind is innately good. Research the idea of the "noble savage" and see how it relates to Enlightenment thought. Prepare a well-organized essay explaining your findings, complete with examples from literature and/or history. Be sure to include any aspects of the "noble savage" that contradict the Enlightenment point of view.
  • Sturm und Drang and Romanticism are two literary movements that are viewed, in part, as reactions against the Enlightenment. Choose one of these movements and prepare a web page that summarizes it and the Enlightenment, compares and contrasts the two, and explains why scholars interpret your movement as a reaction against the Enlightenment.
  • During the latter part of the eighteenth century—when literature promoted and reflected Enlightenment ideas—Neoclassicism dominated the art world, and Romanticism followed in the early nineteenth century. Read about these art movements and examine their representative works. Consider the paintings of Jacques-Louis David (Neoclassicism) and see how they relate in style and/or subject to the work of Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix, whose Liberty Leading the People is a famous painting that champions freedom.
  • Read Victor Hugo's classic story of the French Revolution, Les Misérables, or watch a stage or screen adaptation of the novel. Select one of the main characters and compose a character sketch explaining how the Enlightenment did or did not affect the character's personality, emotional presence, and decision making.

Independence. It is expressed more subtly in Émile where in a child's education is designed to draw upon his unique capabilities and to

teach the child to be his own person in adulthood.

Basic Goodness of Humankind

The philosophes maintained that people were innately good and that society and civilization were to blame for their corruption. Because people are good, they are fully capable of ruling themselves and collectively working toward the welfare of all. Rousseau asserts this in The Social Contract, as he explains that despite individual differences and priorities, people as a whole will make decisions for the common good. In Émile, Rousseau applies this idea to the education of a child, demonstrating that the purpose of education is not to correct a child or mold the child to exhibit a certain set of characteristics but rather to draw out the child's unique gifts and goodness. Not all Enlightenment writers emphasized man's inherent goodness, however; in Candide,Voltaire provides numerous examples of humanity's cruelty and abuse of power. Once the characters are living peacefully on a farm (outside of civilization), they seem to be less violent, but the theme of humankind's goodness is diminished here.


Deism is a religious belief system that emphasizes morality, virtuous living, and the perception of a creative but uninvolved God. Deists believe in f God but reject the supernatural, including the New Testament miracles and resurrection of Christ. They reject the idea that God is active in people's daily lives, instead claiming that God created the world but is now distant. This view of God directly contradicts the view of Catholic and Protestant religions. The philosophes were particularly incensed by the Roman Catholic Church, which they perceived as too restrictive and dominant.

As deists, the philosophes were uninterested in life after death. They maintained that people should spend their time and energy improving this life, and they advocated pursuing worldly happiness and contentment. Diderot addresses these ideas in the Encyclopédie, and they are implied in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which states that among a person's unalienable rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."



Over the course of the Enlightenment, there existed two clearly opposing schools of thought concerning rhetoric. The traditions of the Renaissance, largely influenced by the works of Peter Ramus, held over into the early part of the movement. Ramus attacked Aristotle's view that rhetoric and dialect should be integrated, indicating that, though they may have been used in conjunction in the past, they should be disengaged. Ramus advocated a linear style, bereft of embellishment, so that scientific and philosophical writings might be better representations of truth. This straight forward approach adhered naturally to the rational thought and methodical observation promoted by the Enlightenment. However, while this rhetorical convention was becoming less popular, another was quickly gaining ground.

Near the end of the Enlightenment, the Belletristic Movement was in full swing. Works such as Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), by Hugh Blair, and Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), by George Campbell, were published. Both authors embraced the idea of using eloquence, beauty, and emotion to allow one to communicate, with the most advantage, to his or her audience. The word belletristic comes from belles-lettres (French for literature), which is literature that is appreciated not just for its content but for its beauty as well.


Although there are few stylistic consistencies among Enlightenment works, the fiction of the period is almost always satirical. Satire is an indirect way of commenting on social or political issues. Satire reveals how people and things are not what they seem on the surface, and readers can often identify what aspect of society is being ridiculed. Satire allowed the philosophes to get some of their writing past government censors despite its harsh criticism of the status quo. The number of censors increased in France during the Enlightenment because of the radical new ideas being put forth. When writers used satire, however, censors either missed the point of the writing or were unable to make a convincing case for suppressing it.

Satire also served as a witty way to criticize. Enlightenment writers were often clever and sarcastic, and their work tended to attract an intelligent readership. A common satirical technique was to create a character that was a stranger to France. Because the character is naive and unfamiliar with the local society, the character may be confused by French society or find fault with it. These characters were generally ignorant or silly, making their faultfinding seem equally ignorant or silly. The satiric irony, however, is that the character is the author's mouthpiece for pointing out the absurd and unjust in French society.


United States

The Enlightenment had an important impact on the formative years of the United States as an independent nation. Although little Enlightenment literature came out of North America, the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution embodied the principles espoused by the philosophes. Some of the central figures of the North American colonies (such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin) were admirers of Enlightenment writers, which influenced their decision making and their political writing. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson drew on some of the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment, such as the basic goodness of humans and their innate ability for self-rule, the injustices of corrupt governments, and the belief that all individuals should be free to pursue happiness. The Constitution, which lays out the system of government for the new United States, was drafted in 1787 and contains many ideas inspired by Enlightenment writers and theorists.


Hume's philosophical writings about human rational processes and Adam Smith's revolutionary economic views added important dimensions to the Enlightenment. The philosopher Hume lived in Great Britain, while most of the philosophes were in Paris. His ideologies supported Enlightenment claims of rationalism, although his work claimed that knowledge—especially knowledge gained through the senses—is not as reliable as many philosophers had suggested. Hume was also unique in his generally widespread acceptance. While the works of most philosophes endured censorship and outrage, Hume's work was published and deemed acceptable, mostly due to the fact that his work did not address volatile issues such as politics and religion but instead focused on explaining human thought processes and rational approaches to philosophical questions.

Hume was well known both at home and in France. When he spent two years in Paris, he was welcomed into the most distinguished salons and embraced by the public. When he left, he took Rousseau with him, although the two fell out of favor with each other once they arrived in London. Hume was not only influential with the philosophes, but he also played an important role in Transcendentalism. Kant, whose philosophical doctrines are major parts of the foundation of Transcendentalism, said that reading Hume was an experience of philosophical awakening.

Adam Smith's 1776 economic treatise An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (often referred to as The Wealth of Nations) was the first attempt to analyze systems of trade, production, and commerce in Europe. Smith's friendship with Hume helped shape his innovative theories. Besides providing an in-depth look at economic scenarios, Smith included material addressing social ramifications of various aspects of economics. The Wealth of Nations demonstrated that Enlightenment ideals had applications in virtually every area of life, and its principles were put into action in North America.


Seventeenth-Century Advances

Among the important influences of Enlightenment thinkers were seventeenth-century scientists and thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Locke's theory of sensationalism (the belief that knowledge is solely derived through sensation and perception) was especially important to Voltaire and Rousseau, and Locke's views on the relationship between the individual and society laid the groundwork for the social contract theories of Rousseau.

Along with the writings of these influential figures, the seventeenth century provided other


  • Late Eighteenth Century: By the 1770s, significant growth in the printing industry means wider distribution of newspapers and books. This enables Enlightenment writers to reach a greater audience. Censorship is also waning, enabling Enlightenment thinkers to write more plainly about their views and theories.

    Today: The Internet enables anyone to reach a worldwide audience. Any information, theory, or ideology can be read by millions of people. Such communications are virtually unpoliced.

  • Late Eighteenth Century: In 1762, Rousseau's Émile is published. In this world-famous novel presenting a new approach to education, the author expresses the typical view of the day that limited education is acceptable for women but that ultimately they should be prepared for domestic life.

    Today: Women are given the same access to higher education as men. Some well-educated women choose to stay home and rear their children, but this is a choice rather than an expectation.

  • Late Eighteenth Century: World exploration and colonization by European nations affects the Enlightenment in two ways. First, exposure to new cultures brings about the philosophes' view that culture is relative and that tolerance is necessary. Second, colonization often leads to oppression (because governing bodies do not share the philosophes' appreciation for other cultures). In the case of the United States, this oppression leads to the application of many Enlightenment ideals. Americans, seeking self-rule and an improved society, take up arms against their oppressors.

    Today: The world has been explored and colonized. There are no new lands or peoples to conquer. As well, the ideas of the Enlightenment—most notably the principle of political freedom—have been successful many places in the world, and conquests and colonization of past centuries are repugnant to many modern people.

inspirational advances for the Enlightenment. Discoveries and inventions made by scientists supported the Enlightenment belief in the superiority of the intellect, and world exploration led to a sense of relativism with regard to non-European cultures. These advances served to reveal new realities, and thus Enlightenment writers encouraged open-mindedness and tolerance. Unfortunately, these opinions did not influence most leaders in European governments, who continued their mission to discover and conquer new lands and peoples at almost any cost. Isaac Newton's discovery of the law of gravity suggested that God's laws were accessible to the human mind. Enlightenment thinkers extended this notion and claimed that all of the laws and structures of nature and society could be discovered and known by applying reason. Locke had taught that knowledge comes from experience, which further supported the belief that the mind was the portal to all knowledge, both scientific and moral. The Enlightenment encouraged people to seek knowledge by observation rather than by reading what past authorities (such as the Bible or the Greek philosophers) taught.


Open expression of thought in eighteenth-century France was regularly curtailed by a stringent but often arbitrary censorship. Literary works were published only with the permission of the Director of Publications. Even when the censor granted permission, books could be suppressed by the clergy, the Parliament of Paris (the main judicial authority), the royal decree, or by other political and religious authorities. In 1754, a royal decree ordered the death penalty for "all those who shall be convicted of having composed, or caused to be composed and printed, writings intended to attack religion, to assail our authority, or to disturb the ordered tranquility of our realm." Despite its threatening tone, enforcement of the measure was often arbitrary. The Encyclopédie, for example, was published with royal sanction yet championed nearly all the radical doctrines of the century.


As a result of censorship, salons played an important role in the spread and discussion of Enlightenment thought. Salons were gatherings of distinguished and intellectual people and took place in the homes of society's elite. The women of the salons of the eighteenth century dictated the standards of taste and exerted considerable influence in matters of fame and fortune. Both men and women hosted Paris's renowned salons. Nearly all of the philosophes depended on the salons for the success of their literary endeavors. Many books of the day were subject to the receptions they received in salons, where guests would discuss and debate the books before applauding or condemning them. Intrigue and intense rivalry characterized the restrictive, elitist society of the salons. In such an atmosphere of a highly developed sense of wit, both in conversation and in writing, being clever was one's sole saving grace and commonly ensured one's success.

American Revolution

The American Revolution (1775-1783) exemplified the ideals of Enlightenment thinkers, who, in the 1770s, began exploring political and social realms. Extolling the virtues of freedom and a government intent on better lives for all people, Enlightenment writers such as Rousseau claimed that there should be a fair agreement between government and the governed. When the Americans took up arms against their British rulers, they were putting Enlightenment ideas into action. Early American leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were adherents of Enlightenment ideologies, and their influence was important in the formative years of the country.

French Revolution

The onset of the French Revolution is considered the culmination of the Enlightenment. Among the revolution's causes were the incompetence of the ruling class, the dreadful living conditions and harsh taxation of the poor, and the ideology of the Enlightenment (especially Rousseau's doctrine of popular sovereignty). The American Revolution catalyzed the French Revolution in two ways: it was a real example of people fighting for self-rule, and France's financial backing of the Americans worsened the nation's own crumbling finances. Overwhelming economic and public pressure led King Louis XVI to authorize national elections in 1788. This enabled French citizens to vote for representatives in the Estates-General, a legislative assembly that had been adjourned since 1614.

With censorship temporarily suspended, political tracts were abundant. Many of these tracts expressed Enlightenment views. Shortly after the elections, the assembly convened to address France's finances, but numerous other grievances demanded attention. The divisive atmosphere and lack of progress exacerbated an already heated atmosphere, and on July 12, 1789, the French people began rioting. Two days later, they stormed and overtook the Bastille, a royal prison that symbolized the rule of the Bourbons, the ruling family from which Louis XVI came.

In 1791, a constitution was finally approved that created a legislature to work with a limited monarchy. Suspicion, unrest, and frustration continued to swell, however, and in 1792, distrust of the king led to his suspension and a new constitutional convention. After royalist sympathizers were arrested, angry mobs stormed jails and massacred thousands of prisoners. The convention installed a war dictatorship with Maximilien Robespierre at the helm. Known as the Reign of Terror, this period was marked by extreme economic and political injustice. Thousands of suspected insurgents were arrested, and many (including the former queen, Marie Antoinette) were executed. Robespierre's harsh actions forced the convention to have him and many of his staunch supporters arrested and guillotined. A short-lived system of government consisting of a five-man board and a legislature fell victim to a coup, and the military hero Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France in 1799. This ended the French Revolution.

Ironically, the Revolution was partially inspired by Enlightenment thought, yet the violence that came out of this decade of fighting only tarnished its credibility among many Europeans.


Literary historians describe the Enlightenment as a movement that profoundly affected not only literature but also science, philosophy, politics, and religion. Because it lasted for over one hundred years, it evolved and came to have many manifestations. In The Enlightenment, author Norman Hampson comments, "Within limits, the Enlightenment was what one thinks it was." He adds that "the Enlightenment was an attitude of mind rather than a course in science and philosophy." Critics almost universally applaud the Enlightenment for its insistence that the world should be analyzed and that authorities should be subject to questioning. In The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment, Peter Gay remarks:

The philosophes were the enemies of myth. . . . Their rationalism was, one might say, programmatic: it called for debate of all issues, examination of all propositions, and penetration of all sacred precincts. But I cannot repeat often enough that this critical, scientific view of life was anything but frigid. The philosophes ... laid the foundation for a philosophy that would attempt to reconcile man's highest thinking with his deepest feeling.

During the Enlightenment women were permitted more latitude in developing outside marriage and motherhood. Rachel L. Mesch holds up novelist Francoise de Graffigny and her feminist epistolary work Lettres d'une Péruvienne, published in 1749, as an example of what the Enlightenment did for women. Graffigny, who had escaped her abusive husband and moved to Paris to write, provides a clear but satirical view of Parisian life through the eyes of an Incan princess.

The influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution is without question. Critics and historians agree that the revolution was built on the intellectual advances made by Enlightenment writers, especially Rousseau. Ross Hamilton argues the Rousseau was uniquely placed in time and history to witness and articulate a shift in human perception from the established conventions of classical tradition to the inquisitive and mutable in eighteenth-century Europe. Further, scholars often credit the Enlightenment with bolstering the resolve of the Americans in the American Revolution and with shaping both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In an essay entitled "The Age of Enlightenment," Whittaker Chambers sheds light on the spirit of freedom and rebellion that arose from the Enlightenment to inspire some of history's most passionate conflicts:

The vision of the Enlightenment was freedom—freedom from superstition, freedom from intolerance, freedom to know (for knowledge was held to be the ultimate power), freedom from the arbitrary authority of church or state, freedom to trade or work without vestigial feudal restriction. . . . [The] Enlightenment finally reversed the whole trend of European culture.


Jennifer Bussey

Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, Bussey compares the Grand Inquisitor in Voltaire's Candide to literature's most famous Grand Inquisitor, who appears in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. By comparing these parallel characters from different literary movements, she sheds light on the Enlightenment as a whole.

Among the many characters who wander in and out of the pages of Voltaire's Candide is the Grand Inquisitor, a character with historical roots in the Spanish Inquisition. In 1478, Ferdinand V and Isabella I of Spain secured the reluctant approval of the pope to initiate what has come to be known as the Spanish Inquisition. Its original intent was to seek out and punish Jews who had been coerced into converting to Christianity but whose conversion was insincere. Next, the inquisitors began seeking out Muslims who had insincerely converted. In 1520, Protestants became targets of the inquisitors. Soon, everyone feared the Inquisition authorities and the dreaded auto-da-fé. An auto-da-fé (which means "act of faith") was the ceremony at which a person's sentence (usually death) was handed down and then performed. The Spanish Inquisition finally came to an official close in 1834.

During the infamous Inquisition, Grand Inquisitors were members of clergy who were appointed to assume the highest positions in the effort. They were terrifying men who were responsible for thousands of deaths. The most famous Grand Inquisitor in literature appears in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The similarities between Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor and Voltaire's Grand Inquisitor are based on the history of the Spanish Inquisition and its players, but the differences reveal a great deal about their respective literary movements. Voltaire's Grand Inquisitor directly and indirectly reflects Enlightenment ideas and attitudes, but Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor reflects existential ones. By comparing the two, students can learn more about the Enlightenment than might be expected given the Grand Inquisitor's brief appearance in Candide.

In Candide, the Grand Inquisitor is a man of impulse who pursues worldly satisfaction, not


  • Written by Jean Le Rond D'Alembert and translated by Richard N. Schwab, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot (1995) presents the original preface to the Encyclopédie. In addition, this book contains an excerpt of Diderot's writing in the Encyclopédie along with a list of other contributors to it. It is considered an excellent introduction to the ideas of the Enlightenment.
  • Edited by Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader (1995) is an anthology containing the most important writings to come out of the Enlightenment. To cast light on the movement as a whole, this book also contains historical, religious, and philosophical context.
  • The Portable Voltaire, edited by Ben Ray Redman and originally published in 1949, is an excellent starting place for the student of Voltaire's work. Redman includes biographical information, philosophical overviews, and Voltaire's writings to demonstrate his importance to eighteenth-century thought.
  • In The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau (2001), editor Patrick Riley compiles background and biographical information about Jean-Jacques Rousseau to illuminate the selected writing also presented in this volume. Riley includes chapters about Rousseau's best-known works, essays about his relationship to other Enlightenment writers, and commentary on his significance to literary history.
  • Rousseau's Confessions (1782) is the autobiographical account of the Enlightenment writer's life and his experiences all over Europe. Besides its value as a firsthand account by a major figure in the Enlightenment, critics consider this an important work to come out of the period. There are numerous translations available.


religious purity. Answering only to himself, he is either blind or apathetic to his own immorality. He uses his power to force a man to share his mistress with him, he thinks nothing of having people killed for any reason, and he indulges superstition by ordering that several people be burned to ward off additional earthquakes.

In many ways, the Grand Inquisitor in Candide is as much a philosophical figure as a religious one. He uses the power given to him by the Catholic Church to get what he wants. For example, the Grand Inquisitor desires Cunégonde, the mistress of the captain, and offers to buy her from him. When the captain refuses the offer, the Grand Inquisitor threatens him with an auto-dafé, forcing the captain to bow to the Grand Inquisitor's will, and ends up sharing the woman. The captain fears the Inquisitor because he has the power to accuse him of an arbitrary charge and sentence him to death. In another example, Dr. Pangloss expresses philosophical optimism, so the Grand Inquisitor has him hanged for being a heretic. Pangloss's philosophical optimism is heretical because it implies that people—without God or the church—have the power to shape their own perceptions and destinies. Ultimately, however, the Grand Inquisitor is killed when he discovers Cunégonde and Candide plotting an escape. Candide kills the Grand Inquisitor, making him a victim of the same cruelty and impulse that defined his life. The irony is that if he had controlled his lust, he would not have put himself in a position to be killed.

Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor is presented very differently. He is deliberate and unemotional and exudes a powerful presence that is intimidating. He is also well educated and intelligent and is able to bend philosophy and theology to support his own wildly twisted ideas. Seeing Christ performing miracles during the Spanish Inquisition, he has him arrested and then chides him for returning to Earth. The Grand Inquisitor claims that Christ has no right to return and add anything to existing doctrine—once he left the Earth, the Church took over his work. The Grand Inquisitor sentences Christ to be burned the next day, and Christ's only response throughout the lengthy scene is a silent kiss at the end.

There are similarities between the two Grand Inquisitors. Both represent the belief that the intellect is superior to the emotions or the spirit. Voltaire's Inquisitor represents the belief ironically because his decisions are reactionary, not thoughtful. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor, however, states directly that in the conflict between intellect and faith, intellect is superior.

Another important similarity is that both Inquisitors cling to their power and use it immorally, and they have no tolerance for anyone who challenges them in any way. Voltaire's Inquisitor has Pangloss hanged for declaring philosophical views the Inquisitor finds ridiculous. He justifies the hanging by labeling the philosophical claims heretical, but Pangloss is not a religious figure at all. Although his charge is to eradicate challenges to the church's authority, Voltaire's Inquisitor does not allow his personal authority to be challenged. He readily invokes his power to subject the captain to an auto-da-fé when the captain refuses to share his woman. Similarly, Dostoevsky's Inquisitor refuses to be challenged and is so arrogant that he exerts his authority over Christ. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor is a high-ranking person in the Catholic Church—a Cardinal—and his authority should rightly come from the Christ that the church worships. Yet when Christ appears, the Inquisitor responds with indignation. Without hesitation, he sentences Christ to be burned. Both Grand Inquisitors are powerful men. Because they often abuse their power, they also become extremely dangerous.

The differences between the two Grand Inquisitors reveal a great deal about the literary movements with which they are associated. Voltaire's Inquisitor is cartoonish and ridiculous. This characterization is in keeping with the Enlightenment's low estimation of the church and its clergy. He is a hypocrite who expects everyone else to follow the teachings of the Bible, while he thinks nothing of forcefully taking a mistress. His victims are foolish (like Dr. Pangloss), implying that the church has no real authority over anyone with intelligence. In contrast, Dostoevsky's Inquisitor is a fully formed character who seems real to the reader. He exudes an air of cruelty and dispassion. This is typical of Dostoevsky's writing, in which characters are realistic, and the reader is often given insight into the souls of his characters. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor has a sharp mind, while Voltaire's Inquisitor flippantly orders people to be killed. Dostoevsky's Inquisitor engages in lengthy, profound philosophical and theological commentary, which gives him the power to persuade others to buy into his twisted perspective. His arrogance is so great that facing Christ, he condemns him with no concern for his own salvation. This scene is representative of Existentialism because it demonstrates the emphasis of existence over meaning. Christ exists to the Inquisitor, but because the Inquisitor strips away the meaning of Christ's existence and appearance at this particular moment, Christ's sovereignty means nothing to the Inquisitor.

The Enlightenment writers denounced the church for its restrictions and hypocrisy. Voltaire's Grand Inquisitor personifies what the Enlightenment thinkers perceived as the worst of organized religion. Existential thinkers emphasized existence over meaning, and their belief that reason is ultimately inadequate to explain the great mysteries of life is depicted in Dostoevsky's character of the Grand Inquisitor. The reader can see that his arguments and logic appear to be sound, but at the same time, it is clear that the Inquisitor has missed the mark. Both Inquisitors are creatures of the material world, but Voltaire suggests that the world can be better because his Inquisitor, for all his power and ability to frighten, is conquerable. He is ultimately defeated when Candide kills him. Voltaire's presentation of him as foolish also allows the reader to see through him and realize that he is destructible. Dostoevsky's existentialist Inquisitor, however, offers little hope to the reader. He has the power to kill divinity itself. This is where the existential view of possibilities in faith is relevant. If the reader believes that there is a world beyond the material one in which the Inquisitor is so powerful, then there is hope. This is very different from the Enlightenment emphasis on worldly happiness. To Enlightenment thinkers, if there is no hope in this world, there is no hope at all. These fundamental philosophical differences between the Enlightenment and Existentialism are represented in the parallel characters of the Grand Inquisitors. By comparing the brief appearance of Voltaire's Inquisitor in Candide with the lengthy appearance of Dostoevsky's Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, the reader can easily distinguish the fundamental differences between Enlightenment and Existentialist ideas.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on the Enlightenment, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Margaret Anne Doody

In the following essay, Doody examines the exploration and treatment of sensuousness, including that of the natural world, in poetry by women in the eighteenth century.

Women's poetry in the eighteenth century has been dealt with in terms of its political statement and its moral and social awareness. Much good work has been done in tracing themes and looking at social perspectives. Above all, some essential work has been done—the spadework—of locating poets, finding their publications and manuscripts, and giving a coherent account of their individual lives. I can rest on


the assurance that predecessors such as Roger Lonsdale and Donna Landry have given us a vision and knowledge that we didn't have before, so I can take a slightly different tack.

In recent years also there has been much concern about 'the Body'—it is still a fashionable topic. The Body has been poked and inspected, hung up for examination, and dissected by modern anatomists. Under all this treatment, 'the Body' has dwined and pined into an abstract conceptual framework, a notional entity. The Body, in short, has been done to death. I want to examine, but I need a better word than 'examine'. I want to accompany, to go with, the sensuousness of poetry by women in the mid and late eighteenth century—from, and including, the work of Mary or Molly Leapor (b. 1722, d. 1746) to that of Ann Yearsley (b. 1752, d. 1806).

It is probably no accident that my 'book-ends' as it were, the two poets who act as temporal poles in this project, are both working-class female poets. Doubly disadvantaged, they were unlikely candidates for publication, and it speaks for some of the best aspects of the eighteenth century that they were able to be published at all. With all their obvious disadvantages, including the sensation-seeking and condescension combined that promoted the work of 'The Bristol Milkwoman', Ann Yearsley, or 'Lactilla', these particular poets perhaps had some advantages. They had reason not to write an abstract 'Poetry' but to connect their own experiences with the common literary language, even while remodelling that language. We feel the immediacy in lines such as Leapor's

    —but now the dish-kettle began
    The boil and bubble with the foaming bran.
    The greasy apron round her hip she ties
    And to each plate the scalding clout applies.
    ('Crumble Hall')

The comedy is fulfilled not only with an exact observation, but with a respect for the process described. This might be taken to be mere reportage, but the same qualities are found in poets who are imagining new scenes— such as the transformations satirically imagined by Yearsley, in a Pythagorean world where the famous ancients turn up in vulgar urban roles of the present day:

    Fair Julia sees Ovid, but passes him near,
    An old broom o'er her shoulder is thrown:

('Addressed to Ignorance, Occasioned by a Gentleman's desiring the Author never to assume a Knowledge of the Ancients')

Objects are treated with clarity, and the senses are explicit. So, too, are the activities not only of daily working life, but of bodily life, the impulses and receptions that make for sense-experience, as well as the realm of movement. The women poets present us with a clearly sensuous world. The mind cannot divorce itself from the senses. This is a matter somewhat difficult of discussion because of our present disdain for the word 'Sensibility'. And indeed 'Sensibility' will not serve my meaning here. The women poets are participants in that pan-European philosophical movement which both outlined modes of bodily response to external stimuli (discovering 'nerves' in the process), and delineated forms of social relations and psychosocial interaction. As writers such as Barker-Benfield (1992) have shown, the anxiety about the newly 'feminized' and nervous human entity could lead to a desire for greater control. Woman as the excessively sensitive person is too responsive—in contrast to the brutishly uncivil who are not sensible or sensitive enough. The novelists argue about these issues with some openness (culminating in Sense and Sensibility), but the poets of the eighteenth century—men as well as women—were trying to set up their own terms for discussing human experience and relationships to the world without getting altogether caught up in what some philosophers wanted to make of 'Sensibility'.

The eighteenth century's confident interest in sense impressions, fortified by the first part of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was balanced by some unease. After all, Locke's concluding position is surprisingly close to that of Descartes. We have no contact with the real world out there, we are merely recipients of sense impressions always mediated by our own sensorium. The world is all in our minds. We look at snow, we think, but there's a sense in which we do not see it—we only 'see' the impression in our mental equipment. This sense of being locked into a cell of the self can be particularly disturbing. English poets of the eighteenth century thus went out of their way to counteract such a potential isolation in writing a poetry that is far more concrete and sensuous, less abstract, than that of either their predecessors (the Metaphysical and Baroque writers) or their successors (the Romantics). It is arguable—I would certainly argue it—that eighteenth-century poetry is the most directly sensuous poetry England has ever had. The reference to the impact of self and object, the re-creation of the fascinating and insistent world of particulars, can be found in the poetry of Swift of course, and over and over again, as in 'A Description of the Morning':

    Now Moll had whirl'd her Mop with dext'rous Airs,
    Prepar'd to Scrub the Entry and the Stairs.
    The Youth with Broomy Stumps began to trace
    The Kennel-Edge, where Wheels had worn the Place.
    The Smallcoal-Man was heard with Cadence deep,
    Till drown'd in Shriller Notes of Chimney-Sweep.

We are made to observe what the refined reader usually overlooks, or finds boring. We are participants momentarily in the activity of the working people, and close enough to observe the 'Broomy Stumps' and the traces of wheels.

I think Pope was partly inspired by Swift to amplify the observation of common things in his own poetry; although, unlike Swift, Pope is a poet with pretensions to the 'grand style', he does keep a close watch on diurnal realities. He too can cause the snort of disgust at confronting us with the evocation of the sensation of disgust:

    To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
    Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames

Pope is more hierarchical than Swift in his fine evocations of sensory experiences. Swift, arguably the strongest satirist, strikes one is curiously more broad-minded, that is, less inclined towards hierarchical arrangements of experience. I have written elsewhere of Swift's relation to the women poets, but I have been freshly struck by it, when, for instance, coming upon an open imitation of Swift's 'Morning' in Mary Robinson's 'London's Summer Morning' (written c. 1794, published 1804, according to Lonsdale):

    Who has not waked to list the busy sounds
    Of summer's morning, in the sultry smoke
    Of noisy London? On the pavement hot
    The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face
    And tattered covering, shrilly bawls his trade,
    Rousing the sleepy housemaid. At the door
    The milk-pail rattles, and the tinkling bell
    Proclaims the dustman's office; while the street
    Is lost in clouds impervious. Now begins
    The din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts;
    While tinmen's shops, and noisy trunk-makers,
    Knife-grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters,
    Fruit-barrows, and the hunger-giving cries
    Of vegetable-vendors, fill the air.
    . . . At the private door
    The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,
    Annoying the smart 'prentice, or neat girl,
    Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun
    Darts burning splendour on the glittering pane,
    Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
    On the gay merchandise. Now, spruce and trim,
    In shops
    (where beauty smiles with industry)
    Sits the smart damsel; while the passenger
    Peeps through the window, watching every charm.
    Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute
    Of humming insects, while the limy snare
    Waits to enthrall them. . .

Pope's excuse for regarding low-life objects and describing—or evoking—sense reactions to them is largely satiric. This is by no means always the case with Swift, and seldom truly the case with women poets. Mary Robinson ('Perdita'), once mistress of the prince Regent, gives as it were a townscape secularized, a new paysage non moralisé. We feel the fullness of life, the cacophony, without being called on to register some hierarchical forms of disapproval or desire to reorder. There is such a superabundance of detail that we may miss the subtle connection between 'merchandise' and the 'smart damsel', the milliner or seamstress seated in the shop window, and between 'damsel' and 'pastry dainties'. Shop-owners (including female milliners) did put the prettiest girls to work in the window with the design of attracting customers, especially males— a matter gone into in Frances Burney's The Wanderer. The displayed pastries are displayed for appetite, like the girls. But the sly observation is not followed into overt moralizing.

Acknowledged throughout Robinson's poem is the multiple connectedness, the omnipresence of consumerism. The speaker poet, in the persona of the woman who awakens to the growing noise and activity of the day, is not given a position of peculiar privilege from which to look down and moralize. For one thing, she is part of the consuming need and the need to consume. This is what differentiates Robinson's narrator—persona from Swift's in his 'Morning'. Swift's speaker just sees all these phenomena. Robinson draws us in further into reaction and response. The mop is not only twirled, again, its whirling drops affect others unpleasantly. One of the most startling touches is her invented compound adjective 'hunger-giving'. Other writers (not to mention graphic artists and musicians) had illustrated the 'Cries of London', a minor motif in entertainment since at least the time of Purcell.

But the customary description invites us to look on in amusement, to hear with detachment, the criers and their cries. Robinson's participle adjective participates in an immediate response which is not immune to the activity of the advertisement. 'The hunger-giving cries/Of vegetable vendors'—the phrase acknowledges that hunger is roused, and is there to be roused, in all— including the speaker herself. We are not free to withdraw from the cycle of consuming. That gut reaction, that urgent sensory need, linked with the pleasure of taste, connects us with the flies, who are also gazers with the 'eye minute' upon the pastry 'dainties'—which become all the stickier in their immediate connection with the fly-paper, the 'limy snare' waiting to enthrall the little bugs. 'Enthrall' is usually a grand word, a romantic and literary word—this use returns it to its origins in ideas of enslavement, entrapment, imprisonment and power.

Robinson shows here an acute awareness of the effects and nature of heat; a surrounding atmosphere of urban warmth lessens our dependence on vision as primary sense. The female poets of the eighteenth century customarily show an awareness of graduations of heat and of cold— and of what might be called the pressure of environmental temperature or atmosphere. So it is with Mary Leapor as 'Mira', describing her birthday under the sign of Pisces:

    'Twas when the flocks on slabby hillocks lie,
    And the cold Fishes rule the wat'ry sky:
    ('An Epistle to a Lady')

The 'slabby hillocks' are cool, damp and muddy—a sense of discomfort is, as it were, transferred to, and also acknowledged in, the wordless sheep, the flocks who are waiting out the less than pleasing late winter—early spring of an ungracious countryside. Sky and earth, unhierarchically, are alike damp and cool. Such lines draw on a sense of feeling not usually on our minds when we talk about the 'sense of touch'—a phrase that serves us well when, for instance, dealing with a poet's description of the down of a peach. We do not have only the particular pointed sensation of voluntary touch where we poke or stroke another object, but general senses of 'touch', as with our skin's relation to the circumambient atmosphere. Our sensual circumstances are known to be shared with other creatures—like the flocks in Leapor's birthday description, or the cow and the flocks in Yearsley's invocation of harsh winter:

    The nymph, indifferent, mourns the freezing sky;
    Alike insensible to soft desire,
    She asks no warmth but from the kitchen fire.
    Love seeks a milder zone; half sunk in snow,
    LACTILLA, shivering, tends her fav'rite cow;
    The bleating flocks now ask the bounteous hand,
    And crystal streams in frozen fetters stand.
    ('Clifton Hill')

The cold can quell sexual desire in woman— an astonishing observation in Yearsley's piece, as with it comes the assumption that a woman should naturally have a libido, and that this is a temporary dis-location of sexual energy, transferred to the cause of survival. Yet love of a kind does survive, because shivering Lactilla tends her 'fav'rite cow', and the cow remains a recipient of particular and individual favour even in the numbing cold. Human agency is of importance in helping the domestic animals in a crisis of sensation that still asks for activity—the 'bounteous hand' must move towards the 'bleating flocks' even while the streams are fettered and stand still, truly transformed into the conventional crystal. Sky, earth, and water share the cold, and there is no release into hierarchy of elements. The hierarchy subtly dismissed in an equation of sky and earth is also overthrown in the repeated emphasis in Yearsley's poem on the fellow-suffering of animals, and their importance. Here I think I have a new motif to discuss with you—and this is something that I have only just discovered myself in women's poetry of the eighteenth century.

I had intended to deal at large with sensuousness in general, and in particular with instances of sensuous evocation in women's poetry. I would have rambled through the jumble of Crumble Hall with Mary Leapor, alluded to champagne and chicken in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. I should have pointed to instances of the ability to use an unusual image, as Anna Seward does with her green star in 'The Anniversary':

    O! hast thou seen the star of eve on high,
    Through the soft dusk of summer's balmy sky
    Shed its green light, and in the glassy stream
    Eye the mild reflex of its trembling beam?

I would also have dwelt on the use of unusual images of taste and smell, and comic pungent images like Anna Seward's description of the Boston Tea Party:

    When Boston, with indignant thought,
    Saw poison in the perfum'd draught,
    And caus'd her troubled bay to be
    But one vast bowl of bitter Tea;
    ('Verses inviting Mrs. C—to Tea on a public Fast-Day, during the American War')

I should have done all this and more. . . But my attention was forcibly caught by something I had not fully seen, and certainly had not explored before, in dealing with women's writing and with eighteenth-century poetry. My topic is largely the relation of human to animal in poetic works by eighteenth-century women. These poets' exploration of sensuousness rests on a rediscovery and a reassertion of human relation to animal, bird, insect. The senses are validated in a new way through what I shall call (for short) the 'Pythagorean theme'. It has many important implications, and an understanding of it will illuminate women's poetry of the eighteenth century and later.


In The Daring Muse I have already discussed Ann Yearsley's poem 'Addressed to Ignorance', which uses the conceit of Pythagorean metampsychosis to invent a comic world where ancient characters of history and legend turn up in vulgar and prosaic modern guises. The significance of this comic reversal lies in its rebuke to the 'Gentleman' who told Yearsley that as a poor woman she had no right 'to assume a knowledge of the Ancients'. Yearsley rebukes him, borrowing a set of ideas from the 'ancients': she shows that she can envisage a cosmos without stable hierarchies, in which the class differences (along with national and other differences) that seem so solid to 'the Gentleman' don't count for much:

    Here's Trojan, Athenian, Greek, Frenchman and I,
    Heav'n knows what I was long ago:
    No matter, thus shielded, this age I defy,
    And the next cannot hurt me, I know.

As I noted then, 'Her poem is a declaration of human equality.' What I did not realize then is the fact that there is a tradition (if we can call it by so grand a word), a history, of women's use of the Pythagorean idea that Yearsley uses in 'To Ignorance' to deal with human equality. But the women poets more often evoke the Pythagorean idea in relating human life to animal life. Yearsley herself does this in 'Clifton Hill'. She describes, as we have noted above, the effects of extreme cold on the nymph, Lactilla, the cow, the flocks. She goes from human to animal to birds in noting reactions to the cold, and kinship among those who suffer from it. But her ensuing description of the robin moves into the description of the murderous male with the gun, whose response to other creatures is a delight in the powers of destruction:

    The beauteous red-breast, tender in her frame
    Whose murder marks the fool with treble shame,
    Near the low cottage door, in pensive mood,
    Complains and mourns her brothers of the wood
    Her song oft waked the soul to tender joys,
    All but his restless soul whose gun destroys;

Yearsley imagines a fitting vengeance:

    For this, rough down, long pains on thee shall wait,
    And freezing want avenge their hapless fate;
    For these fell murders mayst thou change thy kind,
    In outward form as savage as in mind;
    Go be a bear of Pythagorean name,
    From man distinguished by thy hideous frame.
    ('Clifton Hill (Written in January 1785)')

An earlier female poet had used the Pythagorean idea. Anna Seward treats the motif several times, and it may be that Yearsley had come upon some of the poems that circulated in manuscript long before Seward's works were posthumously published, edited (at her request) by Walter Scott.

Like the other female poets in my discussion, Seward counts herself a Christian, but a Christian often vexed at what man made pronouncements and social structures and controls have made of religion. Most of these writers would have warmly assented to Anna Laetitia Barbauld's statement in her poem 'To the Poor', which declares that the rich and powerful not only make the present life of the poor painfully wretched, but seek to extend their own controlling image to God and the hereafter. The threats that the rich extend to the poor in the name of religion are something the poor have the God-given right to dismiss:

    Safe in the bosom of that love repose
    By whom the sun gives light, the ocean flows,
    Prepare to meet a father undismayed,
    Nor fear the God whom priests and kings have made.
    ('To the Poor')

Man-made laws and concepts not only set up great barriers between human beings, but also create an impassable divide between the human and the other living creatures of this earth—a divide that is used to justify those other intra-human divisions, in terms like 'brutish', and so on. To turn the human into animal, or relate a man strongly to animal or insect life, is a terrific insult, as it is repeatedly in Pope's Dunciad:

    Maggots half-form'd in rhyme exactly meet
    And learn to crawl upon poetic feet.
    How here he sipp'd, how there he plunder'd snug
    And suck'd all o'er, like an industrious Bug.
    As when a dab-chick waddles thro' the copse
    On feet and wings, and flies, and wades, and hops;
    So lab'ring on . . .
    . . . Bernard rows his state.

To connect man and animal (or bird or insect) is to breed monsters, as bad poets do. Fear of the monstrous curdles much Augustan thought and literature. The reign of Reason seemed to depend on getting rid of 'monsters' of all kinds, but the notion was there at the philosophical centre. Locke in the Essay admits that Nature is not interested in clear lines between species, which are, like the 'species' themselves, an invention of the human mind. This subversion of Aristotle is a scandal that the eighteenth century partly succeeds in hushing up, but fear of the monstrous may be found everywhere, including a sense of horror at the approach of categories of species to each other.

I would argue that the women writers do not share this fear or horror, and that they approach the matter differently. Theologically, they are anti-gnostic in defence of creation and of matter. They are not reluctant to explore the activities of sensing and the sensed world as much more immediate (both as activity and object) than Locke allows. Locke emphasizes 'Human Understanding': the women want to see what we have in common with other life in a created world. There is a vindication of the senses and of that which actively senses. The Pythagorean theme, along with the strong interest in animals, birds and insects generally found in women's poetry, especially in this period, permits investigations and statements counter to a dangerously prevalent reduction of everything to the life of Mind— the proud Mind. The Pythagorean idea offers a philosophical theme opposed to much contemporary philosophy, but its stance is officially seen as so unquestionably out of the question as to arouse no very indignant reaction. The 'Pythagoreanism' we encounter in the women's writing is not, indeed, the classic Pythagorean ladder of progress towards purification. The women do not in the least want to emphasize a teleological objection of purity, freedom from the senses. Rather, they are fascinated by the imaginative idea that a conscious entity might have been a bird in the last incarnation and may be a beast in the next. A relatively early poem by Anna Seward, 'Ode on the Pythagorean System', picks up the theme in grand style, if a trifle gingerly. Seward is aware that the Pythagorean system of reincarnation conflicts with the Christian scheme, but she argues that there is a 'sacred sense' in the Pythagorean system, and a certain justice to the 'Spirit warm' has its appeal. Let persons express their moral nature by taking animal form in a new birth:

    Then while revenge meets his congenial lot,
    And howls the tiger of the desert plain;
    While sensual Love burns in the odious Goat,
    And in the Hog the Glutton feasts again;

For her part, Seward says, choosing the vegetable role, she would like to come back as a myrtle tended by her friend Laura. Except for its ending, this 'Ode' is conventional in its treatment of Pythagoreanism—faulty human beings become imprisoned in bestial expressive forms as punishment. But Seward won't leave it at that. She has a more unorthodox poem later which wrestles with the Biblical statement regarding 'The beasts that perish'; Seward attributes complacent judgement to 'proud Man . . . as he were doom'd alone/To meet, for guiltless pains, supreme reward'. If, she argues, animals are not to have a life after death, that would meet the terms of Divine Justice only if their lives on earth had been happy, and they had been allowed to fulfil their animal nature while alive. But this often does not happen, because of man's cruelty:

    Alas! the dumb defenceless numbers, found
    The wretched subjects of a tyrant's sway,
    Who hourly feel his unresisted wound,
    And hungry pine through many a weary day;
    Or those, of lot more barbarously severe,
    Who strain their weak, lame limbs beneath the load
    Their fainting strength is basely doom'd to bear,
    While smites the lash, the steely torments goad;

Here we feel the eighteenth-century's sensory identification with pain, as the speaker moves towards close identification with a suffering sentient creature.

    Has GOD decreed this helpless, suffering train
    Shall groaning yield the vital breath he gave,
    Unrecompensed for years of want, and pain,
    And close on them the portals of the grave?
    ('On the Future Existence of Brutes')

No, Seward argues, God will surely do better than that. There must be some 'Expiatory Plan', or God is not just. The tenor of this poem is almost entirely to close the gap between Human and Brute. The Dog, she says, illustrates the animal power of emotional refinement, intelligence, susceptibility to education, and moral virtue. Why imagine that the Dog has no afterlife?

    Ah, wretch ingrate, to liberal hope unknown!
    Does pride encrust thee with so dark a leaven,
    To deem this spirit, purer than thine own,
    Sinks, while thou soarest to the light of Heaven!

Thinking about the fate of animals after death occupies a fair amount of Seward's time. In 'An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy' she combines the comic with her questioning of human notions of the afterlife. The old cat knows she is near her end:

    Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains,
    And e'en the ninth creeps languid through my veins.

But the cat is piously sure she has much to which to look forward:

    Much sure of good the future has in store,
    When on my master's hearth I bask no more,
    In those blest climes, where fishes oft forsake
    The winding and the glassy lake;
    There, as our silent-footed race behold
    The crimson spots and fins of lucid gold,
    Venturing without the shielding waves to play,
    They gasp on shelving banks, our easy prey;
    While birds unwinged hop careless o'er the ground,
    And the plump mouse incessant trots around,
    Near wells of cream that mortals never skim,
    Warm marum creeping round their shallow brim;
    Where green valerian tufts, luxuriant spread,
    Cleanse the sleek hide and form the fragrant bed.
    ('An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy')

Now, it was certainly a truism that women poets think about pet birds and animals. Satire on women's involvement with their pets is fairly easy to find in this period. Richardson had a crack at women poets in his Sir Charles Grandison. Early in her sojourn in London, the heroine Harriet Byron meets a young lady, Miss Darlington, with 'a pretty taste in poetry', who is prevailed upon to show three of her performances.

The third was on the death of a favourite Linet [sic]; a little too pathetic for the occasion; since were Miss Darlington to have lost her best and dearest friend, I imagine that she had in this piece, which is pretty long, exhausted the subject; and must borrow from it some of the images which she introduces to heighten her distress from the loss of the little songster.

Richardson indicates that women in general waste their emotion upon their pets, and that women poets may be expected to waste adjectives and images upon such a trite subject as well. As women have so little to occupy their minds, they will treat the mere death of a pet linnet as a major event. Richardson restores the hierarchies that female poets tend to rumple. Human beings must be kept distinct from birds. One should be able to distinguish with absolute clarity the distress caused by the death of a human friend from the feeling of loss relating to a mere animal.

The tendency of women to identify self and emotion with animal or bird is clearly marked, certainly from the time of Ann Finch. Perhaps partly inspired by her married surname, Finch identifies herself with a bird, most powerfully in one of her best poems 'The Bird in the Arras', where the bird exhibits panic, bewilderment, wild desire. In her best-known poem, 'A Nocturnal Reverie', Finch notices the relaxation and freedom of both vegetable and animal life as the sun sets:

    When freshen'd Grass now bears itself upright,
    And makes cool Banks to pleasing Rest invite.

Vision ceases to be so important, and creatures are known and know each other in darkness through various senses:

    When the loos'd Horse, now as his pasture leads,
    Comes slowly grazing through th'adjoining Meads,
    Whose stealing Pace, and lengthened Shade we fear,
    Till torn-up Forage in his Teeth we hear;

The horse is identified not by vision (which creates an illusory monster) but by sound. The change in emphasis of sense reliance and sense instruction creates a connection between the human hearer's sense of the horse chomping on grass, and the horse's own touch-and-taste sense of the grass between its teeth. This is a time of pleasure, a sense-holiday from the ruling power of sunlight and the obsession with sight.

    Their shortlived Jubilee the Creatures keep,
    Which but endures while Tyrant-Man do's sleep:
    When a sedate Content the Spirit feels
    And no fierce Light disturbs, while it reveals

The sunlight of Enlightenment, of reason, is associated with the oppression of man's rule and the social order. While 'Tyrant-Man' here may be read as the tyrant human, the phrase obviously refers to the tyrant male. In the night season, in their ramble together, Ann Finch and the Lady Salusbury are at one with the plants and animals. In this highly sensuous poem, sense life comes to full life in the presence of animals who are briefly allowed to have their full sensory life not restricted, censured, surveyed or used. The female companions also have a 'shortliv'd Jubilee' of sense pleasure, and expansion, so that all the senses (touch, smell, hearing) may be used harmoniously, not governed hierarchically by vision nor held in place by convention.

Women have been traditionally held to be the larger partaker in the animal nature. Man is spirit, man is mind. Woman is animal, if a higher animal. Richardson's hero Sir Charles Grandison explains it all, as Enlightenment philosopher. Nature clearly makes a difference in qualities such as courage between male and female in the animal kingdom: 'The surly bull, the meek, the beneficent cow, for one instance?'. And, allowing that human souls may be equal, 'yet the very design of the different machines in which they are inclosed, is to superinduce a temporary difference on their original equality; a difference adapted to the different purposes for which they are designed by Providence in the present transitory state.' Women have to bear children and give suck—so obviously that makes them inferior in this life. Such an assumption rests on the assumption that the 'animal' functions, like those of the meek cow, take over the greater portion of a woman's personality and her life. And that further rests on the assumption that the 'animal' functions and attributes can be clearly distinguished from the 'human'. Eighteenth-century women poets, it is clear, look upon animals in a manner very different from the way Richardson and his Sir Charles look upon them. Sir Charles's world is one of clear boundaries, strong divisions, clear designs. There should not be effeminate men and masculine women. The line between man and woman, as between human and animal, must be held. Within Richardson's novels, the female characters do maintain something of the women's dialogue, as their view of animal life differs in part from that of Sir Charles'—Charlotte compares herself and her husband to blackbirds with eggs to hatch. But that sort of play is not appropriate to Sir Charles, who as governing man must hold the line clearly.

It can be seen that the women poets enjoy playing with those boundaries that Sir Charles is at such pains to delineate. They defiantly adopt the sensibility of animals, team up, as it were with animals against 'Tyrant-Man'. Seward's insight into the cruelty to 'the wretched subjects of a tyrant's sway' rests partly on that of Finch before her. She too is willing to assume (for play, for seriousness) the sensations of the animal creature. This might be called 'poetic Pythagoreanism'—the poet assumes the senses of an animal, thus transforming herself into the creature in a temporary transmogrification. The entrance into animal sensation is a kind of licence to give the sensory life its full due; that sensory life often denied in the cultural life of regulations and ideas.

Men are sometimes imagined (as in Yearsley's 'Clifton Hill') as being punished in a 'Pythagorean' manner by being made perforce to enter that animal nature that they have disdained. That would be a punishment because men think it so; they have this hectic urge to insist on their totally mental mode of being, their totally spiritual destiny. But the women poets show themselves as the true Pythagoreans, able to enter into the sensual life of animals—or even plants, as when Seward wishes to be a myrtle; to be a plant loved by a woman would be better than honour done her having her brows bound with myrtle. In 'An Old Cat's Dying Soliloquy' Seward makes us take comic pleasure in imagining the Elysium or Paradise of a cat—sharing sensations with the cat, in an access of new sensuousness. We are free to indulge it because it is partly parodic, but once we do indulge it, we cannot maintain the aloofness of parody. The poem is 'parodic' of human serious descriptions of forms of heaven seriously desired. It is thus an Enlightenment poem in that it implicitly questions the religious conventions, and shows how they are related to cultural expectations. But in this case the cultural difference (between cats and ourselves) is so extreme, and so hitherto unthought-of, that we can enjoy the play upon the idea of heaven without serious religious or moral twinges. What seems most striking to me about the 'Old Cat' poem is its immediacy. The poem obviously and overtly owes something to Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes (published in 1748). It owes something—not too much. Gray's poem is a mock-heroic fable. The cat is just an object; we are to laugh at the beast and her fate, even while we may reject the too-placid moral on vanity and avarice. Gray's Selima is almost entirely an object of sight. 'Her coat, that with the tortoise vies / Her ears of jet and emerald eyes' are not her own description of herself. We see the goldfish too:

    Still had she gaz'd; but 'midst the tide
    Two angel forms were seen to glide,
    The genii of the stream:
    Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
    Thro' richest purple to the view
    Betray'd a golden gleam.

This is almost seeing from the cat's-eye view—but not really: 'angel' and 'Genii' carry no allusions to cat vocabulary. And the Popean touches regarding the fishes' colour carry us further into the realm of the literary and away from the cat—if the beginning of this stanza proposes the cat Selima as observer, by the end we have lost her. She remains fenced in by an Aesopic objectivity.

The descriptions of the fish in Seward's poem do remind us of Gray and, like Gray, Seward adapts the kind of language used in Pope:

    There, as our silent-footed race behold
    The crimson spots and fins of lucid gold.

But this is not, as it were, the main event. The by now conventionalized fish become much more what a cat would want—as they leave the water voluntarily. And they are overtaken by a host of other similarly amiable and catchable prey—products of a cat's imagination, not fitting any human aesthetic (in marked contrast to the fish):

    While birds unwinged hop careless o'er the ground,
    And the plump mouse incessant trots around.

The wells of cream offer another kind of sensory experience, and the piling up of sensuousness is achieved through the invocation of smell and touch simultaneously (and right after taste) in the 'Warm marum' (marjoram) and green valerian tufts. Yes, a cat's heaven would have cream, herbs and certainly catnip. We do not end the poem with these sensuous images so lovely to the cat. The last note is an elegiac regret at parting. Even in heaven she may miss her home and her human friend and the life she knew:

    O'er marum borders and valerian bed
    Thy Selima shall bend her moping head,
    Sigh that no more she climbs, with grateful glee
    Thy downy sofa and thy cradling knee;

The cat proves capable of loyalty and affection, her virtues thus making her implicitly worthy of cat heaven—or of human heaven too. There is a comic reversal, as Seward's Selima faces death in a style very unlike that of Gray's greedy and accident-prone Selima. Seward's Selima has conscious dignity and religious hope. The greater reversal lies in the cat's regret that her owner cannot be with her. Owners of animals in Christian (and other) cultures often express regret that their pets cannot be with them in an orthodox afterlife—here the tables are turned. And indeed, what would a human do with plump mice, wells of cream, and tufts of catnip? But the poem shows what arrogance we exhibit when we assume that there is a heaven fit for human purposes to which animals are not allowed. The sharing (imaginatively and comically) of the cat's sensations and desires is a liberation into a range of sense experience, and an expression of confidence in the value of what we term the 'animal' nature.

When women poets are being most serious about the importance of the animal nature, they often disguise the seriousness in some form of comedy that can induce us to participate in the Pythagorean festival of throwing off our usual identities and expectations. Anna Laetitia Barbauld's 'The Mouse's Petition' is a poem in the persona of the mouse that has been caught in a trap and awaits the experimentation of Dr Priestley. The poem was, naturally enough, taken up as a statement against animal experimentations, and Barbauld, not wishing to appear unscientific, pointed out that 'the poor animal would have suffered more as the victim of domestic economy, than of philosophic curiosity.' In her later explanation Barbauld claimed that all she meant was to express 'the petition of mercy against justice'—but that is not what the poem says, for of course from the mouse's point of view what is being done to him is an extreme case of injustice—it is arbitrary tyrannical cruelty. The mouse uses contemporary political language to make its point:

    Oh¡ hear a pensive prisoner's prayer,
    For liberty that sighs;
    And never let thine heart be shut
    Against the wretch's cries.
    For here forlorn and sad I sit,
    Within the wiry grate;
    And tremble at th' approaching morn,
    Which brings impending fate.
    If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,
    And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,
    Let not thy strong oppressive force
    A free-born mouse detain.
    ('The Mouse's Petition')

From the language of political rights, the mouse turns to the rights of nature, which are physical rights. The great natural law is the right to exist.

    The well taught philosophic mind
    To all compassion gives;
    Casts round the world an equal eye,
    And feels for all that lives.

Not only should there be compassion, but empathy. To see the world with an equal eye is to feel the claims of all life. From this philosophical point there is but a short step to the Pythagorean theme, and the mouse takes it:

    If mind, as ancient sages taught,
    A never dying flame,
    Still shifts through matter's varying forms,
    In every form the same,
    Beware, lest in the worm you crush
    A brother's soul you find;
    And tremble lest thy luckless hand
    Dislodge a kindred mind.

This is a moral-philosophical and even religious point of view remote from Christianity but closely resembling Jainism, and certain branches of Buddhism. It may well be that our poets were affected, however indirectly, by the new contact with India brought about by colonial expansion in the eighteenth century. But the mouse also entertains the Epicurean idea that there is no life after death—that the bodily life of this existence is our all in all:

    Or, if this transient gleam of day
    Be all of life we share,
    Let pity plead within thy breast
    That little all to spare.

Ostensibly the mouse is talking only of the annihilation in death of mere animals. But by this point there is no felt difference between 'them' and 'us'—all is subsumed as 'we', so the possibility of 'one transient gleam of day' allotted to all, man and animal, as the only portion of their existence, is truly included. It scarcely matters, however, which group will perish eternally and which only temporarily—the urgency is so pressing, the life of here and now so immediate. It is hard not to see within this petition a plea for all sense-life, and for the powers of sensing as of the utmost importance, worthy of religious respect. The animal life of 'mere' sensuousness, of sense perception, is the real life. That modern point of view is of course going to clash with Priestley's modern point of view that regards animals as implements in technological expansion. Priestley contradicts nature in deliberately and slowly taking from nature's commoners the vital air. Breathing itself becomes one of the first great primary sensations and sense-pleasures as soon as its cutting-off is threatened.

Barbauld's very popular poem is highly efficacious as verse—if not in stopping experimentation on animals. It is perhaps, however, slightly marred by a hint of self-conscious cuteness. Barbauld's best poem on animal life and animal claims is 'The Caterpillar'. The speaker is the human woman who admits without apology that she has been raising hundreds of cocoons and caterpillars from the orchard tree. But then she looks at one caterpillar on her finger, and cannot kill it:

    No, helpless thing, I cannot harm thee now;
    Depart in peace, thy little life is safe,
    For I have scanned thy form with curious eye,
    Noted the silver line that streaks thy back,
    The azure and the orange that divide
    Thy velvet sides; thee, houseless wanderer,
    My garment has enfolded, and my arm
    Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
    Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip
    Precipitous descent¡ with stretched out neck,
    Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
    This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
    To ask protection; now, I cannot kill thee.

The caterpillar does not speak in a fabulous manner, but its presence is insisted on. It becomes more real and more active as the speaker progresses. The description of the appearance of the caterpillar is striking in its minute detail. We clarify the silver line, distinguish the azure and the orange.

Such detail combines the scientific interests of the period with its poetic interests. One finds details like this in Thomson's Seasons, and Erasmus Darwin's The Loves of the Plants (1789) is of course full of such detail. Darwin may himself have been influenced by Seward, the earlier poet; she knows and alludes to him, and his biology. His writing while in progress may have influenced her in turn; presumably his work was an influence on Barbauld's later work. We sometimes forget that the 1790s saw the first shoots of an evolutionary hypothesis which was to be formalized and turn into something else after the work of the later Darwin in the next century. Barbauld's description of how the caterpillar looks is still in keeping with the lines of what we may call 'male poetry'. But the continuation in intimate physical connection with the caterpillar strikes me as something that one would find only in female poetry—of any period. A subtle use of the Pythagorean motif whereby man and animal are equalized can be recognized in the equalizing of human and insect. 'My arm/Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet'—'arm' and 'feet' are both words used of the human body. The woman and the caterpillar begin to share a body, as it were, to trade bodily sensations. The caterpillar is sensing the woman's hand while she senses him. If she is looking at it, so the caterpillar too is looking about. The individual caterpillar becomes a highly sensuous object, not only in its coloration (that kind of sensuous appeal can be captured in glass cases) but in the life that is in it that makes it an agent with impact on the world—the 'light pressure' of its 'hairy feet'. Both alien and homely, the caterpillar has the utmost reality. Its felt immediacy causes the woman to see it in a kind of religious sensation:

    Making me feel and clearly recognize
    Thine individual existence, life,
    And fellowship of sense with all that breathes

To recognize ones own sensuous power, to write sensuously, should entail breaking through to 'the fellowship of sense'.

The pleasure that we might find in this moral is shadowed and complicated by the end of the poem. The woman speaker compares her sparing of the caterpillar in her general 'persecuting zeal' against caterpillars to the act of a soldier who in the midst of war urges on 'the work of death and carnage', but spares one enemy:

    Yet should one
    A single sufferer from the field escaped,
    Panting and pale, and bleeding at his feet,
    Lift his imploring eyes—the hero weeps
    He is grown human, and capricious Pity,
    Which would not stir for thousands, melts for one
    With sympathy spontaneous—This not Virtue
    Yet 'tis the weakness of a virtuous mind.

We are here at the end in a very male world of ruthless violence, so consistent that the act of mercy is felt as an anomaly, a whim, a weakness that cannot be described as 'Virtue', but is merely a reflex in favour of individuality. The speaker's own act becomes impossible to categorize. She is not a moral example. There seems no sure way back to 'humanity', save to take the unthinkable road of respecting all life—which might doom her apple tree, but would also put an end to the inhumanity of war. The 'fellowship of sense' opens a way to something more than a sentimental moment. This telling phrase 'fellowship of sense' points towards a feeling or intuition of what might be called 'one flesh' in a sense different from that of the Bible or the Prayer Book's marriage service. The caterpillar is like the human victim—one flesh with us in the 'fellowship of sense'. We have the frustrating glimpse of alternatives that cannot be clearly set out. Barbauld refuses to sentimentalize herself or her sparing of the creature. The momentary relation between herself and that creature, however, is a moment of sensory pleasure, and the living with the caterpillar, following its senses too, offers a route of escape from limitation.

What I have called the 'Pythagorean theme' in eighteenth-century poetry is a trope (or set of tropes) emphasizing the value of the animal existence, the body's own capacities and energies, the holy vitality of the senses. Eighteenth-century women poets keep trying to find ways to express the respect that should be given to the animal and sensory nature. Like Ann Finch in her 'Nocturnal Reverie', they provide moments of escape from a world where everything is known, the hierarchies are clearly measured, and where the senses (like woman herself) occupy a low place, along with mere 'brutishness'. When I find these eighteenth-century women poets dealing with the relation to animals, they are always trying to express some way of acknowledging equality, and relationship. The 'Pythagorean' poems (and now I know my word has become a kind of shortland) question assumptions about spiritual and moral life, and try to point to other responsibilities. In doing this, the poets exhibit great versatility, and powers not only of sensory description but also of conceptual re-positioning. Some male poets heard them, as well as the other women poets who followed them; I see the influence of these writers on Blake, for example, and certainly on Cowper, who perhaps took aboard more than any other male poetic writer what the women were saying. Yet in Cowper there is, it seems to me, always still that distance between animal and man that is a distance between subject and object—when he describes his hares, for instance. The women poets seem to be bent on breaking down that barrier between subject and object, between 'Man' and animal which is a barrier parallel to the Lockean barrier betwixt mind and world.


There is another trope or device that I would wish to emphasize, partly because it provides a contrast to the Pythagorean motif, a contrast and complement within the women's poetry. Like writing about animals and birds, this subject lends itself to ridicule and dismissal. Women poets often write about elves and fairies. Some of them got quite good at it. Percy told Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi that in her (unacted) verse drama The Two Fountains she had written better about fairies than anyone since Shakespeare. This was not a dubious distinction in Percy's eyes, though it might be to others. Women repeatedly chose to deal with elves and fairies partly because, like the animals, these (imaginary) beings offer a reflecting screen where sensation and reflection can be played with, away from the world of man-made regulations and cultural pressures. Moreover, fairies have the distinct advantage over animals—as over humans—that they do not know death. Even more remarkable, they do not know pain; emotional suffering is not part of their scheme of life.

Fairies do not have to be moral—a great convenience, and an enviable one to women, who are always being told they must be moral, chaste and very careful, and should always put other people first. Fairies do none of these things. Frances Greville puts the case most clearly in her 'Prayer for Indifference' of 1759. She asks Oberon to find her a magic balm that will render her unloving and uncaring. The poem is really about the emotional torment of a wife who is not loved by her husband. The fairy power would remove from her the acuteness of emotion which is like veritable sensation. As with physical sensation, pain is stronger than pleasure:

    Far as distress the soul can wound,
    'Tis pain in each degree;
    Bliss goes but to a certain bound,
    Beyond is agony.

There is a certain affinity with Emily Brontë's Gondal poetry in this style and this tone—one could guess that Brontë knew Greville's often-anthologized poem. Should Oberon grant the boon, she will be saved from moral sensations of empathy, saved from the responsibilities of pity as well as from her own sorrow: 'The heart, that throbbed at others' woe / Shall then scarce feel its own.' If Oberon will grant this, she in turn will wish him 'never-fading bliss':

    So may the glow-worm's glimmering light
    Thy tiny footsteps lead,
    To some new region of delight
    Unknown to mortal tread;
    ('A Prayer for Indifference')

The elf going blithely off to the new region of delight is closely associated with the speaker who would also be gaining a new 'region of delight' unknown to other mortals. Oberon's life is a life of sensations rather than of thoughts. Sensations, unencumbered by sorrow, guilt, or depression, become something most desirable. Such are the sense impressions that the poem ends with, having begun with the turmoil of inner emotional feeling and heart-sadness:

    And be thy acorn goblets filled
    With heaven's ambrosial dew,
    From sweetest, freshest flowers distilled
    That shed fresh sweets for you

Taste, physical taste, takes over from emotional-feeling—again, an overturning of the hierarchical values that say emotional feeling is much more important than physical taste.

When they write about fairies (and elves and nymphs), eighteenth-century women poets gain a release from moral pressure and cultural direction. They can imagine a life where sensation is honoured—and, as not the case with animals, honoured without pain. A number of writers wanted to take a moral holiday with the fairies, who can rejoice in pure sensation. So Anna Seward does, in her 'Song of the Fairies to the Sea-nymphs':

    Hasten, from your coral caves,
    Every nymph that sportive laves,
    In the green sea's oozy wells,
    And gilds the fins, and spots the shells!
    Hasten, and our morrice join,
    Ere the gaudy morning shine!

Surely this is imitated by Ann Radcliffe, in her heroine Emily's poem 'The Sea-nymph' in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which might be called 'The Sea-nymph's Reply to Seward's Fairies'. Radcliffe's sea-nymph has the advantage over the fairies in being able to hide deep within the cool depths of the sea: 'Down, down a thousand fathom deep, / Among the sounding seas I go'. Sea-nymphs do not, like Ann Finch, need night to escape the heating sun: 'In cool arcades and glassy halls / We pass the sultry hours of noon,/ Beyond wherever sun-beam falls'. The sea-nymphs is not without moral responsibility—she tries to save ships, and to cheer ship wrecked mariners with song. But 'Emily's' poem (which has its disturbing elements, and even undersea acknowledges authority and control emanating from Neptune) ends in a hope of perpetual pleasure:

    Whoe'er ye are that love my lay,
    Come, when red sun-set tints the wave,
    To the still sands, where fairies play:
    There, in cool seas, I love to lave.

The harmony between land and sea, imaged in the dancing of sea-nymphs and land fairies, can take place only at night-time. Both poems, but especially Seward's, fall into the category of Finch's 'Nocturnal Reverie' in imagining an escape from daylight, a refuge from the hot glare of reason and certainty. The Enlightenment sun was certainly felt to have its negative side. Seward's fairies invite the sea-nymphs to join in the antique dance, the 'morrice' before 'gaudy morning'. The fairies and nymphs are somewhat timid creatures, it strikes us—they cannot be imagined as taking control, only as expressing elusiveness. They don't get pinned down—although it is hard to deal with fairy beings extensively without imagining their falling into pain and imprisonment too, as is the case with Mrs Piozzi's Two Fountains. At best, the idea of 'fairies' and other little supernatural beings like them permits the imagining of a fully pleasurable relation with nature. As the fairies are not encumbered with souls and responsibilities, they can love the natural world wholeheartedly and even take a share in its creation. Imagining such a love gives an imaginative release which yet is always known to be only evanescent, merely 'fancy'.

Emily, the author of the sea-nymph poem within Radcliffe's novel, is inspired by Renaissance public cultural images when she sees a water-pageant in Venice:

Neptune, with Venice personified as his queen, came on the undulating waves, surrounded by tritons and sea-nymphs. The fantastic splendour of this spectacle, together with the grandeur of the surrounding palaces, appeared like the vision of a poet suddenly embodied, and the fanciful images, which it awakened in Emily's mind, lingered there. . . She indulged herself in imagining what might be the manners and delights of a sea-nymph, till she almost wished to throw off the habits of mortality, and plunge into the green wave to participate them.

Venice offers images of sensuous pleasure and escape, and the possibility that Venice itself momentarily represents of the 'embodiment' of poetry stimulates Emily to search for more freedom of manners and sensation. Such needs for freedom of manners and sensations of course have to be encoded; the very needs themselves are like the sea-nymphs, kept below, in the depths. Emily knows enough to categorize her reveries in a knowingly negative way: 'she could not forbear smiling at the fancies she had been indulging'. But she goes ahead and embodies her 'fanciful ideas' in her poem.

Customarily, in 'fairy' poems the relation to the fairy world is thought of in terms of relation to water and air—those two elusive elements. The relation to the animal world is harder, darker, more land-based. Accounts of this relation bulge with substance, abound in impacts and disconcerting consumptions and destructions. That is the truer world, and of course the harder to deal with. Much had been done to separate animal from human. Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding in its latter parts, however, admits the great difficulty of setting up boundaries—Locke even admits that Nature is not interested. But few followers of Lockean politics and epistemology wanted to grapple with that. The women were living in a culture which asserted that their own 'lower' status was clearly known and naturally definable, just as was the arrangement of the species below them. In order to liberate the sensuousness in their own writing, they found ways to challenge the arrangements regarding species—including imagining the sensuous life in 'species' that didn't exist, or the harder task of imagining what it feels like to respect the sensuous life of other beings who really do indubitably share our planet, if often only at our will and sovereign pleasure. The sensuousness of the women's poetry seems all the more remarkable if one realizes how many cultural dictates militated against their taking note of their own sensations, and how surprising it is that (on the whole) they avoid that standby of Augustan appeal to the senses, the evocation of disgust. Women poets obviously suspect disgust as having ideological implications. Disgust belongs to the power of the categorizers, who know what is good and what is bad. Disgust is the reaction of the gazers who look at the female poet in Leapor's Mira's picture. Disgust won't do. It turns off the senses that need to be turned on.

Source: Margaret Anne Doody, "Sensuousness in the Poetry of Eighteeth-Century Women Poets," in Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, Macmillan Press, 1999, pp. 3-31.

Rachel L. Mesch

In this essay, Mesch examines the novel Les Lettres d'une Peruvienne by Francoise de Graffigny in order to show that women participated in the social and philosophical developments of the Enlightenment.

In her article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" Joan Kelly argues that women did not experience the expansion of social and personal opportunities that characterized this period for men. Rather, the same developments that inspired renewed cultural expression for men had a decisively adverse effect on women. Kelly thus challenges the traditional periodization that summarizes an era without regard for women's roles. In the past several years, Kelly's question has been reformulated with respect to another historical and literary category—the


Enlightenment—for which women's experiences have not been taken fully into account. In most characterizations, the Enlightenment refers to the philosophical innovations undertaken by an elite male group. Women were certainly a favorite topic of the Enlightenment philosophe, whose fascination with otherness made the opposite sex a compelling subject of contemplation. Yet it remains unclear to what extent women themselves were able to participate in and profit from Enlightenment discoveries.

In American commentary on the French tradition, the question of how women experienced the Enlightenment has been inspired largely by a renewed interest in Françoise de Graffigny's Les Lettres d'une Péruvienne. This text was widely popular at the time of its publication in 1747, but disappeared from the French canon in the nineteenth century. A reading of Graffigny's novel suggests that, unlike the case of the Renaissance, the intellectual growth that characterized the Enlightenment could have had a certain advantage for women as well, creating an opening for otherwise silenced voices to speak. Even if—and perhaps especially because—Graffigny was not ultimately considered an intellectual peer to her male counterparts, it is striking to see the extent to which she shared in their critical approaches.

Graffigny's epistolary novel continues in the path of her canonized male predecessors, who conceived before her the encounter between French culture and the exotic other. Her novel, which weaves a tragic love story into the cultural exchange, was dismissed until recently by many critics as an inferior imitation of Montesquieu and Voltaire. The heroine of Graffigny's novel is a Peruvian woman, Zilia, shipped off by European captors to France, where she is held in the household of an amorous Frenchman, Déterville. The majority of the letters that comprise the novel are addressed to Zilia's Peruvian lover, Aza, from whom she has been tragically separated. Writing according to the Peruvian system of knotting known as quipos, Zilia attempts to relay her new experiences to Aza, until she finally discovers that he has betrayed her romantically.

Because Les Lettres d'une Péruvienne most often has been considered a roman sentimental and not a roman philosophique according to the dichotomy through which we define the literature of the period, its philosophical implications mostly have been ignored. However, behind the travails of Zilia's unrequited love is a compelling struggle for identity across the terrain of cultural difference. Far from all that is familiar to her, Zilia depends on learning the French language not only for communication, but also in order to construct a new self within a new universe. Her challenge is to assimilate the rules of French culture without submitting blindly to their patriarchal logic. The love relationship becomes what Nancy K. Miller has called "an enabling fiction," no more than a literary device that ultimately falls to the background in the drama of Zilia's identity struggle.

Indeed, through the character of Zilia, Graffigny enables us to hear what the voice of a female Enlightenment might have sounded like, for Zilia is a feminist critic who dismantles the binds of patriarchy using the philosophe's own critical tools. The foremost of these tools is defamiliarization, a common literary device used in Enlightenment philosophical fictions. Through a shifting of perspectives, defamiliarization has the effect of rendering bizarre that which would normally be taken for granted. In Graffigny's novel, it is the French language which is defamiliarized, as Zilia astutely reveals the way language lodges and hides culture's biases. Thanks to her defamiliarizing gaze, Zilia's philosophical vision is so piercing that it challenges the hegemony of the very power structures out of which she speaks. Although in her ignorance of French culture she may first appear naive, Zilia is shrewd in observing the ramifications of this culture for her identity. Her ability to analyze the structures of domination hidden in the French language ultimately free her from their grasp; as a cultural critic, she is able to construct an independent position for herself that is remarkably free from the traditional requirements of French society. It is thus understandable that Graffigny's critique could not be assimilated entirely into Enlightenment thought. As an intellectual heroine, Zilia challenges not just the barriers confining her within the text, but also those that kept women silent in most of French society.

Graffigny combined in Zilia certain elements of the literary types used by Enlightenment writers to effect the defamiliarizing relationship with French culture, without reconstituting any one of these characters in particular. Montesquieu and Voltaire, for example, used the noble savage and the traveler from faroff lands to stage the conversation between the French and the Other. In noting Zilia's difference from these types, we see that Graffigny has not just haphazardly created a pastiche from this tradition, but rather pieced together her character in such a way as to place her in a privileged position for cultural criticism.

On the one hand, Zilia's exotic origins and her ignorance of Western culture recall the bon sauvage. The bon sauvage, however, is characterized by his ignorance, which also constitutes his privilege:

"ne sachant ni lire ni écrire, il s'épargne une foule de maux; il obéit à sa bonne mere, la nature: et donc, il est heureux. Les civilisés sont les vrais barbares: que l'exemple des sauvages leur apprenne à retrouver la liberté et la dignité humaines."

(Hazard, 18)

Zilia, by contrast, knows how to read and write; the opposition between nature and culture is thus displaced to the level of language. Indeed, Zilia believes that her kidnappers are the barbarians because, despite their literacy in their own native tongue, they are unable to interpret the signs of her sadness:

"Loin d'être touché de mes plaintes, mes ravisseurs ne le sont pas même de mes larmes; sourds à mon langage, ils n'entendent pas mieux les cris de mon désespoir."

Her captors' weakness constitutes Zilia's very strength: her ability to read the non-linguistic signs of the other. Furthermore, as a result of her hermeneutic talents, Zilia is not the object of the critical gaze, but rather the critical subject who does the looking and the writing. This subject position links her to the travelers in Montesquieu and Voltaire who arrive in France from exotic countries. However, these characters, as Janet Altman remarks, "have already received sophisticated European educations before they arrive in France [and] seem to have mastered (or were born knowing) the language of every country they visit" ("Graffigny's Epistemology," 176). Zilia, then, is in a unique linguistic position. She is situated in language—she is literate in her own tongue—but outside of French. This position complicates the prototypical critical relationship with the other, creating a linguistic barrier which Zilia must negotiate in order to render her judgments.

Altman notes that "the rigid delimitation and opposition of male and female spaces, identities, and spheres of activity that so frequently structure more familiar narratives of desire [are] strikingly absent in Graffigny's novel" ("Graffigny's Epistemology," 182). Indeed, the spaces that were opposed in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes are paradoxically joined in Zilia's experience. There is no longer a relay between the liberated thoughts of the traveler who can explore the world and the confined arena of the woman's words from within the sérail; the traveler and the prisoner are now one and the same. This doubled posture only widens the scope of Zilia's vision. At the same time that she is bombarded with the foreign language, Zilia is excluded from most linguistic relationships. Graffigny suggests, however, that Zilia's exclusion from linguistic relationships, which is intimately linked to her femininity, helps her better to understand language's mechanisms. While her Spanish captors use an interpreter to communicate with Aza, they deprive Zilia of any linguistic affirmation. She thus becomes extremely sensitive to what is not said, and this exclusion from language immediately is established as a privileged position:

Tu crois sincères les promesses que ces barbares te font faire par leur interprète, parce que tes paroles son inviolables; mais moi qui n'entends pas leur langage, moi qu'ils ne trouvent pas digne d'être trompée, je vois leurs actions.

Because Zilia is deemed unworthy of verbal communication, she must interpret actions, which prove to be more reliable than words. She is thus able to see what Aza ignores: verbal language can be duplicitous, and the rules of language are not universal. While the Peruvian never lies, the European manipulates his words in order to hide his actions.

Graffigny presents this prisoner-traveler, at once inside and outside of language, as having the spirit of the philosophe. Despite (or perhaps because of) the difficulty in speaking from her position, Zilia wants to learn. The instinct to give up (as did Montesquieu's Roxane) is countered by the stronger instinct to express her feelings. In one moment of frustration, Zilia closes her eyes to escape the foreigness around her; yet she discovers that

"renfermée en moimême, mes inquiétudes n'en étaient que plus vives, et le désir de les exprimer plus violent."

It is as if the impossibility of articulating her surroundings inspires her desire to keep trying to speak nonetheless:

Fatiguée de la confusion de mes idées ... j'avais résolu de ne plus penser; mais comment ralentir le mouvement d'une âme privée de toute communication, qui n'agit que sur ellemême, et que de si grands intérêts excitent á réfléchir? Je ne le puis . . . je cherche des lumières avec une agitation qui me dévore.

The vocabulary used to describe Zilia's unceasing desire to learn implicitly inscribes her within the philosophical project of the era. Her philosophical leanings are grounded in her origins: she comes from le pays du Soleil—in other words, le pays des Lumières. Zilia seems predisposed not just for critical but for philosophical success, in the self-conscious tradition of the era.

Zilia's assimilation of the French language recalls the means of linguistic classification practiced by the Enlightenment's natural scientists. In Les Mots et les Choses, Foucault describes the method of l'histoire naturelle as fundamentally a theory of language, arguing that natural science consisted of a process of renaming objects in nature:

"Pour établir le grand tableau sans faille des espèces, des genres, et des classes, il a fallu que l'histoire naturelle utilise, critique, classe et finalement reconstitue à nouveaux frais le langage" (175).

Natural science implicitly recognizes that language is what enables us to understand nature in the first place. Foucault explains that

"les mots et les choses sont très rigoureusement entrecroisés: la nature ne se donne qu'à travers la grille des dénominations" (173).

As a result of this interdependence, natural science demands a critical relationship with language through which the existing correspondences between les mots and les choses are challenged.

Turning back to Zilia, we can see similar dynamics of renaming at work. For Foucault, the possibility of l'histoire naturelle depends on the preexistence of non-scientific language:

"au-dessus des mots de tous les jours (et à travers eux puisqu'on doit bien les utiliser pour les descriptions premières) se bâtit l'édifice d'une langue au second degré où règnent enfin les Noms exacts des choses" (172).

Similarly, like the natural scientist who works from within his ability to talk about nature in non-scientific terms, Zilia enters the French language from within her own language. If Zilia had been a noble savage, outside of any sophisticated linguistic system, she could have learned all French vocabulary by simply drawing upon the stable relationship between French word and French thing, without the interference of her own linguistic code. But because she already has associations between words and things in her native language, she quite naturally substitutes Peruvian words for French things when possible. When she encounters French things that do not exist in Peru, she is unable to access a pre-existing relationship between word and thing. Instead of simple substitutions of Peruvian words for French ones, she must divide each thing into its comprehensible parts—releasing the thing from the word—in order to arrive at something she can articulate. This position between languages enables her critique. She unwittingly breaks down the relationship between French word and French thing, as she linguistically recontextualizes it according to her own interpretive constructs. Her description ultimately has the effect of transforming the thing, of defamiliarizing it, as it is resituated in a new language all her own.

This process of deconstructing language before renaming recalls the dynamics of natural science described by Foucault:

L'histoire naturelle est située à la fois avant et après le langage; elle défait celui de tous les jours, mais pour le refaire et découvrir ce qui l'a rendu possible à travers les ressemblances aveugles de l'imagination; elle le critique, mais pour en découvrir le fondement. . . . Entre le langage et la theórie de la nature, il existe donc un rapport qui est de type critique; connaître la nature, c'est en effet bâtir à partir du langage un langage vrai mais qui découvrira à quelles conditions tout language est possible et dans quelles limites il peut avoir un domaine de validité.

Like the scientist, Zilia undoes familiar language as she searches for the basis of its authority. In finding herself between the word and the thing, she is able to discover the hidden conditions that make language possible, but that the false simplicity of labels hides. This position is necessarily critical, but it has a productive goal. Once Zilia has challenged the foundations, she will build her own language, assimilating all the corrections that her critique has enabled. Like the histoire naturelle, then, Zilia

"se loge tout entière dans l'espace du langage, et elle a pour fin dernière de donner aux choses leur vraie dénomination."

(Foucault, 175)

The advantage of Zilia's position becomes most explicit when she reveals the non-universality of that which we normally associate with all language, such as writing and books. To describe writing, for example, Zilia does not need to write. The first seventeen letters are "written" with quipos, a Peruvian system of knotting. In one of her last letters written with quipos, she describes writing through her own form of non-oral communication:

Cela se fait en traçant avec une plume de petites figures qu'on appelle lettres, sur une matière blanche et mince que l'on nomme papier; ces figures ont des noms; ces noms, mêlés ensemble, représentent les sons des paroles; mais ces noms et ces sons me paraissent si peu distincts les uns des autres, que si je réussis à les entendre, je suis bien assurée que ce ne sera pas sans beaucoup de peines.

This is defamiliarization par excellence. Rendered by Zilia

"une méthode dont on se sert ici pour donner une sorte d'existence aux pensées",

writing is recontextualized as a social convention rather than a universal and natural choice for self-expression. In a Saussurian moment, Zilia reveals the arbitrariness of the names and letters we use to form meaning; writing becomes just one imperfect means among others to give materiality to thought. Through her anthropological observations, Zilia comes to realize that language is produced by and inscribed in culture, as she remarks with her last quipos:

"le langage humain est sans doute de l'invention des hommes."

Zilia thus reminds her readers that she sees their writing just as they see hers. As a critic, she has called into question any assumptions we have about what is "normal" by upsetting the stable balance between word and thing.

Zilia's desire to master the structures of the French language requires her mastery of French culture as well. Because cultural indexes are more easily accessed than language itself, interpretation of this culture becomes the first step towards linguistic competence. As Zilia encounters objects which are not linked to a specific vocabulary in her native tongue, she defines these objects through their cultural significance. In so doing, Zilia reveals dynamics that would be hidden by a simple and stable relationship between word and thing. For example, upon finding herself on a ship, Zilia writes an anguished lament to Aza, in which she notes the disjunction between what she sees and what she can articulate:

"pourrais-je te persuader ce que je ne comprends pas moimême?."

At first, Zilia can only determine in the most general terms what this machine is not: natural.

"Toute la connaissance que j'en ai, est que cette demeure n'a pas été construite par un être ami des hommes."

This initial instinct is confirmed when she arrives finally at the window:

"Quelle horrible surprise! . . . Je suis dans une de ces maisons flottantes dont les Espagnols se sont servis pour atteindre jusqu'à nos malheureuses contrées."

Many modern critics have dismissed Zilia's defamiliarizing moments as hackneyed replays of Enlightenment clichés underlining the naiveté of the ingénu character. Zilia's naive sounding reaction forcefully betrays, however, the hidden motives of the seemingly normal object. Through her foreign eyes, Zilia identifies the boat as a symbol of the corruption of European power; the ship is defined as the mechanism of foreign invasion, indeed, the most basic threat to the integrity of her nation. Zilia compensates for her lack of vocabulary, then, with an explanation that penetrates the object's significance in much greater depth than its lexical label ever could.

Another instance of Zilia's defamiliarizing cultural critique occurs when she first rides in a carriage. Zilia is at once delighted and troubled by the pleasures of this mode of travel:

J'ai goûté pendant ce voyage des plaisirs qui m'étaient inconnus. Renfermée dans le temple dès ma plus tendre enfance, je ne connaissais pas les beautés de l'univers; quel bien j'avais perdu! Les yeux parcourent, embrassent et se reposent tout à la fois sur une infinitéd'objects aussi variés qu'agréables.

Again, Zilia's position subtly preserves the trauma of exclusion while using this position to a critical advantage. Even from her exile, she speaks as a philosophe, astutely grasping the points of cultural tension and ultimately voicing her objections. She is struck by the pleasures of the mobile liberty she is experiencing because she has always been confined. She is thus able to appreciate the very ability to see the world and its infinity of new objects—an ability that the traditional Enlightenment traveler took for granted. At the same time—also because she has always been confined—Zilia is more sensitive to the ways in which the illusions of power can distort one's relationship to the universe:

On croit ne trouver de bornes, à sa vue que celles du monde entier. Cette erreur nous flatte; elle nous donne une idée satisfaisante de notre propre grandeur, et semble nous rapprocher du Créateur de tant de merveilles . . . Un calme délicieux pénètre dans notreâme, nous jouis-sons de l'univers comme le possédant seuls; nous n'y voyons rien qui ne nous appartienne.

Without access to the sociolect in which the mechanisms of power are couched within familiar and non-threatening terms, Zilia penetrates the psychological effects of the world view that authorizes and motivates the French voice. Although she temporarily delights in seeing from this position, Zilia cannot help but note its dangerous error. The sensation of omnipotence she experiences is countered by an implicit reminder that the French pleasures of possessing the universe are a threat to her own Peruvian heritage. She finds herself seeing from between these two worlds, negotiating between two fundamentally different linguistic realms. In order to speak from this vantage point, her challenge will be to reconcile the language of the captor with the position of the captive.

Zilia's ability to see the cultural role of the objects she encounters enables her to avoid assimilating these roles into her own usage. A prime example of this is her introduction to the mirror, another object which had a pre-existing relationship to the French ingénu character. Zilia's reaction to the mirror is different from that of the Sicilian slave in Prévost's Histoired'une Grecque moderne (1740), to choose one example, because the defamiliarized moment is followed by a rejection of the mirror. In contrast to her predecessor, Graffigny allows her character to distinguish herself from the cultural construction she encounters—to voice the critique herself rather than to be the object of it. Just as the modes of travel revealed the psychology of the Frenchman, Zilia's reaction to the mirror stages the fundamental psychological differences between Zilia and the Frenchwoman. Unlike French women, Zilia has never seen herself from the outside. As she stands before the mirror, she believes she is seeing a Peruvian sister:

Quelle surprise extrême, de ne trouver qu'une résistance impénétrable où je voyais une figure humaine . . . je le touchais, je lui parlais, et je le voyais en même temps fort près et fort loin de moi. . . . Le Cacique m'a fait comprendre que la figure que je voyais était la mienne; mais de quoi cela m'instruit-il? Le prodige en estil moins grand? Suis-je moins mortifiée de ne trouver dans mon esprit que des erreurs ou des ignorances?

Rather than delight in the pleasure of her own image, Zilia is troubled. Because her identity is composed from within, she cannot understand the purpose of this object. Her discomfort points to what is ultimately a basic cultural distinction. French women are concerned with their external appearance, at the expense of their internal well-being. They are thus more accustomed to looking at themselves than to communicating with others. In a later letter Zilia attributes this fault to their education:

Au peu de soin que l'on prend de leurâme, on serait tenté de croire que les Français sont dans l'erreur de certains peuples barbares qui leur en refusent une. Régler les mouvements du corps, arranger ceux du visage, composer l'extérieur, sont les points essentiels de l'éducation.

By refusing to identify from the outside, Zilia is rejecting a fundamental relationship between French language and culture. She chooses to exclude this French object, which essentially defines the French woman, from her own French vocabulary. Paradoxically, her refusal to assimilate the mirror into her own self-conception, to view herself from the exterior, enables her to speak French better—to be more French, in a sense, than the French women themselves. Because she learns French outside of the French educational system, she succeeds in achieving a higher linguistic competence. She remarks:

[Les Françaises] ignorent jusqu'à l'usage de leur langue naturelle; il est rare qu'elles la parlent correctement, et je ne m'aperçois pas sans une extrême surprise que je suis à présent plus savante qu'elles à cet égard.

Thus, Zilia underlines the fundamental contradictions that create the gap between

"[ce que les Françaises] sont et ce que l'on imagine qu'elles devraient être."

As she rebuilds the language according to her own voice, she will avoid submitting to such contradictions.

Before she has learned to speak, Zilia begins to communicate with her captors using the signs she can assimilate: gestures, actions, and expressions. She notes that one captor

"à son air de grandeur, me rend, je crois, à sa façon, beaucoup de respect;"

another (Déterville) takes her hand repeatedly, which she interprets as a kind of superstition. This non-verbal language makes explicit certain interpersonal relationships hidden in the language of words; it also betrays their contradictions, which are confusing to Zilia.

Un moment détruit l'opinion qu'un autre moment m'avait donnée de leur caractère et de leur façon de penser à mon égard. Sans compter un nombre infini de petites contradictions, ils me refusent . . . jusqu'aux aliments nécessaires au soutien de la vie, jusqu'à la liberté de choisir la place où je veux être. . . . D'un autre côté, si je réfléchis sur l'envie extrême qu'ils témoignent de conserver mes jours . . . je suis tentée de penser qu'ils me prennent pour un être d'une espèce supérieure à l'humanité.

Paradoxically, Zilia thinks she does not understand the behavior of her male captors because of the rigorousness of her observations. In the hopes of understanding their wishes for her, she interprets every interaction, expecting to find logic in relationships that reveal themselves as fundamentally irrational. What the reader understands is that Déterville is in love with Zilia; we are therefore not surprised by the combination of worship of the object of desire and exertion of power over this object. To Zilia, however, one aspect of Déterville's behavior cannot be reconciled with the other; her discomfort challenges the accepted symmetry between adoration and subjugation.

Zilia's unsuspecting entrapment within the contradiction of male desire reveals the extent to which female oppression by the male lover can be embedded in and protected by language:

Il commence par me faire prononcer distinctement des mots de sa langue. Dès que j'ai répété après lui, oui, je vous aime, ou bien, je vous promets d'être à vous, la joie se répand sur son visage, il me baise les mains avec transport, et avec un air de gaietétout contraire au sérieux qui accompagne le culte divin.

Because she cannot yet understand Déterville's words, Zilia continues to interpret his actions. She observes that

"le ton, l'air, et la forme qu'il y emploie me persuadent que ce n'est qu'un jeu à l'usage de sa nation."

She concludes that the repetition of these phrases are part of some sort of French customary exchange; thus, the actual formulas repeated lose their meaning. Indeed, Zilia's ignorance enables her to understand this exchange in a more profound way than Déterville can himself. He maintains the illusion that Zilia is learning in repeating, that with each repetition she means more fully what she says. But all that Zilia learns is that this repetition in itself makes the Frenchman happy; or, in other words, French custom requires that the man dictate and the woman repeat. From the point of view of the reader, who understands the meaning of the repeated words, the cultural critique is even stronger. As she blindly repeats these words while ignoring their coded significance, Zilia becomes the woman parrot who chirps for the master all that he wants to hear; her own feelings are necessarily excluded from this exchange. A phrase normally charged with emotional significance (especially in the roman sentimental, the genre in which this novel is usually classified) is thus stripped of its sense when it serves as a tool of male domination.

Zilia's linguistic perspicacity assures that, when she finally learns to speak and write, she will have discarded all the mechanisms of French culture which hinder her ability to communicate freely. Her confrontation with the dynamics of French culture and her appreciation for the conditions which make language possible enable her to

"bâtir à partir du langage un langage vrai."

(Focault, 175)

Just as she rejected the mirror as a foundation for her subjectivity, she reconstructs verbal language with respect to her own sensibilities. As a result, her language is markedly different from that of her French master. Zilia learns to speak French while Déterville is at war. When he returns, she demonstrates to her teacher what she has learned, but the teacher no longer understands the words of his student. Zilia insists that she loves Déterville, but he is unable to understand her usage.

"Mais expliquez-moi quel sens vous attachez à ces mots adorables: je vous aime,"

he pleads, but Zilia has clearly missed the pained desire underlying this plea. In a rather striking reversal, the foreigner explains to the native the meaning of his own words:

"Ces mots doivent . . . vous faire entendre que vous m'êtes cher, que votre sort m'intéresse, que l'amitié et la reconaissance m'attachent à vous."

As a result of her cultural critique, she has been able to separate the

"je vous aime"

from the

"je vous promets d'être à vous";

she has unhinged the verb aimer from amour and linked it to amitié.

Indeed, in the new lexicon that Zilia has created for herself as a French woman, love is no longer an active possibility for Zilia. Once Déterville tries to explain his feelings, to convince her that he loves her—in the French sense—she is shocked:

Comment cela se pourrait-il? repris-je. Vous n'êtes point de ma nation; loin que vous m'ayez choisie pour votre épouse, le hasard seul nous a réunis, et ce n'est même que d'aujourd'hui que nous pouvions librement nous communiquer nos idées.

If love is based upon similarity and homogeneous communication, love cannot exist between a French man and a Peruvian woman. In a sense, then, Peruvian love cannot be translated into French. For French women, love is the only emotion to be concerned with

("Si je leur parle de sentiments, elles se défendent d'en avoir, parce qu'elles ne connaissent que celui de l'amour;");

for Peruvian women, it is one emotion among many others. Furthermore, if French love does not interest Zilia, Peruvian love seems no longer possible. After coming to terms with Aza's infidelity, the love that she relished in all her previous letters is rewritten as a kind of slavery. She warns Déterville in her last letter:

"C'est en vain que vous vous flatteriez de faire prendre à mon coeur de nouvelles chaînes."

Her new-found ability to speak from the position of another language thus also enables her to look critically upon her own culture and to reconstruct Peruvian by the same logic.

As the novel closes, Zilia has succeeded in finding a place for herself in the French language even as she holds fast to her Peruvian distinctions. In this respect, she succeeds where Aza fails; Aza has been seduced by the new culture of his surroundings and chooses to live according to its rules rather than his own. Ironically, this choice prevents him from marrying a Peruvian woman. Zilia, on the other hand, refuses to submit to the end carved out for her within French society—marriage with Déterville. As she replaces amour with amitié, she shows her resolve to live in French according to her own modifications of its rules. Furthermore, in her last letter, Zilia proposes the replacement of her monologic letters with a dialogue. The intellectual exchange she invites would neutralize the power hierarchy between captor and captive:

Vous me donnerez quelque connaissance de vos sciences et de vos arts; vous goûterez le plaisir de la supériorité; je la reprendrai en développant dans votre coeur des vertus que vous n'y connaissez pas.

Zilia's refusal of the traditional female dénouement of marriage is matched, then, with the promise of an ongoing intellectual conversation. Rather than join with Déterville as his wife, Zilia offers to join him as a fellow philosopher, ready both to learn and to teach. Zilia's specialty, however, is not simply the virtues of the heart. Her existence in the world of the other has equipped her with a unique lens into understanding the self.

Even as Graffigny excludes love from her dénouement, she offers a more fundamental relationship between philosophy and feelings— a relationship that liberates woman from her traditional ending. At the end of the novel, Zilia describes a new jouissance that links feelings to thoughts:

"le plaisir d'être; ce plaisir oublié, ignoré même de tant d'aveugles humains; cette pensée si douce, ce bonheur si pur, je suis, je vis, j'existe" (362).

In substituting this philosophical jourissance for the traditional union of lovers, Graffigny succeeds increating a literaryspace in which the woman can determine her own identity.

As I have noted already, critics of Les Lettres d'une Péruvienne have traditionally classified it as a love story rather than a roman philosophique. That Graffigny's contemporary readers shared this view is confirmed by their dissatisfaction with the ending, in which the love plot they had been following ultimately is subverted and eclipsed by the philosophical resolution. Readers who considered Zilia's social commentaries as mere asides were naturally frustrated with this lack of a romantic dénouement. Even those who took her philosophizing seriously were unsettled by her refusal of marriage and were troubled by the intersection of the love story and the cultural critique. They were unsettled, then, by the impact of the female philosophical voice on the structures of sensibilité. In fact, in her manipulation of literary convention, Graffigny suggests a more profound and problematic relationship between the categories of roman sentimental and roman philosophique than had previously been imagined. In a sense, Les Lettres d'une Péruvienne had to take the form of a roman sentimental, because Zilia's philosophical critique arises from her imprisonment within the love narrative that had defined women's roles. Before Zilia, there had been no place for a female intellectual in the roman sentimental. By bringing her philosopher into the boudoir, so to speak, Graffigny protested against the limitations of the female narrative. She temporarily shifted the paradigms of the philosophe, suggesting that his intellectual structures restricted the possibilities for representing women's lives. As Graffigny adds a certain emotional urgency to the cultural critique by making identity politics a condition for narrative voice, we catch a glimpse of what it might have meant to be a female philosophe. For Graffigny, it seems, such a philosophizing in the feminine meant an attention to both the emotional and the intellectual stakes involved in the construction of an independent female voice.

Paradoxically, we might measure Graffigny's intellectual success by her practical failure. Like Déterville who could not recognize Zilia once she had assimilated his own teachings, Graffigny's contemporaries could not fully interpret the message of their own student. While her stylistic innovation of combining the cultural critic and romantic heroine were noted by at least some of her peers, the political implications of this gesture were ignored. Instead of contemplating the choice of philosophy over marriage, Graffigny's readers criticized this lack of traditional closure. Zilia's success as a female philosophe points then to both the possibility and impossibility for women to have participated in the Enlightenment. On the one hand, Enlightenment critical strategies opened up an avenue for critique; with these tools of observation and analysis, even the most disenfranchised voice—the voice of the female foreigner—could express its opposition to the dominant patriarchal culture. On the other hand, the feminist implications that emerged with this voice were perhaps too threatening to be recognized as such. Recent research has suggested that Graffigny's reception was relatively blind to her gender; readers situated her originality within the context of Enlightenment innovations—thus ignoring the feminist subversiveness of her heroine—and even saw her as paving the way for the likes of Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. It might also be argued, however, that Graffigny's most radical innovation in her philosophic and sentimental novel was in using a female intellectual to collapse the structures that had limited her self-expression. Unfortunately, no tradition of writers—male or female—seized upon Graffigny's path as a new way to represent the female voice.

Source: Rachel L. Mesch, "Did Women Have an Enlightenment? Graffigny's Zilia As Female Philosophe," in Romanic Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, November 1998, pp. 523-37.


Batley, Edward M., Catalyst of Enlightenment: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Peter Lang, 1990.

Chambers, Whittaker, "The Age of Enlightenment," in Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers, 1931-1959, edited by Terry Teachout, Regnery Gateway, 1989.

Gay, Peter, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Goetschel, Willi, "Lessing's 'Jewish' Question,' in Germanic Review, Vol. 78, No. 1, Winter 2003, pp 62-73.

Hamilton, Ross, "Playing with Chance: Rousseau's Illumination," in Romanic Review, Vol. 95, No. 3, 2004, pp. 271-91.

Hampson, Norman, The Enlightenment, Penguin Books, 1968.

Hitchens, Christopher, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.

Mesch, Rachel L., "Did Women Have an Enlightenment? Graffigny's Zilia as Female Philosophe," in Romanic Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1998, pp. 523-37.

Nelson, Craig, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, Penguin, 2007.


Becker-Cantarino, Barbara, ed., German Literature of the Eighteenth Century: The Enlightenment and Sensibility, Camden House, 2004.

This volume collects twelve essays by worldwide scholars of eighteenth-century literature. The contributors explore the works and influences of diverse figures such as Christian Wolff, Gottfried Leibniz, G. E. Lessing, and Immanuel Kant.

Broadie, Alexander, ed., The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology, Canongate, 1998.

Broadie reveals the importance of Scottish thinkers and writers during the Enlightenment by compiling historical information with relevant writings, some of which have not been reprinted since the eighteenth century. The book is arranged by subject, making it easy for students to find passages relevant to their interests.

Gossman, Lionel, French Society and Culture: Background for Eighteenth-Century Literature, Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Gossman presents a historical and cultural context for the Enlightenment and other writing during eighteenth-century France. This context depicts the society in which and for which the Enlightenment emerged.

Green, Frederick C., Literary Ideas in 18th-Century France and England: A Critical Survey, Frederick Ungar, 1966.

This enduring study of eighteenth-century thought and literature provides a thorough context for studying the Enlightenment. There are numerous references to the career of Denis Diderot, philosopher and encyclopedist of the Enlightenment in France.

Porter, Roy, The Creation of the Modern World: The British Enlightenment, Norton, 2000.

Porter revises traditional opinion in regard to the importance of British writers during the Enlightenment. Although emphasis is usually placed on France and America, Porter demonstrates how the movement was advanced by the efforts of great British thinkers, who made a substantial impact on their society.

Spencer, Samia I., ed., French Women and the Age of Enlightenment, Indiana University Press, 1984.

This collection of essays sheds light on the role of women during the Enlightenment. The essays explore the important contributions made by women in politics, society, culture, and science.


views updated May 11 2018


ENLIGHTENMENT. The term "Enlightenment" refers to a loosely organized intellectual movement, secular, rationalist, liberal, and egalitarian in outlook and values, which flourished in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The name was self-bestowed, and the terminology of darkness and light was identical in the major European languages"Enlightenment" for English speakers, siècle des lumières in France, illuminismo in Italy, Aufklärung for Germans and Austrians. Although it was international in scope, the center of gravity of the movement was in France, which assumed an unprecedented leadership in European intellectual life. Emblematically, the single most famous publication of the Enlightenment was the French Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisoné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (17511772; Encyclopedia, or, Rational dictionary of the sciences, arts, and professions), a massive compendium of theoretical and practical knowledge edited in Paris by Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot. The cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment was genuine, however. It was a German admirer of d'Alembert and Diderot, Immanuel Kant, who produced the most enduring definition of the movement. In a famous essay of 1784, Kant defined enlightenment as "emancipation from self-incurred tutelage" and declared that its motto should be sapere aude "dare to know." Writers and thinkers associated with the Enlightenment were certainly capable of profound disagreement among themselves. But the common aspiration defined by Kantknowledge as liberationis what permits us to see a unified movement amid much diversity.


In a long-term perspective, the Enlightenment can be regarded as the third and last phase of the cumulative process by which European thought and intellectual life was "modernized" in the course of the early modern period. Its relation to the two earlier stages in this processRenaissance and Reformationwas paradoxical. In a sense, the Enlightenment represented both their fulfillment and their cancellation. As the neoclassical architecture and republican politics of the late eighteenth century remind us, respect and admiration for classical antiquity persisted throughout the period. Yet the Enlightenment was clearly the moment at which the spell of the Renaissancethe conviction of the absolute superiority of ancient over modern civilizationwas broken once and for all in the West. The Enlightenment revolt against the intellectual and cultural authority of Christianity was even more dramatic. In effect, the Protestant critique of the Catholic churchcondemned for exploitation of its charges by means of ideological delusionwas extended to Christianity, even religion itself. At the deepest level, this is what Kant meant by "emancipation from self-incurred tutelage": the Enlightenment marked the moment at which the two most powerful sources of intellectual authority in Europe, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, were decisively overthrown, at least for a vanguard of educated Europeans.

What made this intellectual liberation possible? The major thinkers of the Enlightenment were in fact very clear about the proximate origins of their own ideas, which they almost invariably traced to the works of a set of pioneers or founders from the mid-seventeenth century. First and foremost among these were figures now associated with the "scientific revolution"above all, the English physicist Isaac Newton, who became the object of a great cult of veneration in the eighteenth century. Hardly less important were thinkers who are more typically classified as "philosophers" today, including the major figures of both the rationalist and the empiricist traditionsRené Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz on the one hand, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke on the other. Similarly honored were the founders of modern "natural rights" theory in political thoughtHugo Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Samuel Pufendorf. These thinkers did not see themselves as engaged in a common enterprise as did their successors in the Enlightenment. What they did share, however, was the sheer novelty of their ideasthe willingness to depart from tradition in one domain of thought after another. Nor is it an accident that this roster is dominated by Dutch and English names or careers. For the United Provinces and England were the two major states in which divine-right absolutism had been successfully defeated or overthrown in Europe. If the ideological idiom of the Dutch Revolt (15681648) and the English Revolutions (16401660, 1688) remained primarily religious, their success made possible a degree of freedom of thought and expression enjoyed nowhere else in Europe. The result was to lay the intellectual foundations for the Enlightenment, which can be defined as the process by which the most advanced thought of the seventeenth century was popularized and disseminated in the course of the eighteenth.


Logically enough, having supplied the great pioneers and precursors in the seventeenth century, neither the United Provinces nor England were to play a dominant role in the Enlightenment itself. What these countries did provide, however, was the indispensable staging ground for the central practical business of the movement, the publication of books. For most of the century, Amsterdam and Londontogether with the city-states of another zone of relative freedom, Switzerlandwere home to the chief publishers of the Enlightenment, many of whom specialized in the printing of books for clandestine circulation in France.

For France was the leading producer and consumer of "enlightened" literature in the eighteenth century, occupying a dominant position in the movement comparable to that of Italy in the Renaissance or Germany in the Reformation. The reasons for this centrality lie in the unique position of France within the larger set of European nations at the end of the seventeenth century. At the end of the long reign of Louis XIV in 1715, Catholic France remained by far the most powerful absolute monarchy in Europeyet one whose geopolitical ambitions had clearly been thwarted by the rise of two smaller, post-absolutist Protestant states, the United Provinces and Great Britain. The remote origins of the French Enlightenment can be traced precisely to the moment that the sense of having been overtaken by Dutch and English rivals became palpable. The key transitional work, the French Protestant Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (Critical and historical dictionary), was published from Dutch exile in 1697. As the Enlightenment unfolded in France, the promptings of international rivalry remained central. The major texts of its early phase, Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721; Persian letters) and Voltaire's Lettres philosophiques (1734; Philosophical letters) both held up a critical mirror to what was now theorized as "despotism" in Francean imaginary Muslim one in the case of the first, a very real English mirror in the second. The critical edge of the Encyclopédie, the collective enterprise that defined and dominated the French Enlightenment at its peak, came from a still more urgent sense that intellectual modernization was a matter of national prioritydemonstrated dramatically, indeed, by the magnitude of French defeat in the Seven Years' War (17561763). The last years of the French Enlightenment saw the emergence of a distinctive school of political economy, whose conscious purpose was to find means of restoring the economic and political fortunes of France, in the face of British competition.

By this point, the example of the French Enlightenment had long since inspired or provoked a sequence of other national "enlightenments," according to a similar dynamic of international rivalry and influence. Second only to France in terms of its contribution to the Enlightenment was its perennial ally in political and cultural contention with England: Scotlandwhich, in fact, had been absorbed into political union with England in 1707. The first major thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment was David Hume, whose precocious Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1740. Hume's subsequent turn to history and politics paved the way for the works of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar in the 1760s and 1770s, which gave birth to modern economics and historical sociologyand whose common focus was precisely the issue of economic and social development across time. Italy, not surprisingly, as another zone of French influence, produced not a "national" but a great flowering of local "enlightenments," the most important being the Milanese and the Neapolitan, both specializing in juridical thought and reform.

Beyond this western European core, the Enlightenment spread, in the second half of the century, to the western and eastern peripheries of European civilization. French and Scottish ideas were enthusiastically embraced in the English colonies of North America, and, with a slight lag, in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the South. As in France and Scotland, this was largely a spontaneous process, the work of an independent intelligentsiaeven if some of the key figures of colonial "enlightenments" soon became statesmen themselves. In eastern Europe, by contrast, where the major absolute monarchies now reached their maturity, the Enlightenment tended to arrive with royal sponsorship: Frederick the Great's engagement of the services of Voltaire and Catherine the Great's of Diderotor, for that matter, the Polish nobility's solicitation of advice from Jean-Jacques Rousseauare the most famous gestures of what came to be known as "enlightened despotism." In any case, the last flowering of the Enlightenment as a whole came in Germany, where it found a philosophical consummation in Kant's mature philosophy, completed during the years that the French monarchy fell victim to the revolution that ended the European Old Regime as a whole.


What were the key ideas of the Enlightenment, beyond the challenge to inherited intellectual authority noted by Kant? The Enlightenment never presented itself as a single theoretical system or unitary ideological doctrineif nothing else, the necessities of adaptation to different national contexts made unity of that kind unlikely. But the variety of its ideas was not infinite. The best way to approach them is perhaps in terms of a sequence of domains of thought or "problem-areas," in which a certain general consensusoften negativecan be discerned, together with a significant spectrum of differences of opinion.

Religion. No idea is more commonly associated with the Enlightenment than hostility toward established forms of religionindeed, at least one major interpreter has characterized the movement in terms of "the rise of modern paganism" (Gay, 1966). It is certainly the case that the majority of adherents to the Enlightenment shared an intellectual aversion to theism in its inherited forms: specific objects of criticism included belief in miracles and other forms of divine intervention, the status accorded "holy" Scripture, and claims about the divinity of Jesus. At the same time, most Enlightenment thinkers regarded traditional churches, Catholic and Protestant, as engines of institutional exploitation and oppression. Hostility toward theism and a general anticlericalism did not, however, preclude an enormous variety of attitudes toward the supernatural and the "sacred" among followers of the Enlightenment. Forthright atheism did indeed make its public debut in Europe during the eighteenth century, in the works of figures such as Hume, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie, and Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach. But this was a minority position. The bulk of Enlightened opinion opted for the compromise of "deism" or "natural religion," which had the stamp of approval of Newton himself and which continued to attract a good deal of sincere devotion, in a wide variety of forms.

Science. It is a commonplace that the demotion of religion by the Enlightenment went hand in hand with the promotion of scienceindeed, the very notion of a generic "science," as a sphere of cognition distinct from religious "belief," was undoubtedly a gift of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment discovery or construction of science, in this sense, owed everything to the idea of a heroic age of scientific achievement just behind it, in the development of modern astronomy and physics from Nicolaus Copernicus to Newton. For all of the prestige that now attached to science, however, it would be a mistake to exaggerate agreement during the Enlightenment with regard to either its methods or findings. The philosophical heritage from the seventeenth century was far too various for that. Looking back at the eighteenth century, the last great philosopher of the Enlightenment, Kant, described an anarchic battlefield, divided ontologically between materialism and idealism and epistemologically between rationalism and empiricism. Moreover, there was also profound disagreement as to the social consequences of scientific advance, however defined. For every Condorcet, celebrating the beneficent effects of cognitive "progress" for liberty and prosperity, there was a Rousseau, decrying the contribution that science made to technological violence and social inequality.

Politics. The seventeenth century had seen a profound revolution in political thought, with the emergence of the modern "natural rights" tradition of Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Pufendorf. One of the major achievements of the early Enlightenment was to popularize and disseminate this tradition, via an endless array of translations, summaries, and commentaries. By the mid-eighteenth century, the basic conceptual vocabulary of the natural rights tradition"natural rights," "state of nature," "civil society," "social contract"had entered the mainstream of Enlightenment political thought, which embraced, nearly unanimously, the belief that the only legitimate basis of political authority was consent. The path toward the vindication of "inalienable natural rights" in the founding documents of the American and French Revolutions lay open. Still, beyond this basic agreement about legitimacy, the practical substance of Enlightenment political thought was extraordinarily various. Only one major thinker, Rousseau, actually produced a theory of republican legitimacybut in a form so radically democratic as to preclude its widespread acceptance prior to the era of the French Revolution. In terms of practical politics, the majority of Enlightenment thinkers accepted a pragmatic accommodation with monarchyoverwhelmingly still the dominant state-form in Europeand instead pursued what might be termed a program of "proto-liberalism," concentrating on securing civil liberties of one kind or anotherfreedoms of religion, self-expression, and trade.

Social science. Meanwhile, the most influential work of political theory of the Enlightenment turned its back on natural rights theory altogether. In De l'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of the laws), Montesquieu set forth a global taxonomy of state-forms, dividing the world into a West that had seen a transition from the martial republics of antiquity to the commercial monarchies of modern Europe, and an East dominated by unchanging "despotism." A succeeding generation of French and Scottish thinkers then developed Montesquieu's legacy in two different directions. One was the genre of "conjectural" or "stadial" history, which traced the historical development of societies through specific socioeconomic stageshuntergatherer, nomadic, agricultural, and commercial in the most famous of these, known retrospectively as the "four stages" theory. The other direction was toward an entirely new social science, that of economics or "political economy"probably the most important single intellectual innovation of the Enlightenment. Within the ranks of "conjectural" historians and political economists, however, there was significant disagreement about the political and moral upshot of their findings. Thinkers as close in outlook as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson could disagree profoundly about the effects of economic progress on political life. The field of political economy itself was sharply divided between two quite different theoretical schools, French Physiocracy and the "system of liberty" set forth in Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Finally, more conventional narrative historiography, which underwent a great flowering in the Enlightenment in the work of practitioners such as Voltaire, Hume, and Edward Gibbon, showed a not dissimilar variety. In the face of every legend about the shallow optimism of the Enlightenment, it is worth noting that its historiographical masterpiece, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (17761788), recounted a tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions: the destruction of the classical world at the hands of "barbarism and religion."

Imaginative literature. From the start, poetry, fiction, and plays provided natural vehicles for the expression of Enlightenment ideas. Here, above all, the watchword is variety. It is very striking that the two most enduring works of imaginative literature of the French Enlightenment should be so dark in outlook. Its earliest work, Montesquieu's Persian Letters, is a stark parable about the lethal dangers of the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. Voltaire's philosophical novella Candide (1759)doubtless the most widely read eighteenth-century work todayis a caustic satire on the "optimism" of philosophical rationalism. At the other end of this spectrum, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's late operas, scarcely less popular with contemporary audiences, convey an infinitely sunnier sense of basic Enlightenment ideasfrom the raucous celebration of social and gender egalitarianism in Le nozze di Figaro (1785; The marriage of Figaro), to the stately presentation of a stylized Freemasonry in Die Zauberflöte (1791; The magic flute). In fact, The Marriage of Figaro can be regarded as an emblem of Enlightenment cosmopolitanismthe incendiary play on which it is based the work of a French Protestant admirer of the American Revolution, its libretto furnished by an Italian Jew, its composer an Austrian Freemason.


Ideas naturally remain the primary focus of scholarly study of the Enlightenment. However, recent scholarship has devoted a steadily increasing amount of attention to what might be termed the "social history" of the Enlightenmentthe form in which its ideas were expressed, the institutions by means of which they circulated, and the identities of the people who produced and consumed them. The theoretical inspiration for much of this research has come from the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas's early book, Der Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962; The structural transformation of the public sphere), which traced the development of a "bourgeois public sphere" for the exchange of ideas and information, which reached its climax in the eighteenth centuryindeed, was at one with the Enlightenment (Habermas, 1989; Melton, 2001).

Habermas's analysis laid special stress on the socioeconomic developments in the early modern period that made the "public sphere" in this sense possible. The most crucial development of all, he suggested, was a revolution in reading and writing in the eighteenth century to match the original "print revolution" of the sixteenth. The suggestion has been amply confirmed by subsequent scholarship, which has focused on three specific changes in the "print culture" of the Enlightenment. One is simply a tremendous leap forward not just in literacy rates, but in the very meaning of literacy, as "reading" itself deepened and widened and as large numbers of women joined the ranks of the literate for the first time. Secondly, the Enlightenment saw a vast expansion not just in the volume of printed matter in Europe, but also in its variety: different genres of books, multiplying in every direction, were joined by a wide range of periodicals, as well as weekly and even daily newspapers. Finally, authorship itself finally started to be modernized during the Enlightenment, as first the idea and then the reality of literary property began to take holdtraceable in the careers of such major writers as Voltaire, Hume, and Rousseau.

Beyond this transformation of the literate "public," Habermas also suggested that the eighteenth-century "public sphere" depended on certain characteristic social institutions, which shared a kind of family resemblance as sites for the expression of a specifically Enlightenment "sociability." Most striking of all was the Enlightenment salonperiodic social gatherings of writers and intellectuals for the exchange of ideas, presentation of written material, and display of works of art, typically under female leadership and direction. The salons of eighteenth-century Paris are the most famous, but those of London, Berlin, or Vienna contributed no less to the local circulation of Enlightened ideas. Secondly, there was a set of slightly more "public," and certainly more masculine, establishments, part of whose allure depended on the consumption of intoxicants of one kind or anotherthe tavern, wine shop, and coffeehouse, pioneered in the United Provinces and Britain in the late seventeenth century and then widely imitated across Europe in the eighteenth. Finally, the propagation of Enlightenment ideas was a special concern of the network of Masonic lodges, again deriving from British origins, which then proliferated across the continent in the eighteenth centurythe first secular, voluntary associations in modern Europe.

What was the social profile of those who attended Enlightenment salons, frequented eighteenth-century coffee shops, and joined Masonic lodges? In line with his Marxism, Habermas himself stressed the "bourgeois" or even capitalist origins and character of the "public sphere" of the Enlightenment. In fact, at its upper reaches, the movement was thoroughly mixed in social terms: the roster of its leading figures suggests a kind of united front between aristocratsMontesquieu, Condorcetand an emergent middle-class intelligentsia, typified by the careers of Voltaire or Diderot. Below this level, however, there is no doubt about the fundamentally bourgeois character of the Enlightenment, in the broadest sense of the term. In fact, one of the most important achievements of scholarship over the past thirty years has been the patient reconstruction of what the historian Robert Darnton called the "business of Enlightenment"the commodification of Enlightenment ideas, in the book trade above all. Darnton has also been a pioneer in uncovering the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas down the social scale, far below the cosmopolitan elite of famous names, to what he termed the "Grub Street" journalism of an emergent popular culture (Darnton, 1979 and 1982).

As it happens, however, the liveliest sector of the current social history of the Enlightenment is concerned not with social rank but with gender. What was the role of women in the Enlightenment? The leading part taken by women in organizing and hosting salons, as well as the rising rate of female literacy, points to one kind of answerthat the Enlightenment indeed marked a watershed in the history of female participation at the highest reaches of European intellectual life (Goodman, 1994). At the same time, the absence of feminine names from the canon of the major writers of the epoch also suggests some of the limits of this emancipation. Early feminist ideas were in circulation in Europe from the late-seventeenth century onward: the works of Mary Astell (16661731) are a major reference point today. But Astell, a deeply devoted Anglican, was far from an Enlightenment thinker. On the whole, the actual record of eighteenth-century thought on women and gender suggests a kind of confused collision between competing values: the egalitarianism of Enlightenment social sensibilities was counterbalanced by a robust naturalism emphasizing the biological differences between the sexes. Not a few of the most famous writers of the eraRousseau is the most notoriousadopted positions that can only be described as antifeminist. It very striking that the first great classic of feminist philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was written by an English radical who, while she identified very closely with the French Enlightenment and admired Rousseau, owed the publication of her work to a very different political contextthat of the French Revolution.


This brings us in fact to an initial question about the place of the Enlightenment in the wider currents of European history. Its maturity as an intellectual movement coincided with the start of a cycle of political revolutions that ended, after a half-century of social convulsion and warfare, with the destruction of the Old Regime of early modern Europe. What was the relation between the Enlightenment and what the American historian R. R. Palmer called "the age of the democratic revolution"? For conservative critics of the French Revolution such as Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, the answer was simple and dramatic: the Enlightenment caused the RevolutionVoltaire and Rousseau sketched a scenario for political transformation that was then willfully enacted by the Abbé Siéyès and Maximilien Robespierre. The idea is easy to dismiss in its hyperbolic or conspiratorial forms. But how in fact should we conceive of the relation between the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment and the political revolutions that overthrew the Old Regime?

Many scholars have stressed the practical thrust of the Enlightenment critique of political, social, and religious institutions, which certainly appeared to express a desire not merely to analyze but to change the world. At the same time, it also seems clear that the basic orientation of this criticism was reformist and not revolutionary. No major Enlightenment thinker ever advocated "revolution," in the sense of a conscious change of political regime, even by peaceful meansthe memory of the last serious example of such a project, the failed Commonwealth that issued out of the English Civil War, was a potent warning against such presumption. On the whole, the practical political energies of the Enlightenment were devoted to a far more modest set of ends, the securing of a set of basic civil libertiesfreedom of religion, self-expression, tradenor did many thinkers contemplate the extension of these liberties beyond an elite minority of white male property owners. It is perfectly appropriate that the most celebrated examples of Enlightenment activism should be the one-man campaigns mounted by Voltaire to "crush the infamy," as his motto put it, of anachronistic religious persecution. Of course, Voltaire was not the only Enlightenment thinker to become more directly involved with affairs of state, on occasion. But the oxymoron of "enlightened despotism" suggests the limits of such episodes. In eastern Europe, this was largely a matter of rendering the rule of divine-right absolutism more rational and efficient. In the West, experiments in the practical application of Enlightenment ideasfor example, efforts to deregulate the grain trade in France, inspired by Physiocracytended to be short-lived fiascoes.

The immediate origins of both the American and the French Revolutions can be traced, not to the conscious plans of revolutionaries dreaming of overthrowing regimes, but to fiscal crises brought on by debts incurred in international warfaredisputes over the escalating costs of imperial defense in the case of the first, state bankruptcy brought on by bankrolling the American revolt itself, in the case of the second. The Enlightenment cannot be said to have "caused" either, in any plausible sense of the term. This is not to deny any relation between them, however. On the contrary, if the Enlightenment played a minimal role in the originslargely spontaneous and contingentof the American and French Revolutions, it was absolutely central to the processes of political and social reconstruction undertaken by both, once old regimes had collapsed. The various declarations of "natural rights" that accompanied every step of this saga, from Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1776) and the American state constitutions to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and the American Bill of Rights (1791) and beyond, tell their own storyso many variations on the basic civil libertarianism of the Enlightenment. Politically, the Age of Revolutions afforded opportunities for state construction beyond what any Enlightenment thinker had envisaged. But the ensuing experiments in republican constitution making were all conducted in self-conscious continuity with eighteenth-century political thought. The one great success story here, the American constitution of 1787, with its antidemocratic machinery of "checks and balances," is notoriously a creature of the Enlightenment. Neither the French Revolution nor the wars of liberation in Latin America succeeded in creating comparably durable state structures, of course. But by far the most significant sociopolitical accomplishment of the former, the Napoleonic Civil Code (1804), was itself a straightforward expression of the egalitarian and rationalizing designs of the Enlightenment. Moreover, the fact that the restoration of monarchy that followed the overthrow of Napoleon was so unstable and short-lived is a testament to the long-term impact of the Enlightenment in altering the social and political expectations of Europeans. When the dust settled after another cycle of political revolutions a half-century laterunifying and modernizing Italy, Germany, the United States, and Japan by means of revolution "from above"the social and political landscape to be seen in Europe and North America was very much in line with the hopes and aspirations of the Enlightenment.


In the long run, then, the Enlightenment can be said to have succeeded in changing the world, much as the Renaissance and the Reformation had before itthrough a complicated interweaving of intended and unintended consequences. There is, however, one important difference between the first two and the last of these episodes of intellectual "modernization." On the whole, the great issues and passions of the Renaissance and the Reformation have long since receded into history, their very success having also canceled their actuality. There is no sign yet that the Enlightenment is "over" in the same sense. Despite the claims once made on behalf of Marxism or psychoanalysis in their heydays, the Enlightenment has yet to be coopted or surpassed by any later intellectual movement, in the way it did the Renaissance and Reformation.

There is no surer sign of this than its fate in twentieth-century scholarship. For alongside a massive professional literature on its thought, probably exceeding that devoted to the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the "scientific revolution," the Enlightenment has inspired a polemical and philosophical commentary on it that is unprecedented in modern intellectual history. On the one hand, the movement has attracted a powerful series of advocates, concerned to defend its intellectual and political legacy, typically by straightforward identification with it. These include Ernst Cassirer, whose Philosophie der Aufklärung (Philosophy of the enlightenment), published on the eve of his exile from Nazi Germany in 1932, launched the serious academic study of its subject, and, above all, Peter Gay, whose two-volume study, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966, 1969)which ended with a ringing vindication of Enlightenment liberal humanism, still incarnated today in the American constitutionremains the most authoritative single synthesis of the field. On the other hand, the Enlightenment has also been the object of an endless series of polemical attacks in the twentieth century. What is perhaps most striking is that the greatest of these have not come from the right of the political spectrum, as in the tradition descending from Burke and Maistre to Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, but from its centerCarl Becker's perennially popular The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers as well as its far leftMax Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's classic of Western Marxism, Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947; Dialectic of enlightenment) and virtually the entire early oeuvre of the French historian Michel Foucault. For Becker, the fatal flaw of the Enlightenment was its naive utopianism, modeled on that of its ostensible Christian opponents. Both Horkheimer and Adorno and Foucault regarded Enlightenment rationalism less as utopian than as inherently authoritarian in nature, its fundamental will to power plainly visible in twentieth-century fascism, Stalinism, and consumer capitalism alike.

Today this field remains divided between contemporary representatives of these positions. The descendents of Becker, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Foucault can be found among the major theorists of postmodernism, who continue to attack the Enlightenment both for its utopianismits supposed addiction to "grand narratives" of progress and emancipationand its intellectual authoritarianism, embodied in its various philosophical "essentialisms" or "foundationalisms." If successors to Cassirer and Gay are somewhat less vocal today, it is perhaps precisely because the Enlightenment might not seem to require such strenuous advocacy, in a world dominated by a triumphant neoliberalism claiming direct descent from it. The contemporary politics of the Enlightenment remain unpredictable, however. Paradoxically, by far the most visible promoter of its values today is in fact the most famous living representative of the tradition of Horkheimer and AdornoJürgen Habermas, who has long urged the Left to embrace what he terms the "unfinished project" of the Enlightenment. The note of modesty, acknowledging the gap between goal and accomplishment, in fact captures the self-definition of the Enlightenment far better than any kind of self-congratulation. It was Kant himself who answered the question, "Do we now live in an enlightened age?" by saying: "No, but we live in an age of enlightenment"a judgment that perhaps remains as true today as when it was first rendered.

See also Academies, Learned ; Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; American Independence, War of ; Anticlericalism ; Atheism ; Bayle, Pierre ; Burke, Edmund ; Catherine II (Russia) ; Deism ; Dictionaries and Encyclopedias ; Diderot, Denis ; Education ; Empiricism ; Encyclopédie ; Enlightened Despotism ; Equality and Inequality ; Feminism ; Frederick II (Prussia) ; Freemasonry ; Gibbon, Edward ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; Hume, David ; Journalism, Newspapers, and Newssheets ; Journals, Literary ; Kant, Immanuel ; La Mettrie, Julien Offroy de ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Liberty ; Literacy and Reading ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus ; Natural Law ; Newton, Isaac ; Physiocrats and Physiocracy ; Political Philosophy ; Printing and Publishing ; Public Opinion ; Reason ; Republic of Letters ; Revolutions, Age of ; Rights, Natural ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Salons ; Scientific Revolution ; Smith, Adam ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Bayle, Pierre. Historical and Critical Dictionary: Selections. Translated by Richard H. Popkin. Indianapolis, 1991.

Ferguson, Adam. An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Translated by Fania Oz-Salzburger. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Kant, Immanuel. Political Writings. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Kramnick, Isaac, ed. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York, 1995. An excellent anthology of short selections from primary sources.

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de. Persian Letters. Translated by C. J. Betts. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1973. Translation of Lettres persanes (1721).

. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1989. Translation of De l'esprit des lois (1748).

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner. 2 vols. Indianapolis, 1981.

Voltaire. Candide and Related Texts. Translated by David Wootton. Indianapolis, 2000.

Williams, David, ed. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999. An anthology of longer selections from primary sources, oriented toward political and social thought.

Secondary Sources

Becker, Carl. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. New Haven, 1932.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Translated by Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove. Princeton, 1951.

Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 17751800. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

The Eighteenth Century: A Current Bibliography. Published annually by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies: essential guide to the literature. Philadelphia, 1975.

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York, 1966, 1969.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Enquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Hampson, Norman. The Enlightenment. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1968. The finest single-volume interpretation in English.

Kors, Alan Charles, ed. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. 4 vols. Oxford, 2002. Now the authoritative multivolume guide.

Melton, James Van Horn. The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2001.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995.

Porter, Roy. The Enlightenment. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 2001. This and the Outram text are intelligent, up-to-date brief surveys of the field.

Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. The Voltaire Foundation has published several volumesbooks, essays, proceedings of conferencesevery year for nearly four decades; essential for all scholars of the Enlightenment.

Venturi, Franco. Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Yolton, John W., editor. The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1992. The best one-volume handbook.

Johnson Kent Wright


views updated May 23 2018


ENLIGHTENMENT . In the context of Asian religious traditions, especially of Buddhism, what is often translated as enlightenment typically refers to that existentially transformative experience in which one reaches complete and thorough understanding of the nature of reality and gains control over those psychic proclivities that determine the apparent structures and dynamics of the world. As is consistent with a general South and East Asian notion that final truth is apprehended through extraordinary "sight" (hence, religious "insight" or "vision"), enlightenment is often depicted as an experience in which one is said to "see" things as they really are, rather than as they merely appear to be. To have gained enlightenment is to have seen through the misleading textures of illusion and ignorance, through the dark veils of habitual comprehension, to the light and clarity of truth itself.

The English word enlightenment usually translates the Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit term bodhi, meaning in a general sense "wise, intelligent, fully aware." Thus, bodhi signifies a certain "brightness" (again, a visual theme) to one's consciousness. The term bodhi is built on the same verbal rootSanskrit budh ("awaken, become conscious")as that from which derives the adjective buddha ("awakened one"). Thus, an enlightened being, a buddha, is one who has dispelled all of the personal and cosmic effects of ignorance and has become fully awake to reality as it truly is. From the word bodhi come also the terms sambodhi and sambodha, the "highest" or "most complete enlightenment."

The word enlightenment also, yet less often, translates other Sanskrit and Sanskrit-related terms from a variety of religious traditions other than Buddhism. The Jain notion of kevalajñāna (omniscience, knowledge unhindered by the karmic residues of former modes of understanding the world) describes in part the quality of an arhat, a person worthy of highest respect. The paradigmatic arhats in the Jain context are the twenty-four tīrthakaras, those "ford-crossers" (the most recent being Vardhamāna Mahāvīra in the sixth century bce) whose experiences of such enlightenment stand at the center of Jain religious history. Similarly, yogic Hindu traditions teach of the experience of samādhi ("absolute equanimity") and of kaivalya ("the supreme autonomous state of being free of ignorance"), both of which lead the yogin to the experience of moka, the release from the hitherto ceaseless and painful cycle of transmigration.

But it is to Buddhist traditions that the experience of enlightenment is most pertinent. Although Buddhist lessons regarding enlightenment (bodhi and its correlatives, Chinese pudi, wu, or jue, Tibetan bya chub, and Japanese satori ) vary somewhat, Buddhism in general has stressed the key significance of that experience in which one fully and compassionately understands the world without discoloring or disfiguring it according to one's desires, expectations, or habits. The Buddhist insight into the nature of pain and suffering, of fear and doubt, of the feelings of insecurity and hopelessness, is that these states arise in one's ignorant mind as one selfishly tries to have reality the way one wants it rather than to know it as it is. The Buddhist way to freedom from the suffering these states cause, therefore, is to removeusually through the practice of meditation or through the development of compassionthe conditions one places on the world, on other people, and on oneself. Thus, Buddhist enlightenment constitutes an experiential transforming and normative "deconditioning" of the self and of the world.

And what, from a Buddhist perspective, would people "see" when they have so deconditioned their response to, and analysis of, the world? Sanskrit and Pali accounts of Siddhārtha Gautama's enlightenment at the age of thirty-five as he sat under a tree near what is now the north Indian town of Bodh Gayā through the night of the full moon in the spring of ca. 538 bce might well serve to summarize the elements early South Asian Buddhist understanding of the process and nature of enlightenment.

First, people would have to confront and defeat, as Gautama is reported to have done, all of the various temptations, selfish desires, and fears (sexual lust, faint-heartedness, physical weakness, passion, laziness, cowardice, doubt, hypocrisy, pride, and self-aggrandizement) that usually define and delimit their sense of identity, an exceedingly difficult task represented in Buddhist myth and iconography as Gautama's struggle in the late afternoon with the demonic and tempting Māra, the evil one.

Secondstill following hagiographical accounts and traditional teachings as the paradigmthey would enter into four levels of meditative absorption (Sanskrit, dhyāna ; Pali, jhāna. Technical terms will hereafter be given first in the Sanskrit, with Pali and other terms following when appropriate.) At the first level they would detach their attention from the objects of the senses and look inward into their own minds. Their thoughts would be discursive in nature, and they would feel relaxed but energetic. Entering the second level, their thoughts would no longer be discursive, but they would still feel great energy, comfort, and trust. At the third level the feeling of zest would give way to a sense of dispassionate bliss, and at the fourth level they would feel free of all opposites such as pleasure and pain, euphoria and anxiety. This fourth level of meditation would be characterized by pure and absolute awareness and complete calmness.

Gautama is said to have mastered all four of these stages of meditative concentration and could move from one to the other with ease. This was to be of central importance to his subsequent series of insights gained through the night, for through them he perceived what are known as the six types of extraordinary knowledge (abhijñā ; abhiññā ): magical physical powers, the ability to hear voices and sounds from all parts of the universe, the ability to know other people's thoughts, memory of his former lives, the ability to see all creatures in the world, and the extinction of all harmful psychological states. One would have to use these skills in order to understand the nature of suffering in the world, for not to do so would mean that one were merely a wizard or magician rather than a healer.

Third, having gained control over their entrapping emotions, and having mastered the four levels of contemplation, aspirants would endeavor through meditative analysis of their lives to comprehend how the present is determined by the sum total of their past actions. They would see that each person is responsible for his or her own personality and that others cannot be blamed for one's psychological predicament. This third stage of enlightenment finds narrative representation in traditional accounts of Gautama's ability to remember, in order, all of his former lives (pūrvanivāsānu-smti-jñāna ; pubbenevāsānusatti-ñāa ) and to understand how all of those lives led to the present one. Gautama is said to have gained this insight during the first watch of the night.

Fourth, they would develop their ability to understand other people's idiosyncratic psychological and existential predicaments in the same manner as they have understood their's own. That is to say, they would be able to see how people have become who they are how they have created their own problems, even though they may not know it. Aspirants for enlightenment would then be able to respond fully and compassionately to any given situation with other people. Buddhist hagiographies say that Gautama gained such a skill during the second watch of the night, a time in which he attained the "divine vision" (divyacaku ; dibbacakkhu ) to see all of the former lives of all beings in the universe.

Finally, they would comprehend and destroy the source of all psychological "poison" (āśrava ; āsava: "projection, befuddling outflow") and come to realize what are known as the four noble truths: (1) that conditioned existence is permeated by suffering (dukha ; dukkha ); (2) that this suffering has an origin (samudāya ); (3) that, because it has its cause, this suffering, therefore, can come to an end (nirodha ); and (4) that the way one brings an end to all suffering is to follow the Buddhist way of life, known as the Noble Eightfold Path. To tread this path, one practices: (1) the right view (di ; ditthi ) of the true nature of things, (2) right thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration.

Gautama is said to have realized the four noble truths during the third watch of the night, in the dark hours before dawn. Gaining these insights, he saw that one's ignorance of the fact that it is the thirst (tā ; tahā ) for sensual, emotional, or personal gratification that leads one to think and act in certain ways, and that those thoughts and actions then determine how one understands and lives one's life. In other words, it is people's desire to have the world the way they want it to be rather than to know it as it is, free of their preconceptions and demands, that leads to suffering. The cure for this disease, according to Buddhist tradition, is to relinquish one's attachment to the world as one thinks it is, or should be, so that one can be free to see it as it really is. One has to blow out the flames of one's unquenchable desires in order to know the cool waters of truth, of dharma.

This "blowing out" of conditioned existence, this nirvāa (nibbāna ), is enlightenment. Gautama is said to have attained nirvāa as the sun came up, an appropriate time to be "awakened" to the nature of reality. Standing up from his place under the tree, Gautama then walked forth as the Buddha.

Theravāda Buddhism recognizes three different types of people who have gained enlightenment. The term sāvakabodhi ("enlightenment gained by one who has heard [the Buddha's lessons]") applies to the disciples of the Buddha; paccekabodhi ("enlightenment in solitude") refers to the enlightenment experienced by a person who has never actually heard the Buddha's teachings but, nevertheless, has understood in full the nature of reality. (Theravāda tradition does not recognize the teachings of a paccekabuddha but does not dispute the validity of his or her experience); sammā-sambodhi is the complete and absolute enlightenment known by Gotama (Gautama) and other Buddhas in other world cycles.

Recognizing the important link between ignorance (avidyā ; avijjā ) of the way things are and the craving (tā ; tahā ) to have them otherwise, Theravāda Buddhist commentarial tradition has tended to equate the experience of enlightenment with that of the extinction of desire (tākaya ; tahākhaya ), and thus not only to nirvāa but also to the third of the four noble truths, namely, nirodha ("cessation"). Other near-synonyms for nibbāna appear throughout the earliest Pali texts: the abolition of passion (rāgakaya ; rāgakkhaya ), the cessation of hatred (dośakaya ; dosakkhaya ), the extinction of illusion (mohakaya ; mohakkhaya ), and uncompounded or unconditioned existence (asaskta ; asamkhata ) all restate the general connotations of the enlightenment experience.

The Mahāyāna tradition, too, has understood enlightenment to include the direct perception of things-as-they-are. According to the Mahāyāna, the enlightened being sees all beings in their "suchness" (Skt., tathatā, yathābhūta ; Tib., ya dag pa ji lta ba bźin du ) or their "thatness" (tattva ; Tib., de kho na [n̄id] ), this is to say, in their uncategorical integrity. Mādhyamika Buddhist tracts hold that to perceive all things in their suchness is to see that they are empty (śūnya ) of any independent, substantial, essential, or eternal being. The Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) school of the Mahāyāna holds that a person who is to understand the similar "emptiness" (śūnyatā ) of the worldthat nothing exists in its own nature independent of a multitude or even infinite number of interdependent causes and forcesmust cultivate wisdom (prajñā ), a wisdom that is identical with awareness of all things (sarvajñātā ) and perfect enlightenment (sambodhi ).

Virtually all schools of Buddhist thought recognize the key relationship between enlightenment and the practice of meditation, for it is through meditation that the mind is understood to become clear and focused enough to allow one's illuminating awareness to shine clearly. Indeed, for Dōgen, a thirteenth-century Zen master from Japan, the practice of meditation and the entry into enlightenment are one and the same thing, for meditation is a spiritual discipline that reveals one's already enlightened mind.

Buddhist though varies regarding how long it may take to gain enlightenment and whether if, once gained, it can be blurred or lost. Possible answers to these question may into some ways be represented by two attitudes toward enlightenment in the Zen tradition. In one, represented by the Chinese ideogram kan jing (Japanese kanjō), "paying attention to purity," the mind is understood to be continually fogged and distorted by various forces, so must be cleansed gradually over long periods of sitting meditation. In another, described as jianxing (Japanese kenshō),"seeing into one's true nature," there is the possibility of a sudden recognition of the awakened state that is one's inherent nature that may take place at any moment, no matter how long one has been sitting in formal meditation. In either case, enlightenment is directly associated the ability to see the "is-as-it-isness" (Japanese kono-mama ) of the moment, free of the mind's categories, projections, habitual tendencies, desires, expectations, and demands. Indeed, according to Buddhist thought in general across its many schools, the unencumbered, direct perception into the true nature of things beyond all categorical modes of understanding, including the mind, constitutes awakened enlightenment itself.

Despite the many and long discourses on the subject, Buddhist sensibilities, particularly those associated with the various schools of the Mahāyāna, holds that the experience of enlightenment is an ineffable one, for what lies beyond all categories cannot itself be expressed in words. That it cannot be expressed, however, is part of its experience. The Mumonkan, a Zen Buddhist chronicle, recounts a story purported to appear in an as yet undiscovered sūtra that would exemplify this point: When asked about the nature of truth, the Buddha silently held up a flower in front of his followers. Nobody understood his point except for the venerable Kaśyapa, who said nothing but smiled softly. Seeing his smile, the Buddha knew that his disciple had understood, and declared Kaśyapa to be enlightened.

See Also

Buddha; Four Noble Truths; Moka; Samādhi; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā and Truth.


The most accessible Sanskrit account of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment is the Buddhacarita, Aśvaghosa's poem written in the first century ce. English translations of the sections on the temptation by Māra and the enlightenment appear in The Buddhacarita, or Acts of the Buddha, translated and edited by Edward H. Johnston (19351936; reprint, Delhi, 1972), pp. 188217, and in Buddhist Scriptures, translated and edited by Edward Conze (Harmondsworth, 1959), pp. 4853. Translations from selected Pali literatures pertinent to the enlightenment appear in Henry Clark Warren's Buddhism in Translations (1896; reprint, New York, 1976), pp. 129159. Historical and analytical discussions of the Buddha's enlightenment appear in Edward J. Thomas's The Life of Buddha as Legend and History, 3d ed. (1949; reprint, London, 1969), pp. 6180: Bhikkhu Nāamoli's The Life of the Buddha (Kandy, 1972); Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson's The Buddhist Religion, 3d ed. (Belmont, Calif., 1982), pp. 520; Hajime Nakamura's Gautama Buddha (Los Angeles and Tokyo, 1972), pp. 5765; and Winston L. King's Theravāda Meditation (University Park, Pa., 1980), pp. 117. On Zen definitions of and attitudes toward enlightenment, see Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning (New York and Tokyo, 1979).

William K. Mahony (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 23 2018



It was the common presupposition of all thinkers of the Enlightenment that the being of man is implied in and subordinated to the being of nature and that it must accordingly be explained by the same universal laws (vol. 5, p. 548). So wrote Ernst Cassirer (18741945) in the entry on Enlightenment in the original Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1931). To the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (16321677), Cassirer attributed the idea that the stirrings and movements of the will on which the world of man is founded are subject to rules just as universal as the movements within the world of physical bodies. There is a mechanics of human inclinations and urges. This analogy was emphasized so severely by the philosophy of the Enlightenment that it became finally a complete logical identity (vol. 5, p. 548).

A generation later Hayden White wrote, It follows that the Enlightenment was altogether misguided in its attempt to construct a science of human nature on the basis of a study of physical nature: understanding cultural phenomena, which are creations of man alone, in terms of incompletely understood natural principles is doomed from the start (White 1968, vol. 16, p. 314). This passage appeared in the entry on Giambattista Vico in the first edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968), published in an age in which the Enlightenment had fallen on such hard times that it did not even rate a separate entry in that Encyclopedia. The inclusion of the present entry in this second edition is indicative of the rising fortune of the Enlightenment not only in its own right but also with respect to the social sciences specifically.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, there were several attempts to place the origins of the social sciences in the eighteenth century. Yet, although the term la science sociale was first used around the time of the French Revolution (17891799), a consensus has emerged that, whatever was invented by eighteenth-century social theorists, it was not modern social science. When the editor of History of the Human Sciences devoted an issue (6 [1] 1993) of that journal to the Enlightenment origins of the social sciences, he received a set of articles that called that very premise into question. Christopher Fox wrote that we cannot visit the eighteenth century with a modern campus map (Fox et al. 1995, pp. 34). Claude Blanckaert asserted that to name the Comte de Buffon (17071788) as the founder of modern anthropology is really to say that Buffon is the earliest author read by modern anthropologists. Roger Smith contended that it is no longer tenable to trace modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics back to Enlightenment precursors, as was the practice in many histories of the disciplines throughout the twentieth century. With the expansion of the eighteenth-century canon since the 1970s, historians of the social sciences have found that the configurations of eighteenth-century science, politics, and social theory were much more complicated than indicated by the tidy narratives of Enlightenment and revolution that characterized much of twentieth-century scholarship.

It was against those narratives of individual liberty, limited government, and toleration of religious practice that continental historians in the mid-twentieth century set up an alternative narrative of Enlightenment social science: one that emphasized efficiency in government, technical bureaucracy, and the assimilation of populations into a centrally administered territorial nation-state, all of which converged for one purposedomination.

Max Horkheimer (18951973) wondered how the liberal project of the Enlightenment could have culminated in the authoritarian regimes, death camps, and armed conflict of the twentieth century. Where Vico saw the project of a mathematical, laws-based social science as doomed from the start, Horkheimer found that, in historical terms, that project was only too successful. As enlightened science played out in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all particulars came to be understood as mere representatives of universals. All qualities were reduced to quantities, and all things ultimately became identical, including people. The Enlightenment, wrote Horkheimer, represented the triumph of oppressive equality. Quantitative methods became so pervasive that the human and natural sciences, initially intended to eradicate irrational appeals to myth, magic, and religion, became mythic in their own right.

Under the old regime, domination was clearly visible in political and ecclesiastical hierarchies and in the dogmas by which they were legitimized. The Enlightenment produced new forms of domination that were even more insidious because they were not only vindicated by critical reason but were also applied by reason itself. Michel Foucault (19261984) characterized every victory of enlightenment as a step further into the darkness of domination. Biology and medicine exposed to light the hidden recesses of the body in search of life, but found only disease and death. Psychology penetrated the rational mind only to discover irrationality and insanity. Prisoners were freed from dungeons only to be captured all the more securely in the light that flooded Jeremy Benthams (17481832) Panopticon prison, and, not only for criminals, the entire world became a prison that subjected the individual to every form of manipulation and control. Language itself was appropriated by reason (and later by positivism), so that every attempt to resist enlightenment only served the cause of enlightenment. Theory was rendered irrelevant. Critique, once the hallmark of the Enlightenment, came to be dismissed as mere belief or ideology, or worse, as art. In place of the human spirit and critical inquiry was the commodification of all things science and language as well as material cultureand Horkheimer proposed a theorem that the pliability of the masses increased as the quantity of commodities offered to them increased. Even the individuals own self became alienated and objectified through technologies of psychology.

Against the poststructuralist attack on the Enlightenment, several studies have highlighted the intellectual and social network of the international republic of letters that enabled individuals and texts to cross national boundaries and find common ground in ideologies of republicanism, universal human rights, toleration of beliefs and practices, and freedom of thought, all of which went under the heading of cosmopolitanism.

Despite the reservations of Europeans regarding the legacy of their own supposed Enlightenment, the traditional narrative of Enlightenment liberalism has been appropriated by social theorists in regions briefly (although brutally) colonized and dominated by the European states in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Post-colonial scholarship is committed, almost by definition, wrote Dipesh Chakrabarty, to engaging the univer-salssuch as the abstract figure of the human or that of Reasonthat were forged in eighteenth-century Europe and that underlie the human sciences (2000, p. 5). He finds that although it is inadequate, the European narrative of Enlightenment and technological advancement is indispensable to understanding the history and future of developing nations. But this was precisely the point made by the poststructuralists: that cosmopolitanism, like all universal systems, was artificially homogenizing. Responding to Immanuel Kants (17241804) history of pure reason at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803) wrote a Metacritique (1798) that argued that there was no such thing as pure reason. There was only particular reason. That is, there were no universal ideas or truths, no world soul into which all particular souls were tapped. There were only particular, unique, historical communities, and these were easily extinguished by totalizing systems like universal reason and imperialism of all sorts, whether ancient Roman or modern European. Universal reason was a chimera, perpetual peace a pipe dream.

It was not merely the case that the party of humanity, as Peter Gay called the two dozen or so philosophes who comprised the twentieth-century canon of eighteenth-century thought, was shouted down by counter-enlightened conservatives and reactionaries. The tendency toward mass democracy and domination, both physical and psychological, was never a sinister plot of imposters. It was built into the very Enlightenment itselfbuilt, that is, into cosmopolitanism, universal reason, and the instrumental reason aimed at reforming the inefficiencies and abuses of old regime society.

Writing on the twentieth-century culture industry, Theodor Adorno (19031969) augmented Horkheimers penetrating critique of the technological society by showing that even the objects of individual choice were instruments of homogenizing conformity. Production technology, hailed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as the means by which Europe could finally cultivate the land and meet its needs efficiently so that the individual could cultivate himself or herself, was transformed into the economic logic of standardization and mass consumption. One city, with its gleaming skyscrapers, was essentially the same as the next. Older houses outside the city center decayed into slums, while new suburban houses were thrown up quickly and cheaply, as if designed to be discarded in a short while like empty food cans. Suburban housing projects were intended to perpetuate the rational-critical individual as an independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling, but in fact they made the individual all the more subservient to the absolute power of capitalism. Adorno took the development from telephone to radio as indicative. The telephone was liberal: it allowed the person to play the role of subject. The radio was democratic: it turned all participants into listeners, authoritatively subjecting them to broadcast programs that were all exactly the same. Other mass spectacles performed the same function, including popular music, cinema, and sports, to say nothing of television. Focus groups and market research, employing the techniques of propaganda, ensured that something was provided for all so that none might escape. Even improvisational jazz was a perfected technique that homogenized all particulars into a universal jargon of style, a style that, in Friedrich Nietzsches (18441900) terms, was a system of non-culture, to which one might even concede a certain unity of style if it really made any sense to speak of stylized barbarity (Nietzche 1917, p. 187; Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, p. 128).

Deeply implicated in the movement from liberal Enlightenment to mass deception were the social sciences. Adorno characterized that movement as an inexorable trend built into the Enlightenment itself. But social scientists themselves worried about their own role in social engineering and manipulation.

Both the modernist view of Enlightenment liberalism as an alternative to twentieth-century totalitarianism and the postmodernist view of the Enlightenment as the source of that same totalitarianism depended on selective readings of eighteenth-century social theorists. In fact, few in the eighteenth century were as sanguine about the power of light and reason as they were made out to be in the twentieth century. Edmund Burke (17291797) worried about a world in which power became gentle, obedience became liberal, and all shades of life were harmonized, blandly assimilated, and dissolved. Justus Möser (17201794) asserted that the civil administrator who hoped to reduce everything to an academic theory or a few rules paved the road to despotism and lost the wealth of variety. Whether in local administration or global ethnology, particularist sentiments like these were echoed across the continent by social theorists such as Louis François Jauffret (17701840), Aubin Louis Millin (17591818), Joseph-Marie Degérando (17721842), Johann Jakob Moser (17011785), Ludwig Timotheus Spittler (17521810), Christoph Meiners (17471810), Johann Georg Hamann (17301788), and of course Herder. Historical scholarship since the mid-1970s has also celebrated the variety of eighteenth-century social thought in counter-Enlightenment, radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment in national context, and so forth. Just as social science cannot be taken as monolithic, neither can the Enlightenment.


Baker, Keith M. 1964. The Early History of the Term Social Science. Annals of Science 20 (3): 211226.

Blanckaert, Claude, ed. 1999. Lhistoire des sciences de lhomme. Paris: LHarmattan.

Burke, Edmund. [1790] 1968. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Cassirer, Ernst. 19301935. Enlightenment. In Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Vol. 5 (1931), 547552. New York: Macmillan.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. [1966] 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage.

Fox, Christopher, Roy Porter, and Robert Wokler, eds. 1995. Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gusdorf, Georges. 19661988. Les Sciences humaines et la pensée occidentale. 15 vols. Paris: Payot.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. [1944] 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum.

Möser, Justus. 19431990. Sämtliche Werke. 14 vols. Oldenburg, Germany: Stalling.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. [1873] 1917. Unzeitgemässe Betrachtengun. In Werke, Vol. 1. Leipzig, Germany: Kröner.

Schmidt, James, ed. 1997. What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith, Roger. 1997. Norton History of the Human Sciences. New York: Norton.

White, Hayden. Vico, Giambattista. 1968. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills. New York: Macmillan, Vol. 16, pp. 313316.

Michael C. Carhart


views updated Jun 11 2018


The term enlightenment is generally used to designate a period in European history stretching from the 1680s to the close of the eighteenth century, but this usage is not without ambiguities and controversy. During the eighteenth century the word enlightenment referred not to a period but to a process, a set of activities in which individuals engaged. These activities were viewed as involving the application of what was then termed philosophy to a range of concerns in what would subsequently be classified as the natural sciences, the humanities, and the social sciences. It was not until the nineteenth century that the Enlightenment came into general usage as a designation for the historical period defined by these various projects. Attempts to specify the character of the period have tended to spur reflection on the nature and scope of those projects and activities that are claimed to characterize the age. As a result, discussions of the Enlightenment typically slide into reflections on the nature and merits of the activity of enlightenment itself.

The History of the Concept

At the close of his 1784 essay in the Berlinische Monatsschrift in response to the question "What is enlightenment?" Immanuel Kant asked whether his might be characterized as an "enlightened age." He responded, "No, but it is an age of enlightenment" (p. 35). Kant's emphasis on enlightenment as an ongoing process, rather than as an achieved state, was typical of eighteenth-century usage, which favored such formulations as "century of philosophy" (Jean Le Rond d'Alembert), "age of critique" (Kant), or "age of reason" (Thomas Paine).

The question of what the process of enlightenment involved sparked an extended discussion in German journals during the 1780s, a discussion in which Kant's response would prove to be the most famous. The German aufklären a word that had been used to designate a clearing of the weather and, metaphorically, a return to consciousness after a period of sleephad been employed since the beginning of the eighteenth century as a translation for the French eclairer (an important term in the works of René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz) and for the English enlighten. More generally, the use of light as a metaphor for knowledge had a long history in Western philosophy as well as a central place in religious discourse. Hence, the particular use to which these metaphors were put during the eighteenth century by those thinkers now associated with the Enlightenment had a polemical edge: True enlightenment, it was argued, resulted from the application of reason and philosophy, rather than appeals to revelation or to the mysteries of faith. Critics could, in turn, marshal the same metaphors and argue that what was proposed as enlightenment was instead a form of spiritual darkness.

The application of the term to a particular historical period was greatly influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's lectures on the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history from the 1820s, and his usage was widely imitated in German histories of philosophy and of literature. The French term for the periodsiècle des lumières suggested a more elastic understanding of the period: a century of "lights" rather than a single movement. English usage followed the German, but lagged behind it, with the Enlightenment replacing the Illumination as a label for the period only in the waning years of the nineteenth century. As late as 1910 the Princeton philosopher John Grier Hibben, in the first book in English to use the term consistently, treated the term as a neologism in need of explanation. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century age of reason remained a widely used alternative.

The seminal historical studies of the period date from the 1930s: Ernst Cassirer's Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (1932/1951), Paul Hazard's La crise de la conscience europeén (1935/1953); and Carl L. Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932), a work whose fame rests more on the novelty of its argument than on the quality of its scholarship. Peter Gay's The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (19661969) remains the most influential of the many subsequent studies. Some scholars criticize the tendency to exaggerate the unity of the Enlightenment and emphasize the diversity of enlightenments, sometimes distinguished by their "national context" (see Porter and Teich 1981), for example, the "Scottish Enlightenment," the "Berlin Enlightenment," and the "British Enlightenment." Still others (e.g., Israel 2001) maintain that a focus on national contexts ignores the cosmopolitan character of the Enlightenment, particularly in its more radical manifestations. Since the 1970s there has been a tendency for historical discussions of the Enlightenment to turn from the focus on prominent thinkers and their works that had been the defining feature of earlier studies in favor of approaches influenced by developments in social history and histories of publishing and reading. The work of the historian Robert Darnton (1995) has been particularly influential in this regard.

The Role of Philosophy in the Enlightenment

In the earliest discussions the relationship between philosophy and the Enlightenment was pervasive and unproblematic: The Enlightenment was typically defined in terms of the philosophers who were said to have articulated its ideals. Some of the early controversial literature spurred by the French Revolution traced the origins of the Revolution to the writings of François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and the other philosophes, and terms such as philosophism and Illumination figured prominently in the writings of British opponents of the Revolution and in accounts (notably Augustin Barruel's [17431820] Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism [1798]) that traced the Revolution to a conspiracy of philosophes and Freemasons.

A more sober analysis could be found in Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philosophy from the 1820s, which tended to reserve the term Aufklärung for the German phase of the broader movement of modern philosophy that began with Descartes. In other lecture cycles Hegel extended the term to denote the modern attempt to deduce both the laws of nature and of morality from individual consciousness. In subsequent nineteenth-century German histories of philosophy the term (sometimes divided into French and German branches) was used to refer to both rationalist and empiricist tendencies in eighteenth-century philosophy, with Kant frequently portrayed as a thinker who managed to transcend the alleged limits of the movement and thus ushered in a new epoch. The early scholarship in English was heavily influenced by this tradition, with the work of Hibben (1910) representing one of the more sophisticated versions of this approach.

Cassirer offered an even more nuanced account, viewing the Enlightenment as the pivotal phase in the broader process through which "modern philosophic thought gained its characteristic self-confidence and self-consciousness" (1932/1951, p. vi). The book's opening chapter followed d'Alembert in distinguishing the esprit de système (the deductive system of seventeenth-century rationalism) from the esprit systématique, with its emphasis on induction and empirical analysis that marked the new era. In the discussions of approaches to nature, psychology, religion, history, politics, and aesthetics that followed, Cassirer (1932/1951) portrayed the Enlightenment as a European movement in which German thinkers such as Leibniz and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing stood on equal terms with their French counterparts. While Cassirer eschewed a historical account of various "individual doctrines" in favor of a study of "the form and manner of intellectual activity itself," Hazard (1935/1953) traced the history of responses to what he characterized as a "crisis of the classical mind" (i.e., seventeenth-century rationalism). If Hazard was less certain than Cassirer that this crisis had been resolved, his account nevertheless saw the Enlightenment (though the term itself does not figure prominently in his work) as an attempt to respond to a philosophical problem: the problem of finding an alternative to religious belief as a foundation for normative judgments. In contrast, Becker (1932) held that far from providing an alternative to religious faith, the philosophes simply substituted one sort of faith for another, with a faith in the power of reason occupying the place previously occupied by religion.

However problematic as historical narratives, such studies capture one important feature of eighteenth-century discourse. In France figures such as Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Baron Paul-Henri Thiry d'Holbach, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and others described what they were doing as philosophy and called themselves philosophers. Still, while accounts of "the philosophy of the Enlightenment" tend to emphasize the role of epistemological questions, the reach of the term philosophy during the Enlightenment was considerably more expansive. Isaac Newton published his laws of motion in a work that announced itself as a contribution to natural philosophy and the concerns of the American Philosophical Society, founded in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin in 1768, were closer to the modern natural sciences than to philosophy as it is now conceived. For much of the period, treatises on natural law provided thinkers with a context for exploring a wide range of issues in the areas of anthropology, the philosophy of language, political economy, and morality that were central concerns during the period.

The emergence of the salon and the coffeehouse spurred the growth of new forms of expressionfor example, Diderot's remarkably open-ended dialogues and publications such the Tattler and the Spectator, journals edited by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (16721729) that aimed at improving the discourse and the mores of those who frequented coffeehouses. Many of the period's most influential worksfor example, Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), Diderot's Encyclopedia (17511765), and Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1764)were lexicons, rather than philosophical treatises, while other important textsincluding Jean-Jacques Rousseau's educational treatise Emile (1762) or Guillaume-Thomas-François de Raynal's influential History of the Two Indies (1770)defy assimilation into familiar genres of philosophical writing.

The staggering variety of works labeled as philosophy is mirrored by the Enlightenment's conception of the vocation of the philosophe. The entry in Diderot's Encyclopedia (an abridgement of a text generally credited to the grammarian César Chesneau Dumarsais [16761756]) characterized the philosophe as an individual who is chiefly concerned with those "sociable qualities" that make individuals useful members of society, "For him, civil society is, as it were, a divinity on earth; he flatters it, he honors it by his probity, by an exact attention to his duties, and by a sincere desire not to be a useless or embarrassing member of it" (p. 510). Diderot's article on "Encyclopedia" stressed the differences between the "geniuses" of the seventeenth century, who engaged in solitary and unconstrained reflection on the nature of things, and the collaborative work of the philosophes of his own century, whose interest lay less in making new discoveries than in organizing and disseminating the knowledge that had already been attained by artisans and other useful members of society.

A similar view of the mission of the philosophe is found in the posthumously published work by the thinker who is often regarded as the last of the species: Marquis de Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1793). He saw philosophes as "concerned less with the discovery or development of truth than with its propagation." Gathering under the banner of "reason, tolerance, humanity," they "made it their life-work to destroy popular errors rather than to drive back the frontiers of human knowledgean indirect way of aiding its progress which was not less fraught with peril, nor less useful" (pp. 136-137).

Thus, while the Enlightenment saw the publication of worksfor example, John Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature (17391740), and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781)that are among the foundational texts of modern philosophy, the eighteenth-century philosophe engaged in activities that no longer occupy professional philosophers and a good many of the works that the eighteenth century classified as philosophy for example, the political libels and philosophical pornography that were labeled philosophical books in the clandestine book tradefall outside the discipline as it is now practiced. For this reason the Enlightenment invoked by philosophers and the Enlightenment studied by historians working in the area of eighteenth-century studies tend to diverge. For the former, the Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that emphasized the application of reason (defined for the most part in terms associated with modern science) to all aspects of life, a project that has been embraced by some (e.g., in Karl Raimund Popper's ideal of the "Open Society") and criticized by others (e.g., in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's [1947/2002] account of the collapse of Enlightenment into totalitarianism). In contrast, scholars working in the area of eighteenth-century studies have tended to see the Enlightenment as a network of individuals and institutions, sometimes bound together by common interests or purposes, but in many cases diverging according to local contexts or their particular concerns and commitments.

Enlightenment Projects

the public use of reason

As a general characterization of the movement's aims, there is much to recommend Kant's definition of enlightenment as "the freedom to make a public use of one's reason in all matters" (p. 36). Both the essay's demand that individuals make use of their own reason and its invocation of a cosmopolitan public sphere of readers and writers reiterated ideals that had accompanied the Enlightenment from the start. The requirement that the claims of religious, political, and other authorities be brought before what Kant called the "tribunal of reason" had, for example, been a point of honor for the deist John Toland, who opened his Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) by observing that he had "been very early accustom'd to Examination and Enquiry, and taught not to captivate my Understanding no more than my sense to any Man or Society" (p. 7). The idea that individuals might best carry out this project of thinking for themselves in the company of others had been central to Pierre Bayle's conception of a "republic of letters" consisting of readers and critics who were bound together, despite their separation in different countries, into a common endeavor.

The emergence of what the social theorist Jürgen Habermas termed the public sphere the network of institutions, including coffeehouses, salons, Masonic lodges, and reading societies in which "private people come together as a public" (1989, p. 27)is viewed by many historians as a defining feature of the period. Coffeehouses, particularly in England, provided a venue for the circulation and discussion of news, Parisian salons played an essential role in coordinating the activities of the philosophes, and the Masonic movement opened a space in which new forms of sociability, expressing the ideal of fraternal solidarity, were possible. No less significant was the emergence of an international book trade, with both legal and clandestine branches. Indeed, the most compelling evidence for the spread of enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe may be the explosion of books and periodicals that made their way into new markets, the dramatic shift in the content of these books (with works on religious subjects eclipsed by a growing interest in science and literature by the end of the century), and the shift in reading practices from the repeated reading of a few texts (typically devotional in character) to the successive reading of a series of books, a practice that further increased the demand for new works.

toleration and religious heterodoxy

Kant's suggestion that "religious matters" were central to the concerns of enlightenment and his insistence that restrictions on the public use of reason in this area were both "harmful" and "dishonorable" aptly summarized the views of those who saw themselves as engaged in efforts at enlightenment. The initial impetus behind the Enlightenment stemmed, in part, from Protestants' revulsion at Louis XIV's (16381715) campaign against the Huguenot minority (culminating in his Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685) and reservations regarding the policies of the Catholic monarch James II (16331701) in England (culminating in his removal in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688). Such concerns were particularly evident among the political and religious exiles from France and England who gathered in the Dutch Republic at the close of the seventeenth century, where they produced tracts on religious and political questions that ranged from such classic texts as Locke's Letter concerning Toleration (1689)a work that had a pervasive influence throughout Europe and the New World on discussions of the proper roles of church and stateto the infamous Treatise of the Three Imposters, a clandestine manuscript that pieced together bits of Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and various materialists to argue that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam owed their origins to the attempts of "imposters" (i.e., charlatans or magicians) to gain political power.

Toleration was the common cause of all those associated with the Enlightenment. In England Protestant dissenters such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Price drew on the arguments of Locke in their campaign against the limitations on political participation suffered by those who refused to swear conformity to central articles of the Anglican faith (e.g., the doctrine of the trinity). Similar arguments could be found, at the end of the century, in Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem (1783), a treatise on the relation between civil and ecclesiastical power. In France Voltaireprofoundly influenced by the diversity of religious practices he observed during his visit to Englandwaged a life-long campaign in support of toleration, culminating in an effort to clear the reputation of Jean Calas, a Huguenot executed under circumstances that, for Voltaire, epitomized the corruption of justice by religious fanaticism. By the end of the period the campaign for toleration could claim such legislative achievements as Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786) and Article X of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).

The period was also marked by efforts at purifying Christian doctrine from what were seen as subsequent distortions and fabrications. Both Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious presented themselves as attempts to recover Christ's original teachingwhich they argued contained nothing that contradicted what could be ascertained through "natural" reasonfrom what the more pugnacious Toland characterized as "the craft and ambition of Priests and Philosophers" (p. 96). More moderate versions of such arguments persisted to the end of the period in the so-called neologism embraced by Berlin clergy, whose sermons and writings denounced popular superstitions and religious enthusiasm as contrary to a conception of Christian doctrine and emphasized the importance of moral and civic responsibilities. Parallel efforts at reform could be found within the Ashkenazic Jewry in what came to be designated the Haskalah (the Hebrew term for enlightenment ).

Projects of reform, however, easily crossed over into the advocacy of heterodoxy, with Socinian and pantheist doctrines having a broad appeal. For example, Toland's later writings, which hailed the Druids as practitioners of a "natural" religion, articulated positions that are difficult to reconcile with any established version of Christianity. The same is true for the work of Lessing, especially his Education of the Human Race (1777), a text that influenced Hegel's early writings. While explicit endorsements of atheism remained a minority position within the Enlightenment (Holbach's System of Nature [1770] was the famous notorious exception), Spinoza's writings held a particular interest for more radical free-thinkers, and various pantheist and materialist doctrines lent support to formulations in which references to the deity contributed rather little to the argument.

The Newtonian Ideal and the Rise of a Scientific Culture

Though known chiefly by reputation or through popularizations, the work of Newton had a significant impact during the period. His influence was felt in England both in the increasing interest in experimental approaches to natural philosophy and in the popularity of his arguments among religious dissenters. On the Continent advocates of Newton's cosmology challenged Cartesian and Leibnizian approaches, with Newtonians eventually gaining the upper hand within the French Academy of Sciences and the Berlin Academy. Voltaire and Alembert were effective advocates of Newtonian positions before the broader reading public, as was Voltaire's mistress Émilie du Châtelet (17061749), a skilled translator of and commentator on Newton's work.

Attempts to extend Newton's approach to other areas were frequent, with the Optiks (1704) rather than the more daunting Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) serving as a paradigm. The study of electrical phenomena attracted a great deal of interest, with Franklin's contributions to the field enjoying a wide readership in Europe. There were also notable attempts to apply what were viewed as Newtonian approaches to moral philosophy. Hume subtitled his Treatise of Human Nature (1739) "an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects," Adam Smith employed analogies to gravitational attraction in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and Condorcet attempted to bring mathematical approaches to bear on political decision making.

More generally, science and scientific reasoning came to enjoy an enhanced status among educated laypersons. The predictive success of Newton's laws in mapping the paths of celestial bodiesmost notably Edmond Halley's (16561742) application of these laws to the path of the comet that now bears his nameplayed a role in this process, as did such practical innovations as Franklin's lightning rod. Scientific academiesboth state sponsored and privatealso had a significant impact in demonstrating the practical implications of scientific inquiry.

Human Nature and Cultural Diversity

The application of Newtonian approaches to the study of politics and society was but one example of a broader interest in the study of human nature. Accounts of the voyages of James Cook (17281779) and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (17291811) brought reports of peoples whose social arrangements, moral practices, and views on religion differed radically from European norms and that posed significant challenges to assumptions regarding the uniformity of human nature. Theories that attempted to explain this diversity in terms of differences in modes of subsistence (hunting and gathering, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial) were particularly prominent among thinkers associated with the Scottish Enlightenment. There were also extended debates on the origin of different races (a term that had a much wider meaning during this period than it would take on during the nineteenth century) between those who, like the French naturalist Comte de Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, maintained that all human beings descended from a common origin and that racial differences were the result of climate, and those who, like the Swede Carl von Linné (17071778), argued that the different races had descended from different ancestors.

Beyond these theoretical disputes, the literature on "savage peoples"particularly accounts of the allegedly idyllic life of the natives of the newly discovered island of Tahitiprovided a means for criticizing European society. Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755) and Diderot's Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage (begun in 1772) can serve as examples of this mode of argument, which had an influential predecessor in Baron de Montesquieu's Persian Letters (1721).

Efforts at "Improvement"

The political views of those associated with the Enlightenment diverged widely. Some favored constitutional monarchies (with England representing one possible model), while others placed considerable hope in the efforts of reform-minded absolutists such as Frederick II of Prussia (17401786) and Joseph II of Austria (17411790). In the wake of the American Revolution republican ideas gained supporters in both England and France.

What was more pervasive than an allegiance to any particular political ideology was a concern with what was loosely characterized as "improvement." The interest of Scottish enlighteners in the promises of commercial development was reflected in Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In France Jacques Necker (17321804) and his protégé Condorcet wrestled with the worsening fiscal and political crises that plagued the French monarchy in its final decades. Throughout Europe various societies examined ways of improving agricultural production, fostering the growth of manufacturing, and increasing the circulation of commercial goods. For example, the Lunar Society of Birminghamwhose membership included the inventors James Watt (1736-1819) and Matthew Boulton (17281809), the manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood (17301795), and the polymaths Priestley and Erasmus Darwinwaged a wide-ranging campaign for political reform and commercial development.

Perhaps there is no more compelling testimony on the role of the Enlightenment in shaping the modern world than the emergence, since the 1940s, of critiques of the so-called Enlightenment Project that hold it responsible for the various alleged pathologies of modernity (for discussions, see Baker and Reill [2001] and Gordon [2001]). While this literature tends to be rather selective in its conception of what this alleged project involved, the diversity of charges that have been leveled against the Enlightenment speaks to the complexity of the movement and its perceived relevance for the present.

See also Addison, Joseph; Adorno, Theodor; Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Bayle, Pierre; Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de; Cassirer, Ernst; Clandestine Philosophical Literature in France; Condorcet, Marquis de; Darwin, Erasmus; Descartes, René Diderot, Denis; Encyclopédie; Enlightenment, Islamic; Enlightenment, Jewish; Franklin, Benjamin; Habermas, Jürgen; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Hobbes, Thomas; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Horkheimer, Max; Human Nature; Hume, David; Jefferson, Thomas; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Locke, John; Mendelssohn, Moses; Montesquieu, Baron de; Newton, Isaac; Paine, Thomas; Popper, Karl Raimund; Priestley, Joseph; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Smith, Adam; Socinianism; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Toland, John; Toleration; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


Baker, Keith Michael, and Peter Hanns Reill, eds. What's Left of Enlightenment? A Postmodern Question. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Becker, Carl L. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1932.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932). Translated by Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951. Originally published under the title Die Philosophie der Aufklärung.

Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine-Nicolas, Marquis de. Sketch for the Historical Progress of the Human Mind (1795). Translated by June Barraclough. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1955. Originally published under the title Tableau Historique des Progrès de l'Esprit Humain.

Darnton, Robert. Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolution France. New York: Norton, 1995.

Dumarsais, César Chesneau. "Philosophe." In Encyclopèdie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, Arts et des Métiers. Vol. 8, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Ronde D'Alembert (Paris, 1757).

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York: Knopf, 19661969.

Goodman, Deena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Gordon, Daniel, ed. Postmodernism and the Enlightenment: New Perspectives in Eighteenth-Century French Intellectual History. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Hazard, Paul. The European Mind: The Critical Years, 16801715 (1935). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953. Originally published under the title La crise de la conscience europeén.

Hibben, John Grier. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. New York: Scribner's, 1910.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947). Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002. Originally published as Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente.

Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 16501750. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Jacob, Margaret C. Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Kant, Immanuel. "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" In Kant, Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 8, edited by Könglich Preussichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1923).

Kors, Alan Charles, ed. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Melton, James van Horn. The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Outram, Dorina. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Porter, Roy, and Mikulás Teich, eds. The Enlightenment in National Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Schmidt, James. "Inventing the Enlightenment: British Hegelians, Anti-Jacobins, and the Oxford English Dictionary." Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (3) (2003): 421443.

Schmidt, James, ed. What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Toland, John. Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), edited by Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison, and Richard Kearney. Dublin: Lilliput, 1997.

James Schmidt (2005)


views updated Jun 11 2018


In the years since the publication of the first Dictionary of the History of Ideas, the Enlightenment has become an increasingly fragmented and decreasingly coherent historical rubric. In fact that fragmentation began in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas itself, in an article titled "Counter-Enlightenment," written by Isaiah Berlin and categorized out of alphabetical order, appearing as an appendix to the main entry on "Enlightenment," written by H. O. Pappe.

Pappe defined the Enlightenment as a historical period extending from the late seventeenth century (the Glorious Revolution, the era of John Locke [16321704] or Pierre Bayle [16471706]) to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century (American Revolution, French Revolution, or the defeat of Napoleon and the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment). The Enlightenment was also a mood emphasizing individualism, toleration, and cosmopolitanism. The Enlightenment was a social philosophy with common basic conceptions about humanity and society and a common methodological approach involving the search for laws that govern nature and society and commonly held values directed toward social reform. By this definition the Enlightenment was monolithic, but it was not all-encompassing. It was an avant-garde "movement" involving a relatively small number of thinkers. The movement began in England and reached its climax in mid-eighteenth-century Paris and Scotland, while the "Italian and German Enlightenment, though distinguished by outstanding contributors, was derivative."


Berlin's counterargument focused specifically on those "derivative" countries, offering Giambattista Vico (16681744), Johann Georg Hamann (17301788), Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), and Immanuel Kant (17241804) as the bearers of a genuine, indigenous, and innovative agenda alternative to the mainstream Enlightenment of France and Britain. Vico rejected the existence of a timeless, universal natural law that could be explained by mathematics or logic. Mathematics was certain only because it was a human invention; it did not correspond to an objective structure of reality. Mathematics was a method only, not a body of truth, and while it could explain what happened in the world, it could not explain why or to what end. Human beings had no access to the final causes or purposes of nature. What they could know were human truths, human behavior, and human motives. These human truths were particular, not universalthat is, each nation developed its own standards of beauty, truth, and goodness. Because different nations asked different questions of the universe, they came up with different answers.

Hamann represented the distinctly antirational strain of Berlin's Counter-Enlightenment. For Hamann too truth was particular, never general. As a human invention, reason was a tool for the arrangement and classification of data to which nothing in reality corresponded. The true language was divine: Nature, plants, animals, and society were the symbols by which God communicated with his creatures. To understand was to be communicated with, either by people or by God. True knowledge was direct perceptionexperiencenot logical proof. Only love, the most intimate form of direct experience, could demonstrate anything. Through the medium of Herder, Berlin placed a hermeneutic of empathy at the center of his Counter-Enlightenment. To understand something was to understand its individuality and unique development. Only by entering into the experience of another, through the imagination and rigorous scholarship, could one understand the organic structure of society. Berlin emphasized what he (not Herder) called the "incommensurability of cultures" that "should flourish side by side like so many flowers in the great human garden."

Kant's autonomy of the will represented the fourth aspect of Berlin's antirational Counter-Enlightenment. Figures of the Counter-Enlightenment recognized that the model of the universe espoused by Cartesianism, rationalism, and natural law was inherently deterministic (in that all motion was caused by previous action and conformed to specific natural laws) and fatalistic (no action could violate those natural laws). Applied to society, such a view divested human actors of their moral responsibility. If all action was regulated by nature, then an individual could blame the system of the universe for any evil perpetrated by himself. In response, Kant held that only as independent actorsnot acted upon by previous or external forcescould human beings be considered moral agents.

All of this amounted to a tacit apology for hermeneutics: the emphasis on language as the defining characteristic of a nation; cultural particularism and the uniqueness of each; the attempt to understand by entering the experience of another in an act of empathy. Even if the methods and assumptions of the Counter-Enlightenment differed from the mainstream rationalists, the goals and values described by Berlin nevertheless sound distinctly similar to those described by Pappe: cosmopolitanism, pluralism, tolerance, and social reform. Indeed to those who championed the Enlightenment from the end of World War II to the 1970s, eighteenth-century social thought was a convenient platform from which to display their own liberal sensibilities.

Fractured Enlightenment

In 1973, then, we see the Enlightenment divided in two parts: a western European rationalist Enlightenment and a negatively defined central European antirational Counter-Enlightenment. In fact defining the Enlightenment, even in 1973, was not as easy as creating a binary opposition. Beginning in the 1960s Franco Venturi also divided Continental Europe into two distinct political traditions, with multiethnic empires in central and eastern Europe and "great states" in western Europe. He emphasized concurrent developments in republican Mediterranean Europe (Italy, Iberia, France) and monarchical eastern Europe, but he excluded England from the equation, saying that "in England the rhythm was different." Venturi defined the Enlightenment by the presence or absence of philosophes, self-appointed secular intellectuals who critiqued society and presented themselves as its guides toward modernity and reform. Although they were present in Scotland in the mid-eighteenth century, intellectuals of the stature of Voltaire, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Denis Diderot, and so on did not emerge in England until the 1780s and 1790s with Thomas Paine, Richard Price, William Godwin, and Jeremy Bentham. Venturi acknowledged a problem in his definition given the Englishness of Edward Gibbon (17371794), whom he considered "a giant of the Enlightenment": either Gibbon was no philosophe or he was a lonely figure in England in the 1760s and 1770s.

In fact the French philosophes were great admirers of the English in the 1760s, wrote Roy Porter in The Enlightenment in National Context (1981): "Certainly England produced no Critique of Pure Reason. But why should systematic theorizing be the touchstone of Enlightenment?" Voltaire noted that the English were "the only people upon the earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them." That resistance was galvanized in institutions of sociabilitygentlemen's clubs, Masonic lodges, colleges, coffee houseswhere private individuals might gather in public discourse to discuss and debate matters of law, politics, religion, and culture. Gibbon might have been a lonely giant among enlightened Lilliputians, but E. P. Thompson pointed to scores of minor "intellectual enclaves" throughout the United Kingdom where individuals exercised their rational and critical faculties.

The very title of Porter and Teich's volume, The Enlightenment in National Context, indicates the direction of Enlightenment historiography in the late 1970s and 1980s. That volume still took the Enlightenment to be monolithic ("a cultural movement," p. xi) and headed in a specific direction, although the constituent parts of that movement expressed enlightened values in terms of their indigenous and traditional concerns. Thirteen separate national expressions of the Enlightenment were identified by the contributors, and the editors acknowledged that even that number was not adequate.

Should the Swiss Enlightenment have been considered a unit, or were there distinct traditions in the French and German cantons? Contemporaries of the eighteenth century expressly believed the latter. Germany was divided into two Enlightenments, Catholic and Protestant, but among the Protestant at least three distinct movements can be identified based on divisions within German Lutheranism: an Orthodox Lutheran Enlightenment centered at Leipzig and Dresden in Saxony; a Pietist Enlightenment centered at Berlin and Halle, where a university was founded in 1690 specifically as a platform for an intellectual movement that saw itself as separate from the Orthodox; and a post-Pietist Enlightenment centered at Göttingen, which defined itself in opposition to both Saxony and the Brandenburg of Frederick the Great. Were the Württemberg Protestants allied with the Hanoverians? Can the Danish and Swedish Lutherans be taken as a unit, and how should their relationships with the Germans be defined? The possibilities for a rigorous classification of cultural movements in the eighteenth century boggle the mind.

The attempt to rescue the Gulliverian Gibbon continues into the twenty-first century. In the first installment of a study of Gibbon that is well on its way toward rivaling the length of Gibbon's own Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, J. G. A. Pocock invented an Enlightenment in which Gibbon did participate. Pocock started by pluralizing Enlightenments, declaring it "a premise of this book that we can no longer write satisfactorily of 'The Enlightenment' as a unified and universal intellectual movement" (The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1999, p. 12; notice the plural in the title). Pocock accepted Venturi's thesis that there was no Enlightenment in England, and he showed that Gibbon did not participate in a separate French Enlightenment either. Instead he placed Gibbon in an "Arminian Enlightenment," referring to the heretical movement within Calvinism and defining an area that extended from Lake Geneva down the Rhine to the Netherlands and across the Channel to Oxford. Pocock presented the Arminian Enlightenment as a unit that unified intellectuals from a variety of backgrounds, and by his participation in the movement, Gibbon could move easily across national, linguistic, and regional boundaries and still find intellectual continuity.

For Pocock this solution had the advantage of retaining "the philosophes and their enterprises, Venturi's settecento riformatore and perhaps even 'the Enlightenment Project,' as cosmopolitan and Europe-wide phenomena, while denying them the privilege of defining 'Enlightenment,' or 'Europe,' by formulae from which either Gibbon or England must be excluded" (p. 295). On the other hand, one wonders whether a series of regional Enlightenments that do not even conform to national or linguistic boundaries, each presented as more or less autonomous from the others, dooms the Enlightenment to an increasingly fractured existence and perhaps renders the rubric altogether useless.

The New Cultural History

One result of Enlightenment historiography in the past thirty years, then, has been to carve the movement into different geographic, confessional, and linguistic groupings. And even within these groupings, further fragmentation has taken place. In the original "Enlightenment" article in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Pappe explicitly declared the Enlightenment to be an elite movement. In a parenthetical digression he acknowledged that:

Side-by-side with these productions, the period witnessed the growth of a new cheap entertainment literature as well as a greater diffusion of writings in the old tradition, which aimed at the new enlarged reading public. Although popular reading habits and crowd behavior have come to fascinate some modern historians, such publications are ignored here, as they hardly contributed to the march of ideas, that is to the incivilimento due to man's creative liberty.

Indeed it is precisely the study of reading habits and crowd behavior that have fueled the redefinition of the Enlightenment in the past thirty years. In the mid-1970s Peter Burke pointed out the rediscovery of "the People," by which he meant a renewed interest in folklore, festivals, and the early Germanic and Celtic oral tradition that swept across Europe beginning in about the 1760s, spurring the Romantic movement. Working initially in the Kulturgeschichte mode of Jacob Grimm, Jacob Burckhardt, Aby Warburg, and Johan Huizinga but augmenting that totalizing method with anthropological and literary techniques, scholars such as Natalie Davis, Carlo Ginzburg, and Keith Thomas began to study the social function of myth, ritual, and behavior in early modern Europe itself.

Robert Darnton examined not just the ideas of the Enlightenment but the "business" of it as well in a publishing history of the Encyclopédie in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In The Literary Underground of the Old Regime he looked beyond the successes of Voltaire, d'Alembert, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the failure of a host of would-be philosophes who lacked the patronage, money, and access to presses enjoyed by the Encyclopedists and members of learned academies. This too in effect split the Enlightenment into two parts, high and lowor those who got published by presses on Fleet Street and the Strand versus hacks living on Grub Street who were lucky if they got published at all. Darnton showed how the world of those lesser authors functionedtheir pirating of copyrighted texts, sale of pornographic and censored books and serials, and the fortune of their original satires and social critiques that never acquired the reputation of Voltaire's.

Darnton called his method the "social history of ideas" (as Peter Gay had done years before). While it lacked a grand narrative of social and intellectual development, the microhistorical approach of scholars such as Darnton was important because if the Enlightenment and French Revolution were the products of new ideas (or of old ideas newly interpreted), then the logistical process of how those ideas were conveyed to the public sphere was just as important as the content of the ideas in themselves. Which texts were circulated? What were the motives of the authors, publishers, and booksellers? Which texts were intended to be circulated but never reached the market due to silly logistical failures? To what extent were authors, publishers, and booksellers motivated by their economic and social circumstances? That is, how business was conducted influenced what kinds of ideas were circulated in the public sphere.

Rather than taking "popular culture" to be monolithic, Roger Chartier emphasized the different uses of print by different segments of society. These segments frequently overlapped, and a single member might perform several roles depending on the context in which he or she acted. Chartier worked to abolish some of the presumptive categories such as high and low Enlightenment, philosophe and Grub Street hack, even printed text and oral tradition. Whereas the historiography of popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s used techniques of historical anthropology appropriate to understanding forms of expression and communication in preliterate societies, Chartier's cultural history focused on the production, circulation, and function of printed texts. Early modern society was thoroughly dependent on writing, even those who could not read or who grasped a text only when it was read aloud to them. In reconstructing social practice, Chartier found that advice manuals, mandates, and slogans were appropriated by the audience (or, better, plural "audiences," because he emphasized that different overlapping groups read, understood, and acted upon a given text in their own ways). A text might be creatively interpreted, its message adjusted or diverted to purposes not intended by the author or even resisted. Chartier was interested chiefly in action: the act of reading; followed by behavior inspired by the text. He was less interested in the creation of ideas than the reception of ideas once those ideas left the author's desk, or how ideas walked, as it were, around in society.

The most glaring example of how ideas walked around in eighteenth-century society was the French Revolution. Were ideas responsible for the collapse of the Old Regime? Was there a necessary and causal connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution? Were ideas really that effective in producing constitutional change and touching off events like the Terror? Assuming that Daniel Mornet was at least partially correct in Les origines intellectual de la Révolution Française (1933) that ideas bore at least some responsibility for the Revolution, Chartier wanted to know: How, exactly? "Is it certain that the Enlightenment must be characterized exclusively or principally as a corpus of self-contained, transparent ideas or as a set of clear and distinct propositions?" Chartier asked. "Should not the century's novelty be read elsewherein the multiple practices guided by an interest in utility and service that aimed at the management of spaces and populations and whose mechanisms (intellectual or institutional) imposed a profound reorganization of the systems of perception and of the order of the social world?"

In the 1990s, then, the connection between ideas and practice moved to center stage in eighteenth-century historiography. The inquiry into practices of "sociability" was assisted by the translation into English of Jürgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989, originally 1956). Dena Goodman, Daniel Gordon, and others explored institutions and practices of sociability in prerevolutionary France and the movement of ideas from the closed intellectual circles of salons to the active realm of political reform. Margaret Jacob explored the Enlightenment's direct relationship to "lived political experience," particularly through the window of Freemasonry, emphasizing international trends such as the republicanism described by Franco Venturi. And Daniel Gordon has edited a volume on "Postmodernism and the Enlightenment."

Given the many directions of Enlightenment research, it is no wonder James Schmidt reopened the question of the 1780s: "What is Enlightenment?" Yet even that question was limited to Protestant Germany, taken for granted (or, rather, not formulated at all) in the rest of Europe. If the 1780s had answers, the 1990s had only questions, and it is unlikely that any time soon there will be an answer as definitive as the one offered in the first Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

See also Deism ; Historiography ; Renaissance ; Revolution ; Romanticism in Literature and Politics .


Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

. The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 17751800. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1979.

. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Gordon, Daniel. Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 16701789. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Habermas, Jürgen. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Jacob, Margaret C. Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Pocock, J. G. A. Barbarism and Religion. Vols. 13. Cambridge, U.K., 19992003.

Porter, Roy, and Mikulás Teich. The Enlightenment in National Context. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Schmidt, James, ed. What Is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Venturi, Franco. Settecento Riformatore. 4 vols. Turin: Einaudi, 19691984. Vols. 3 and 4 have been translated into English by R. Burr Litchfield as The End of the Old Regime in Europe (17681776) and The End of the Old Regime in Europe (17761789). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989, 1991.

. Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Michael C. Carhart


views updated Jun 11 2018


The Enlightenment was a movement arising from the philosophical systems of the 17th century. It appeared in England in theoretical writings on religion, ethics, and natural law; in France in the books of the Philosophes; and in the radical political changes of the American and French Revolutions a century later. Thus it was destined to reach the whole western world and pervade all modern thought, spreading from England and France to North America, and from Portugal and Spain to South America. Though Protestant countries were in general more receptive to the movement, still Catholic Portugal was the first to establish the power of the Enlightenment by means of public law. Her example was followed by the Bourbon states. In the countries of the Orthodox church the influence of the Enlightenment remained limited.

Nature and History. As an intellectual movement, it does not present a harmonious philosophical pattern. According to Kant ("Was ist Aufklärung?" Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784), the Enlightenment is the emergence of a man from a state of dependence brought about through his own fault. This dependence is the inability to use one's intellect without guidance. The culpability does not lie in lack of intelligence, but in lack of decision and courage to use intelligence without reliance upon someone else. Sapere aude (take courage to use your brain) is, therefore, the motto of the Enlightenment.

This characteristic phrase throws light on the position that the Enlightenment assigns to man and to his most valued faculty, the intellect. The advice of the motto presupposes a strong trust in the power of intellect and an optimistic evolutionary faith, and calls for the liberation of man from controls interfering with his independence and his liberty. From these very general ideal premises follow deductions allowing for the most divergent systems and practices, so that a precise evaluation of the Enlightenment is impossible.

Philosophically speaking, the Enlightenment is a specific form of modern individualism and subjectivism. Its precursors are humanism, with its emphasis on what man can do with his own powers, its worship of the ancients, its secularism; and the enlarged view of the world resulting from the opening of new parts of the globe, the extension of commerce, world travel, knowledge of foreign cultures and religions; and the advance of the natural sciences.

The thought processes of the movement revolve around man (anthropocentrism). Observation of nature and man (psychology), analysis of natural law, mathematical thinking, experiment, and comparison: these are the means whereby it seeks to obtain knowledge. It is assumed that knowing must result in acting, since the Enlightenment holds that rational thought and moral act are closely connected. The bond with a positive or moral authority and respect for tradition are rejected. Hence, in spite of its insistence on historical research, the Enlightenment lacks a real instinct for history. The homage it pays to historical antecedents turns out to be mere historicism. The achievements of the past, notably of the Middle Ages, are met with skepticism and criticism.

The Enlightenment was ushered in by the Englishman Bacon of Verulam (see bacon, francis), and the Frenchman René descartes. Bacon, founder of modern experimental philosophy, points the way to the new movement by his statement "knowledge is power" (tantum possumus quantum scimus ), and by his new scientific ideal of an unprejudiced, methodical investigation of nature. Descartes starts his philosophy with methodical doubt, thereby laying the foundation of modern epistemology.

While the movement in England ran in the quiet channels of theoretical discussion, it became stormy in France as a result of political and social conditions. Materialistic and atheistic tendencies, skepticism, destructive criticism of political, social, and ecclesiastical institutions and conditions characterized the French phase of the Enlightenment, from which emerged men like bayle, montesquieu, Diderot, D'Alembert, voltaire, and rousseau. The movement finally precipitated the French revolution.

On the other hand, the Enlightenment ran a much quieter course in Germany, where its beginning and its end are marked by the two great thinkers leibniz and Kant. Leibniz, a man of universal vision, was convinced of the compatibility between the revealed Christian religion and the new insights of natural science. His doctrine of monads is essentially metaphysical, although he makes allowances for rationalism. Christian wolff, in trying to shape Leibniz' doctrine into a system, brought about Leibniz' connection with the Enlightenment. In so doing, he created an eclectic, if popular, philosophy, which came to have a wide influence. But the real pioneer of the Enlightenment in Germany was Christian Thomasius, who, following the French formula and especially Samuel von Pufendorf, advocated a doctrine of natural law and political thought independent of ethics and revelation and founded on plain reason. Kant led enlightened rationalism to its high point, but on the other hand pointed out the limits of the faculty of perception (Kritik der reinen Vernunft, 1781). He then tried to postulate the existence of God from the view of practical reason, taking as his starting point the fact of moral conscience (Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788).

The strong missionary spirit of the Enlightenment spread its influence over a wide area. The secret societies of the Freemasons, the rosicrucians, and the Illuminati (see illuminism) encouraged a bond among freethinkers. Encyclopedias like Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (169597) and Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie des sciences, des arts et des métiers (175180), periodicals like Christoph Nicolai's Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (17651806) or the Berlinische Monatsschrift disseminated, along with aesthetic and popular scientific ideas, the new philosophy in a skillful but also destructive form. Classic German literature, which reached its high point with Lessing, Herder, Schiller, and Goethe, is best seen from this viewpoint.

Philosophy and Religion. The after effects of Ockhamistic thought, together with the impressive progress of natural science, which had made men aware of the regularity of the material course of the universe, urged philosophers to seek a new answer to the question of origin and methods of cognition. Descartes, with his methodical doubt, became not only the originator of philosophical criticism but also, by founding all thought on a consciousness sure of itself (cogito, ergo sum ) and endowed with so-called innate ideas, made himself the forerunner of all later idealistic-rationalistic systems. Innate ideas are for him the infinite substance, God; and the twofold finite substance is that of thinking man and the extended thing that is thought of. spinoza, reuniting this dualism, arrived at pantheism. Thomas hobbes's sensualistic philosophy is the empiric-naturalistic counterpart to the idealistic system of Descartes. John locke and David hume derive all cognition from sense experience. Metaphysics is impossible in such a system. The development of such thought ends in the materialism of Claude Helvétius, Paul holbach (Système de la nature, 1770) and Julien de La Mettrie (L'Homme machine, 1748).

The attitude of these thinkers toward religion is determined partly by tradition and origin, partly by the idealistic or materialistic tendency of each system. When the higher life of man is considered as the effect of bodily organization, when thought and will are said to be sensations resulting from education, the aim of life will be placed in pleasure. Morality, whose source in this purely materialistic view is the physical urge of self-preservation (Holbach, d'Alembert), can be founded only upon considerations of common good and private utility. Real religion has no place (De La Mettrie, Helvétius, Holbach). The idealistic structure of Descartes, on the other hand, appealed as a possible point of development to Jansenists, Oratorians like Malebranche, and some Jesuits. The empiric-inductive method, first demanded by Bacon, required a strict separation of reason and revelation, of knowledge and belief, and led to a natural religion (deism).

herbert of cherbury (De veritate, 1624) traces all human knowledge to innate common ideas and principles whose criterion of truth is common acceptance. The most important religious-ethical content of innate basic truths is the existence of God, the necessity of divine worship through virtue and piety, expiation of wrongdoing through repentance, and belief in reward and punishment in this life and in the next. Anything that exceeds this is an addition made by positive religions. That is particularly true of dogmas. The more a religion is cleansed of such accretions or the more it approaches a religion whose nature is founded on rationalism, the greater is its value. In such a system religion is not conceived theocentrically as worship of God, but anthropocentrically as moral conduct of the individual, as realization of natural morality, as love of fellow man. Religion thus becomes a stimulus for virtue. But virtue is the happiness of man. All of this is a utilitarian-eudaimonistic way of thinking, leading to the equation: religion=morality.

The concept of a revealed religion and the acceptance of truth on the authority of someone else are repugnant to an Enlightenment based on reason and experience. This explains its attitude toward Christianity. Christ is to be considered as one among many founders of religions. His teaching must be judged by the norm of rational-natural religion and its ethical-humanitarian demands. Consequently, the Bible is a kind of code of ethics, to be studied independently of any alleged divine inspiration and pastoral interpretation. It must be cleansed of anything offensive, notably miracles. This last notion was advocated in particular by the German Protestant Samuel Reimarus in his pamphlet Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes (1744), of which lessing published seven sections entitled Wolfenbüttler Fragmente eines Ungenannten (174478). These stirred up great agitation as did the Wertheimer Bible translation of Lorenz Schmidt (1735). The Christian Church is to the adherents of the Enlightenment nothing but one religious association among many others (indifferentism), a society for fostering religion and morality on the basis of the dogma of Christ.

Culture and Education. Man is thus portrayed as a rational, moral being striving for happines and dominated by the urge for knowledge and learning. His knowledge results in actions harmonious with nature and reason; the philosophers call it virtue. And virtue makes for happiness.

This image determines social pedagogy also. Man is good by nature (Rousseau, Émile, 1762); nature has implanted in him the germs of a behavior based on social morality. Since he develops freely out of capacities and forces dormant within himself, according to the principle of spontaneity, stress is laid on the subordinate role of pedagogy. Its method has a strong psychological slant, in which the individuality of the pupil is encouraged, and punishment is considered a detriment to his development. Since knowledge and learning occupy a central position in the evolution of an enlightened, progressive man, school attendance is compulsory. The educational standards are further heightened by improving the methods and abilities of teachers. So-called normal schools or teachers' seminars are created after the pattern developed by the Swiss pedagogue, Johann pestalozzi.

Not only on the elementary and secondary school levels was the influence of the Enlightenment exerted, but also in universities, where new emphasis was placed upon research, especially in natural sciences. Prototypes in Germany are the Universities of Halle, founded in 1694, and Göttingen, founded in 1737. Parallel with such universities, there also arose special professional institutes, societies, and academies of science. The first university institute was the philological-pedagogical "seminar" founded in 1787 at the University of Halle. Scientific academies began with the Royal Society of London (1663), followed by the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (1700) and the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg (1724). The last two had been organized by Leibniz.

The principle of equality among all men as understood by the enlightened philosophers expresses itself in rational morality, humanitarianism, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism. Such attitudes resulted in many praiseworthy developments, such as advances in medicine; the organized care of orphans, the underprivileged, and the handicapped, training for trades within individual capacities; and humanitarian reforms in criminal law and its procedures. The demand grew for abolition of slavery and for the application of ethical principles to colonial peoples. The disabilities that Jews were subjected to were likewise removed. In the U.S. the Jews obtained for the first time complete civil equality in 1776. Finally, cosmopolitanism furthered interest in physical and cultural anthropology, physical and social geography, languages, literature, art, and the civilization of peoples outside the Western cultural cycle.

State and Society. The state ranks highest among social institutions in enlightened thought. It is viewed as the sum of rational individual beings and their rights, and consequently as the totality and actuality of all reason and all law, as the highest and only positive authority. The origin of the state proceeds from the individual, having come about by means of social contract (Rousseau, Contrat Social, 1762). Private interest and the desire to keep personal liberty when living together with other men, but without being exposed to their tyranny and quarrelsomeness (loss of freedom, loss of property, war), cause men to band together and to surrender to the state a part of the rights due by nature so that these rights may be protected with better results in favor of the individual. The will of the state is, therefore, the united will of all individuals and is absolute (idea of sovereignty).

The protection of individual rights in the state is best served by the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial. Locke and Rousseau consider popular sovereignty, in opposition to the divine right of kings of a former period, as the supreme norm. A communistic social organization, originating by transference of private property to the state, Rousseau declares indeed compatible with the idea of legality, but psychologically wrong. The possibility of withdrawing rights once transferred to the state is denied, e.g., by Pufendorf and Hobbes, who maintain that power transferred by popular will to the ruler is definite and absolute. From the foregoing it will be seen that the theory of the origin of the state, as proposed by the Enlightenment, admits a development into many different forms of the state: constitutional, absolute, totalitarian.

The purpose of the state is the protection of the individual, his liberty, and his property (administration of justice); the advancement of the individual by encouragement of education through universal compulsory schooling (basis of state monopoly of education); and the improvement of the general standard of living (social welfare). The specific content of individual freedom should consist of freedom of speech, of the press, and of association. These rights include freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, and consequently also the freedom to express collectively a religious belief through a religious community.

State and Church. The Enlightenment, however, has limited its recognition of the corporate liberty of the churches, since it saw therein, especially in the Catholic Church, a danger to the sovereignty of the state. But the various freedoms granted to the individual imply the duty of tolerance, which was now prescribed to the state in its relations with religious corporations. The first popular assembly proclaiming religious parity was that of Catholic Maryland in 1679. As part of a constitution we see parity first in Virginia in 1776; later, in negative wording, in the constitutions of the U.S. (178791) and of France (1793), in the Austrian Tolerance Edict (1781), and in the Prussian Common Law (1794). According to the Enlightenment, the state may tolerate only those religious associations that do not contravene the moral norms necessary for maintaining civil society (Locke; cf. wording of many modern constitutions). On this principle England justified its exclusion of atheists and Catholics from tolerance. Catholics were held to disregard the sovereignty of the state because they recognized the alien jurisdiction of the pope and denied the political authority of excommunicated rulers. The former could not bind themselves to an oath of allegiance by calling on God.

As to the actual relation between church and state, philosophers did not disturb the existing Established Church, but rather developed its theory and practice. On the one hand, they wanted to use the influence of religion and church on the moral conduct of men in favor of law and order in the state (Rousseau, Hobbes); on the other, they wanted to establish the sovereignty of the state (absolutism). To this end they developed out of the alleged general rights over the church (iura maiestatica circa sacra ) a set of special rights, restricting the church. The right of supervision (ius inspiciendi ) came to include the claim that ecclesiastical jurisdiction districts must not cross state boundaries. The state claimed a right of veto in the appointment of important church functionaries (ius exclusivae ). Church announcements, in order to take effect, had to have the consent of civil authorities (placet; ius cavendi ). The effect of ecclesiastical jurisdiction was made illusory by the possibility of appeal to a civil court (recursus tamquam ab abusu ).

The theory of religion and church as held by the Enlightenment, including the doctrine of absolute state sovereignty, resulted in bitter conflict with the Catholic Church. Hence, it is toward her that the full weight of attack is directed. Obligatory dogmas, the teaching office of the church, supreme papal authority, the character of mystery of the Mass and the Sacraments, monasticism with its vows of obedience, and the contemplative life, were all rejected.

Papacy and Church Organization. Attacks on the papacy were revived by a new conciliar movement manifested in universal and national councils and convocations of clergy, by overemphasis on episcopal power that should stem directly from ordination (iurisdictio ordinaria episcopi; the episcopal system), and by the idea of a national church and a national primate. Systems like gallicanism, febronianism, and josephinism represent the relation between the enlightened state and the Church headed by the papacy. In France, during the socalled quarrel about the "regalia," the right of advowson and of disposal of church property, a right conceded to the king in an earlier period, came to be claimed an inherent and inalienable right of the crown. Papal protests were met with a convocation of the French clergy, who signed under duress a fundamental declaration of the Gallican clergy about ecclesiastical power (Declaratio cleri gallicani de potestate ecclesiastica, 1682). This declaration affirmed the superiority of general councils and denied the infallibility of the pope in matters of faith. The fact that jurisdictional acts of the pope were to take effect only after consent of the particular national church struck Catholic constitutional law in its vital point, and recognized in principle the notion of a state church.

A theological interpretation of Gallicanism and its application to the territories of the ecclesiastical princes of Germany is given by Febronianism. This system is developed in the book of Febronius, nom de plume of the suffragan Bishop of Trier, Nikolaus von Hontheim, De statu ecclesiae et legitima potestate Romani Pontificis (1763). Here the pope is thought of as first among equals, as representative of the universal Church or the universal episcopate. In the course of history, the episcopate, deceived by the so-called Pseudo-Isidorian forgery, is said to have transferred to the pope certain rights, express or implied. These rights the episcopate might take back at any time, except the main rights of primacy, which, however, possess no legislative character. On the contrary, in matters of canonical legislation the head of the Church should have the consent of the national churches.

On the basis of this Febronian canon law, the demands of the four German metropolitan bishops were formulated at the Congress of ems (1786). Accordingly, the archbishops began to introduce arbitrarily the necessary reforms. Their measures reached a climax in the quarrel over the Cologne nunciature.

Similarly, the political church reforms of maria theresa and joseph ii in the Hapsburg domains were partly necessary and justified, viz, the secularization of part of numerous monasteries in order to finance new dioceses and parishes and the reorganization of theological studies. But in theory and in practice they were the outcome of enlightened political thought.

Secular and Regular Clergy. The idea of the church as a religious community, part of and subordinate to the state, was bound to result in a lowering of respect for the status of priest and monk. The clergyman became a "servant of religion," whose main task was to be his moral-pedagogic influence on the people. The clergyman as an educator of the masses became an object of interest to the state. Hence, the state claimed the right to prescribe the scholarly training of the clergy and to regulate, to supervise, and even to conduct theological studies according to the needs of the time. In Germany there developed the tendency to require secular and regular clergy to study at the schools of divinity of the state universities. In Austria Joseph II founded general seminaries for this purpose. A study program, in its main outlines still in force today, was set up by Stephan rautenstrauch in 1782, commissioned by the Austrian government. It is characterized by emphasis on Biblical and patristic sources and their study in the original languages, introduction of the historical method in the science of theology, and the introduction of history of dogma and of church history in theological instruction, while it minimizes speculative scholastic theology. The interest of the Enlightenment in the teaching and application of knowledge was met by the creation of a new practical subject, namely, pastoral theology.

Generally speaking, contemplation and asceticism were held to have no right to exist, since they did not serve any visible purpose. There was little tolerance for the breviary, for celibacy, or for the fostering of priestly vocations, which was especially harmful to the religious orders. The vow of obedience, by which the regular clergy was bound, was considered incompatible with the task of an educator of the people, and an inadmissible limitation of complete personal liberty. Activities of the regular clergy in pastoral work, education, teaching, and care of the sick were indeed viewed as useful. But the regular clergy who were to form the masses had henceforth to obtain their training at the state universities.

These measures, intensified by the animosity stirred up by literary attacks and the propaganda of the daily press, led many countries to a partial or total secularization of monasteries and orders. In some cases reduction of the number of members was ordered; in other cases the purely contemplative orders were abolished. In 1773 the Bourbon courts successfully forced the Pope, for political reasons, to decree the dissolution of the Jesuit Order. In 1782 Joseph II put through a partial secularization of the monasteries in Austria. A general dissolution of monasteries took place in France from 1789 through the great Revolution and in Germany as a result of a resolution of the Reichstag in 1803 (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss ).

Divine Service and Pastoral Work. The insistence of the Enlightenment upon the increase of knowledge as the goal of human progress influenced religion in its practical expressions, to the degree that religious instruction became the central point of divine service. The sermon of the Enlightenment was preeminently an appeal to moral conduct. The functions of the priest as mediator to salvation, of the sacrifice of the Mass, and of the Sacraments were thereby often overlooked; everything must edify and stimulate and lead toward practical religiosity and morality. Hence the demand for the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, since people can receive instruction only in a language they all understand. Hence also the demand to rid divine service and the very church building of anything that is nonessential, overdone, strange, or no longer intelligible. That meant a repression of pious folk customs, reduction of the large number of Masses, abolition of Eucharistic exposition during the Mass, and restriction of processions and pilgrimages, of veneration of saints and relics, of indulgences and fraternities. The house of God was invaded by the sober art of classicism (cf. the pastoral letters of the Archbishops of Vienna in 1752, of Salzburg in 1782, and of Augsburg in 1783).

However, not withstanding much bias, the liturgical movement of the Enlightenment somewhat stimulated divine worship for the masses. There arose new rituals and new collections of songs. Furthermore pastoral conferences increased; pastoral periodicals were founded in order to arouse the clergy dedicated to the ministry of souls and to win them over to the new ideas. Thus, while the regular clergy was pushed into the background of Church life, the importance of the official parish ministry increased. Attempts of the episcopate to increase the care of souls and to decrease positions that were not so engaged supported this development. The interest in religious instruction especially benefited the compilation of new catechisms and of methodical catechesis, and its introduction as a required subject in the school curriculum.

Literature. The Enlightenment also affected literary and artistic forms. The literature of the 18th century, for example, was involved in the struggle for supremacy between reason and imagination. Out of this grew a classicism that demanded sobriety as the first canon of literary expression. The emphasis on rational literary style can be found in the effect of Johann Gottsched upon the Leipzig stage; the works of Gotthold Lessing; the Sturm und Drang of the middle Rhineland (177080), where efforts to restore fantasy never vanquished the strong rational element of the Enlightenment; Voltaire's search for an enlightened Utopia, which led him to teach the need of men's commitment to society, and to reexamine established institutions; and the observations of the master satirist Jonathan Swift on the manner of leading life by reason and without the impulses of emotion.

Evaluation. The positive effects of the Enlightenment lie in the cultivation of a humanitarian and tolerant spirit; an improved administration of law, including a humane criminal law; a pedagogy based on psychology; efforts toward social welfare; stimulation of research, scholarship, and education; and the struggle against ignorance and superstition. As bad effects the following may be counted; the overestimation of intellectual powers (thus Kant), the underestimation of nonintellectual powers (thus Rousseau and Herder), the absolute individualistic idea of liberty as well as statism, the negative attitude toward authority and tradition, religious relativism, and a worldly viewpoint with its ideas of pragmatism and utility. All of which have furthered the secularization of thought and action in all fields, including an exclusively material civilization.

With regard to the Enlightenment the Church has stood partly on the defensive, though partly willing to accept some of its programs. Dangerous consequences have resulted from unrestricted rationalism and liberalism, especially from the rejection of all metaphysics as well as from a conception of the Church based on natural law. On the other hand, it has had its good effects in the advancement of positive theology, especially of theological research; the renewal of the liturgy and of preaching the gospel; concentration on parish work; and the strengthened position of parish priest and bishop. Catholic efforts to fight against superstition and abuses of religious customs, Biblical textual criticism, etc., have often been suspected as unorthodox. To what extent one can speak of healthy progress, or to what extent of hindrance to the Church, must be judged from individual cases.

Bibliography: p. smith, A History of Modern Culture, 2 v. (New York 193034) v.2 The Enlightenment 16871776 (New York 1934). w. e. h. lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 2 v. (rev. ed. New York 1925). f. valjavec, Geschichte der abendländischen Aufklärung (Vienna 1961). f. ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al., 5 v. (11th, 12th ed. Berlin 192328) 3. g. schnÜrer, Katholische Kirche und Kultur im 18. Jahrhundert (Paderborn 1941). r. n. stromberg, Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth-Century England (London 1954). r. r. palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth Century France (Princeton, N.J.1939). p. hazard, The European Mind: The Critical Years, 16801715, tr. j. l. may (New Haven, Conn. 1953); European Thought in the Eighteenth Century, from Montesquieu to Lessing, tr. j. l. may (New Haven, Conn. 1954). b. groethuysen, Die Entstehung der bürgerlichen Welt-und Lebensanschauung in Frankreich, 2 v. (Halle 192730). h. m. wolff, Die Weltanschauung der deutschen Aufklärung in geschichtlicher Entwicklung (Bern Munich 1949). e. winter, Der Josefinismus und seine Geschichte: Beiträge zur Geistesgeschichte Österreichs 17401848 (Brno 1943). f. maass, ed., Der Josephinismus: Quellen zu seiner Geschichte in Österreich 17601850, 5 v. (Fontes rerum Austriacarum II, 7175; Vienna 195161). a. p. whitaker, Latin America and the Enlightenment (New York 1942). g. jellinek, Die Erklärung der Menschen-und Bürgerrechte: Ein Beitrag zur modernen Verfassungsgeschichte (4th ed. Munich 1927). d. knoop, and g. p. jones, The Genesis of Freemasonry (Manchester, England 1947). a. anwander, Die allgemeine Religionsgeschichte im katholischen Deutschland während der Aufklärung und Romantik (Salzburg 1932). w. philipp, Das Werden der Aufklärung in theologiegeschichtlicher Sicht (Forschungen zur systematischen Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 3; Göttingen 1957). w. trapp, Vorgeschichte und Ursprung der liturgischen Bewegung (Regensburg 1940). a. l. mayer, "Liturgie, Aufklärung und Klassizismus," Jahrbuch für Liturgiewissenschaft 9 (1929) 67127. l. g. crocker, "Recent Interpretations of the French Enlightenment," Journal of World History 8 (1964) 42656.

[e. hegel]


views updated May 18 2018


The eighteenth-century philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment emphasized equality as an essential element of natural law. The rise of egalitarian democratic ideals associated with this philosophy did not, however, correspond to a call for improved rights for women. Under the complementary conception of relations between the sexes held by the majority of men and women in the eighteenth century, the feminine was associated with feeling or sentiment rather than with mind. Women were not believed to possess any significant reasoning ability, and the use of reason to overturn structures previously accepted on faith was at the heart of the Enlightenment project. Admittance into the exciting new Republic of Letters that was changing cultural attitudes was therefore denied to the vast majority of women on the basis of their sex, and when Enlightenment values began to effect change in political and social practice, women remained, for the most part, relegated to the domestic, private sphere.

The degree to which the Enlightenment was marked as male owes a great deal to the political situation in which its proponents developed their radical new philosophy. The decadent effeminacy associated with aristocratic rule was often blamed on women, who were viewed as having been accorded too much power under the old, aristocratic regime. It is true that some women enjoyed unusual freedom under this system of government, in which the division between nobles and non-nobles was a more fundamentally important societal distinction than that between men and women. Noble women could, to a great degree, ignore the restrictions placed on their sex and pursue such unusual interests as geometry and physics. Marquise Gabrielle-Emilie du Chaâtelet (1706–1749), Voltaire's companion and intellectual partner, is a particularly important example of this phenomenon in France. Those few women who had received a superior education, again primarily nobles, might also become known by establishing a salon, in which the latest intellectual ideas were dissected by a carefully chosen circle of luminaries.

Such women were the exceptions, for even among noble women there was pressure to avoid appearing too intellectual, too "male." Literary pursuits offered an appealingly indirect manner in which to make a name for oneself, and many of the bestselling novelists of the day were women, including Françoise de Graffigny (1695–1758), Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni (1714–1792), Sophie von La Roche (1730–1807), Frances Burney (1752–1840), and the great Jane Austen (1775–1817). Other genres, such as poetry, were open to women as well; any work that could be attributed to a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, rather than to carefully reasoned cogitation, was more easily acceptable from the pen of a woman. As always, the exceptions are significant. Catherine Macaulay's eight-volume History of England (1763–1783) was a major contribution to the field, and Elizabeth Montagu (1720–1800) made the definitive critical argument for the enduring genius of William Shakespeare.

It was in attempting to participate openly in the political realm that women, predictably, faced the greatest opposition during the eighteenth century. The arguments against allowing women a role in serious public debate included the physiological claim that because they possessed extremely delicate nerve fibers, women reacted with inappropriately heightened emotion to sensory and intellectual stimuli. Examples of the supposedly nefarious influence exercised by the mistresses of kings were often cited as well; Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), official favorite of Louis XV of France, was cast as one of the worst eighteenth-century offenders, although she is now more often viewed as an important patron of the arts.

It was also in the political realm that some few individual women played the greatest role in challenging the preconceived notions of their day. Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796) of Russia was one of the most powerful rulers of the period. She was also a generous protector of such major Enlightenment figures as the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784), although she was far less benevolent toward her own subjects' efforts to challenge the status quo. The greatest champion of women's political rights during the Enlightenment was the British author Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), who took the side of change over conservatism when her countryman Edmund Burke (1729–1797) attacked the utopian ideals of the French Revolution (Shapiro 1992). Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790) was followed by the influential Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued that the impoverished education given to most girls made it difficult for them to grow into reasoning beings.

Burke's negative predictions concerning the French Revolution appeared to be borne out by the bloody period known as the Terror, during which men and women, nobles and non-nobles, were equally subject to execution. The Revolution was a particularly repressive moment in women's history. Leading revolutionaries, inspired by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), worked to limit women to what was considered their natural function: producing new, preferably male citizens and caring for them during their infancy, after which the Republic would take over through the newly established school system. This view of woman's role in the new society was challenged by, among others, Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793). In her Déclaration des droits de la femme [Declaration of the rights of woman, 1791], Gouges points out that a woman is considered a creature of reason responsible for her actions when she is accused of a crime; if she has the right to mount the scaffold for execution, does she not also deserve the right to vote?

Any appraisal of gender politics during the Enlightenment must be placed in the context of the many negative reassessments of this movement's cultural and political legacy. The scientific classification of some human beings as inferior based on race and/or sex is now seen to have been as much a part of the period's agenda as was the promotion of "universal" human rights. But while the condition of women did not greatly improve over the course of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment shift in the discourse of natural rights did in time lead to a radical feminism of equality that would fundamentally change the conception of woman's role in society.


Badinter, Elisabeth. 1983. Emilie, Emilie: l'ambition féminine au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Flammarion.

Goodman, Dena. 1994. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Joeres, Ruth-Ellen B., and Mary Jo Maynes, eds. 1986. German Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Social and Literary History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Keener, Frederick M., and Susan E. Lorsch, eds. 1988. Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts. New York: Greenwood Press.

Knott, Sarah, and Barbara Taylor, eds. 2005. Women, Gender, and Enlightenment. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Landes, Joan B. 1988. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Myers, Sylvia Harcstark. 1990. The Blue Stocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Shapiro, Virginia. 1992. A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                             Mary McAlpin


views updated May 18 2018


Enlightenment is a term used in occultism, mysticism, and Eastern religions to denote the awakening to and/or appropriation of the highest and most essential truths of the universe. Enlightenment usually includes an intellectual mastery of the teachings of a particular tradition, the personal mastery of various occult techniques (spiritual disciplines), the direct contact with and embodiment of the highest divine realities, and the social acknowledgment of the enlightened one's accomplishments by at least a small community of students or followers. Enlightened teachers may claim authority from their having studied personally with an enlightened master who transmitted his/her wisdom and acknowledged that transmission more or less publicly. Others may have engaged in a systematic study of a tradition that included both the study of tests and the practice of a guarded set of spiritual disciplines. Acknowledgment of enlightenment in such cases is due not so much to the status of one's teacher but to the passing of a set of standard initiations. In many Western initiatory systems, the highest grades of enlightenment are self-proclaimed and then verified by one's fruits. Of course, new groups often arise when a student reaches the higher levels of accomplishment only to reach a very new or different understanding of the universe.

Most enlightened teachers offer students a system of practice, some form of yoga or meditation being the most popular. It is generally assumed that the teacher has followed this method successfully and that their success offers hope that the student can also attain enlightenment by perpetuating the master's course of action. Having followed the path, the master provides evidence of his/her contact with higher realities and his/her embodiment of them. One of the most obvious examples is the kundalini yoga teacher who offers students the experience of shaktipat, the transfer of energy from the master to the student to initiate the enlightenment process. Others demonstrate their contact with the divine by the aura of sanctity that encompasses them, the wisdom of their words, and/or the austerity of their lives, although it often comes in the demonstration of their ability to speak directly to the immediate situation of a particular student (a sign that they have experienced and already passed that situation).

Enlightened teachers make claims to have perceived occult (that is, hidden) realities. Though ultimately no acknowledgment of that status should be necessary, if they are to become teachers, they generally find confirmation of their status in a social context. Confirmation of an enlightened master's status may be partially based upon outward accomplishments, but also always has an element of subjectivity since the members making the profession do not have access to the levels of reality to which the master has claimed access. Members of most occult, mystical, and Eastern religions will profess a belief in the enlightened status of their leader, while occasionally questioning the enlightenment of the leaders of rival groups. People who leave a group will often justify their action by claiming a loss of belief in the enlightened status of their former teacher.

Underlying any discussion of enlightenment is a belief that our perception of the ordinary world of waking consciousness is distorted, lost in illusion. Matter is less than real, and the avenue to the real world is found in the inner search, through a change in consciousness, through a gaining of a new perception of reality.

British scholar Andrew Rawlinson, who has made the most extensive study of modern teachers considered to be enlightened by their followers, has noted several basic approaches to the topic. One set of teachers generally holds that enlightenment is a state to be attained. To become enlightened requires a lengthy period devoted to spiritual practices, possibly over several lifetimes. The wide variance in the recommended practice (yoga, meditation, occult development, prayer and chanting, magic ) is the major item distinguishing these types of groups. Some of the more advanced practitioners of a spiritual discipline may in fact be picking up their accomplishments from a previous lifetime.

Another set of teachers feels that enlightenment is an inherent quality of human existence. The divine is the only reality and all we have to do is wake up to that fact. As humans are in essence divine, the whole of reality is immediately accessible. In these cases, exemplified by some forms of Advaita Vedanta and Zen Buddhism, the teacher's job is to place the student in situations where they are likely to grasp the truth. Enlightenment comes not from mastering the environment, even if that is an inner environment, but from an act of self-realization.

In the case of the former understanding of enlightenment, the condition under which most occult teachers operate, the world is generally considered to be divided into a complex set of layers, the visible world being but the lowest. These various layers emanate from the divine. Enlightenment comes from accessing the highest levels of spiritual reality. An enlightened teacher would not only have accessed those higher levels, but be capable of communicating some elements of those higher realities to others and of assisting their disciples in their movement upward. In most occult systems, people who have accessed the lower levels may possess various occult abilities, a sign that they have at least begun the pathway to enlightenment, though they would not yet be considered enlightened.

Rawlinson has made important observations concerning the unique situation in the modern West in which a variety of enlightened teachers are available to the average seeker, who may compare and contrast their personal suitability.


Cohen, Andrew. Enlightenment Is a Secret. Corte Madera, Calif.: Moksha Foundation, 1991.

Enomiya-Lassalle, Hugo. Zen: Way to Enlightenment. Marlboro, N.J.: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1968.

Hixon, Len. Coming Home: The Experience of Enlightenment in Sacred Traditions. Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1995.

Ichazo, Oscar. The Human Process for Enlightenment and Freedom: A Series of Five Lectures. New York: Arica Institute Press, 1972.

Lozowick, Leo. The Book of Unenlightenment/The Yoga of Enlightenment. Prescott Valley, Ariz.: Hohm Press, 1980.

Melton, J. Gordon. Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha's Ancient School of Wisdom. Hillsboro, Ore.: Beyond Words, 1998.

Millman, Dan. Everyday Enlightenment. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

Rawlinson, Andrew. The Book of Enlightened Masters. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1997.


views updated May 23 2018


To mount concerted opposition to mankind's inhumanity was one of the central objectives of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement prevalent in Europe and some European colonies for around one hundred years from the late seventeenth century. Progressive ideas of toleration and of civil and human rights such as came to be realized in the American and French revolutions were largely inspired by Enlightenment principles. Religious intolerance, especially in England and France, offered many Enlightenment thinkers their main focus of criticism, as they resisted, in the first case, the efforts of King James II to debar Protestants from the monarchy and public office and defied, in the second, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which in 1685 abruptly terminated the long truce that had followed the ravages of sectarian wars associated with the Reformation and the Counterreformation.

Understood in this way the Enlightenment was committed to humanitarian ideals, cosmopolitan notions of citizenship, and a spirit of toleration. Its principles were to come to fruition in England's so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. On the Continent these principles were mobilized against political and theological institutions that had driven French Huguenots in particular into exile, until a century later, when the ancien régime itself was overthrown. William and Mary's Act of Toleration and John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, both dating from 1689, as well as many of the chief writings of Spinoza, Bayle, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Diderot, were designed to combat religious bigotry and sectarian violence. Voltaire was perhaps the eighteenth century's preeminent campaigner for toleration, rallying other luminaries of his age around his battlecry, Ecrasez l'infâme. It was in the mid-eighteenth century that the term civilization came to acquire its modern meaning as opposition to barbarism, which, in addition to primitive morals, arbitrary power, and ruthless violence, was now deemed also to embrace religious fundamentalism, such as had plunged Europe into darkness during the time of the Crusades and the Inquisition. From this point of view the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789—one of the principal sources for twentieth-century charters of human rights—may be seen as marking the Enlightenment's triumph, in heralding, at least in principle, a new and secular age of toleration.

Following the rise of totalitarianism and the advent of the Holocaust in the twentieth century, an altogether different image of the Enlightenment has sometimes been proferred, concentrating instead on its commitment to the advancement of science and reason as the main vehicles of human progress. When conceived as providing a philosophical foundation for the scientific revolution through the contributions of Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and French materialists, the Enlightenment's origins are characteristically dated from around sixty or seventy years earlier in the seventeenth century, and critics have sugggested that this intelletual movement did not so much abandon Christianity as turn Christianity inside out, substituting the pursuit of earthly happiness for the unworldly salvation of our souls, replacing one form of absolutism with another, dogmatic reason for dogmatic faith.

Three major implications with respect to the problem of genocide and crimes against humanity have been drawn from that assessment of the Enlightenment, each of which trades on the facts that modern barbarism embraced science rather than rejected it and that the Holocaust was perpetrated through the use of scientifically enlightened practices. The first is that by way of the Enlightenment, Western civilization itself became barbarous, in implementing strategic plans for moral and social reconstruction that encapsulated an Enlightenment faith in the unity of all the sciences. The second is that the Enlightenment's blind devotion to science and reason destroyed the ethical moorings of classical and Christian values alike, replacing them with merely instrumental notions of rationality by virtue of which a program of genocide could be scientifically organized. The third is that the Enlightenment's trust in the idea of scientific progress made it particularly hostile to Judaism as a mystical religion more primitive even than the Christianity it engendered, so that the attainment of cosmopolitan human rights implied the creation of a world without Jews.

Insofar as some Enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire, showed little interest in preserving Jewish rituals, they in fact subscribed not to the Jews' annihilation but to their assimilation and enjoyment of rights belonging to all citizens. The contention that genocide is characterized by unrestrained rationality turns around ideas of reason peculiar to a German tradition of discourse over the past three hundred years rather than to mainstream English or French contributors to Enlightenment thought. And the truth of the proposition that crimes against humanity are evidence of civilization's own barbarism has been obscured by the religious fundamentalism that inspires much of terrorism today. The survival and current resurgence of crimes against humanity perhaps demonstrate how limited has been the Enlightenment's success in marshalling support for its objectives.

SEE ALSO Philosophy


Arendt, Hannah (1958). The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd edition. London: Allen and Unwin.

Wokler, Robert (2000). "The Enlightenment Project on the Eve of the Holocaust." In Enlightenment and Genocide: Contradictions of Modernity, ed. B. Sträth and J. Kaye. Brussels: Presses Universitaires Européennes.

Wokler, Robert (2000). "Multiculturalism and Ethnic Cleansing in the Enlightenment." In Toleration in Enlightenment Europe, ed. O. P. Grell and R. Porter. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Robert Wokler