Imperial letters don’t burn

“Burn my letters so that they will not be printed in my lifetime” – Catherine the Great wrote these words to one of her most trusted correspondents, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in 1787. Note the caveat – Catherine did not really want her letters to be destroyed. What she sought was control over who read her letters, when, and how. My book, The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, explores how Catherine skilfully designed every aspect of her correspondence to shape her image and to regulate how it reached different readers.

Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror, Vigilius Ericksen, 1762-64. (The Hermitage Museum)

A German princess who married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762 and subsequently ruled the empire successfully for thirty-four years. A prolific writer and author of some two dozen plays, a history of Russia, a series of remarkable memoirs, and much more, Catherine also produced several thousand letters by which she sought to win over supporters, manage her empire, and leave behind for posterity a legacy as a great ruler and appealing individual.

We’re very familiar today with the perils associated with email security for public figures – suffice it to think of the scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails and those of her staff in 2016. Catherine had similar concerns: receiving letters from the empress of Russia was so exciting that some readers could not resist leaking them to the press. Very few of the empress’s correspondents could get away with such indiscretions without a scolding – even Voltaire was allowed to publicise his elaborate exchange with the empress only within well-defined limits. Even more than that, the responses to Catherine’s letters could be truly outlandish: one was even the occasion for a séance at the Prussian court in 1791.

Yet Catherine’s choices regarding the publicity of her letters can also look quite bewilderingly different from twenty-first-century norms. Some of Catherine’s letters were indeed private, such as her love notes to her possible secret husband and most loyal deputy, Grigory Potemkin. But often they were not: writing to the salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, for instance, Catherine was actually addressing the select group of elite intellectuals, socialites, and political figures who gathered in Geoffrin’s home. The hostess might allow her guests to read the latest letter, or she would read it aloud; nonetheless, she and her guests knew better than to make copies or to publish what they heard. Rather, these privileged readers and listeners were meant to think positively about the empress when they read her witty, friendly letters, and they were to influence public and government opinion on her behalf. At the same time, Catherine firmly believed that, if she could win over elite readers in her own day, the best readers of future generations would agree with their enlightened views.

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great is the August 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

More sneakily, Catherine decided to make use of widespread government surveillance of correspondences for her own benefit. As Jay Caplan has explored in Postal Culture in Europe, the rapid expansion of the postal service in early-modern Europe coincided with the development of sophisticated “Black Chambers” or cabinets noirs to spy on letters in transit. Naturally enough, ordinary citizens were of less interest to governments than those close to power, and so Catherine could rely on the governments of the territories her letters passed through to give in to temptation. So, when she wrote to a celebrity like Voltaire about Russian military successes, she was actually writing past the philosophe to inform the nosy French government that Russia had the resources and the military strength to be a major power in Europe.

Digital approaches to Catherine’s correspondence can help us to better visualise Catherine’s efforts to make herself present across Europe through her letters. That said, only close reading of rhetorical strategies can uncover how Catherine formulated in her letters the image she hoped to transmit to today’s readers. My study draws on both approaches to analyse for the first time the full range of Catherine’s correspondences and to argue for their status as a literary masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, University of Southern California

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the author of The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great, the first book to analyse Catherine the Great as an outstanding Enlightenment letter-writer, and the August volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.


When volcanoes erupted with meaning

When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010 it threw up a huge, glass-rich ash plume nine kilometres into the sky, penetrating the jet stream which then swept the volcanic debris south-eastwards over most of Europe. European air space was closed down, stranding approximately ten million passengers over six days at a cost of £130 million per day to the aviation industry. It disrupted the funeral of the Polish president and general election campaigning in Scotland, and brought blissful quiet to residents around Heathrow and other major European hubs. Ironically, the noxious gas-spewing volcano actually reduced air pollution by grounding planes for nearly a week. Among both witnesses to the eruption and those marooned by its billowing ash-clouds, it also produced a lot of stories (as well as a plotline for a 2013 French comedy).

Image of Eyjafjallajökull during its eruptions in 2010. (“14.05.10 | Eyjafjallajökull” by @dyntr is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Yet these twenty-first-century anecdotes pale in comparison to the production of eighteenth-century ‘eruption narratives’ related by voluble, scribbling travellers of both sexes on the Grand Tour, socializing in Naples and picnicking on the burning flanks of Vesuvius or, more rarely, Etna. These breathless travelogues outnumber the more measured texts written by scientists on the same slopes, although both frequently draw on the reports diligently sent to the Royal Society by the most famous volcanologist of the age, Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In fact, scrambling up volcanoes became a form of secular ‘pilgrimage’ for natural historians such as Lazzaro Spallanzani who scoured the volcanoes of southern Italy from 1788 to 1790. Eruptions, then, produced not just tephra but texts. But they also drew artists to their brilliant blaze, establishing a lucrative industry in Naples for painters like Pierre Jacques Volaire, who would trim Vesuvius’s natural sublimity to populate its foreground with his patrons in tiny silhouette against the yellow fountains and scarlet streams of lava.

The erupting volcano became such a ubiquitous image in eighteenth-century Europe that, even for those who hadn’t seen one in person, it gave material form to their various philosophies of ‘enlightenment’. For physico-theologists, it provided a fizzling foretaste of the fiery Second Coming; for providentialists, it stood as a safety-valve defusing the globe’s dangerous internal fires – the work of a beneficent God; and for deists and materialists, its immemorially ancient layers of lava challenged Biblical chronologies of the Earth. Yet for all its ‘enlightenment(s)’, as Gaston Bachelard has suggested, the volcano atavistically divided its devotees into two camps: the Promethean and the Empedoclean – those who were afraid of it but looked to master its fire, and those who adored it, seeking a form of mystical union in its flames. On a political level, we can see this mythical conflict between Prometheus and Empedocles play out in the French Revolution, between those keen to curb the explosive forces of the ‘volcano of Revolution’, as Edmund Burke put it, and those who embraced its red-hot heat, stoking it to ever more violent conflagration. So when Vesuvius erupted terrifyingly in June 1794 at the height of the Terror, it seemed to many contemporaries that the physical and the political volcanoes were in league. Yet Vesuvius’s tremendous blast of that year was not the greatest of the century: for that we have to return to Iceland eleven years earlier for the cataclysmic eruption of Laki. We now have a clear scientific vision of Icelandic volcanism, the product of the island straddling the great Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates diverge. But in 1783, the eight-month outpouring of lava, ash and gas from the 27-kilometre-long Laki fissure dismayed contemporaries as it too (like Eyjafjallajökull’s ash plume in 2010) injected megatons of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide into the lower stratosphere, cloaking western Europe in a deadly pall. A stifling summer was followed by a Siberian winter, killing hundreds of thousands of people and their livestock. Laki too produced stories – both intimate personal testimony from Icelandic survivors such as the so-called Fire Priest Jón Steingrímsson, and speculative climate theories involving comets, electricity, subterranean gases and the Calabrian earthquake of February that year.

My study ranges over all of these fields of volcanic meaning-making in order to show how the volcano articulated the fantasies and fears of eighteenth-century Europe. But in weaving these diverse narratives together, it also looks to contextualize and counter the dominance of a largely scientific conception of volcanism. At precisely the point where some situate the birth of the Anthropocene and others the emergence of the hierarchical dualisms of culture/nature and sciences/humanities, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe seeks to revise these notions in light of the volcano as it is also constructed in local lore, travellers’ tales and as iconic object, figure of religious or humanistic transcendence or political master-metaphor.

– David McCallam, Sheffield University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. David McCallam is the author of Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe: An Essay in Environmental Humanities which is the first book to examine European volcanoes in the period in the full range of their physical and figurative manifestations and is the July volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.

Voltaire as philosophical historian and historian of modernity

Whether from modern scholars or his contemporaries, most criticism of Voltaire’s history books boils down to one thing: Voltaire was not an academic historian. In his defence, he never claimed to be one, and his histories are all the more interesting for it. Voltaire’s histories have received renewed scholarly interest in recent years, and the Voltaire Foundation’s ‘Voltaire: historian of modernity’ research project began in 2015 with the aim of improving our understanding of Voltaire’s practice and influence as a contemporary historian of the early modern period and includes the set of critical editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts. This year heralds the completion of the Siècle de Louis XIV,  Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, and Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne multi-volume editions with the Précis du siècle de Louis XV following early next year.

The University library at Göttingen, painted by Johann Christian Eberlein (1800).

Detractors such as August Ludwig Schlözer in the Göttingen School of academic history accused Voltaire of being less concerned with historical facts and rigorous scholarship than he was with narrative and readability (Annales de l’Empire, Introduction, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.44A, p.16). His authorial voice and his distinctive style were dominant, as was his constant insistence on philosophical readings of history, attempting to extract moral lessons from the past at every turn. Naturally, Voltaire’s defenders view precisely these characteristics as advantages of his approach.[1] Pierre Rousseau, editor of the Journal encyclopédique, praised the Annales de l’Empire in 1754 for its ‘philosophical spirit’ and the ‘character of the author’ (vol.44A, p.29).

Furthermore, Voltaire’s presentism and philosophical bent constituted a deliberate move away from traditional histories, most notably Bossuet’s overtly Christian Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681) and those emanating from academic schools of history such as Göttingen. (For a direct comparison between Voltaire and Bossuet’s styles, see our article ‘Essai sur les mœurs: What Voltaire did differently’.) Voltaire leaned towards what we would today term popular history, writing a series of accessible, enjoyable books that delivered a wealth of historical knowledge and philosophical reasoning in an appealing package.

Admittedly, he did so with a generous helping of editorialising, but it helps if we understand the context from which these books were born. In the famed querelle of the Ancients and the Moderns, Voltaire was firmly on the side of the Moderns. This influenced the shape and purpose of his historical writings: he was a historian of modernity who placed far more emphasis on recent years than on antiquity. Voltaire’s presentist approach is evident in his flagship Siècle de Louis XIV, which helped secure him the title of Royal Historiographer in 1745, and his universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs, which devotes far more pages to recent episodes than it does to the great events of ancient history, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In the section of his 1744 Conseils à un journaliste entitled ‘Sur l’histoire’, Voltaire defends his presentism:

‘Foster above all in the young more taste for the history of recent times, which is for us a matter of necessity, rather than ancient history, which is merely a matter of curiosity.’

[‘Inspirez surtout aux jeunes gens plus de goût pour l’histoire des temps récents, qui est pour nous de nécessité, que pour l’ancienne, qui n’est que de curiosité.’ (vol.20A, p.482)]

As well as a historian of modernity, Voltaire was also a philosophical historian, meaning that his histories were part and parcel of his philosophical enterprise, namely the promotion of reason and tolerance. Voltaire accordingly invented this discipline of philosophical history for himself in La Philosophie de l’histoire (vol.59). These two disciplines were symbiotic: as a history of societies closer to his own, Voltaire believed that modern history had more instructive value from a philosophical standpoint, especially to young people. Even when writing about the distant past, as he does in the early chapters of the Essai and the Annales, Voltaire is always looking forward by asking the reader the question of ‘what can we, in the present, learn from all this?’

We have a series of short introductory articles for readers wishing to explore the Annales de l’Empire in more depth:

We have a similar series of introductory articles for the momentous work of universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations:

Samuel Bailey


[1] For a defence of Voltaire’s historical methodology, see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the Necessity of Modern History’, Modern Intellectual History, 6:3 (2009), 457–84.


D’Argenson’s Considérations

Enlightenment political theory has received a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years as intellectual historians and political theorists have mined the riches of eighteenth-century ideas about human rightsthe self, or international law. Surprisingly little of this work, however, has been devoted to the so-called Early Enlightenment, the decades before the eruption of the high Enlightenment at mid-century with the publication of seminal works such as Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) or Diderot and d’Alembert’s great Encyclopédie (1751-). Yet, this time was rich with the fermentation of ideas that would make their mark later in the century.

One of the key texts of the early Enlightenment, penned by René-Louis de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis d’Argenson (1694-1757), which circulated clandestinely in manuscript for decades before its posthumous publication as the Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France in 1764, mounted a scathing indictment of the Old Regime social and political order, championed equality as a central moral and political value, and argued for extending democracy within the monarchy. Originally titled ‘Jusqu’où la démocratie peut être admise dans le gouvernement monarchique’ and composed primarily in the 1730s, d’Argenson’s treatise called for the redistribution of land, improving the material circumstances of the peasantry, and establishing municipal magistrates with substantial autonomy. With the establishment of his system, d’Argenson wrote, ‘the kingdom would change face’. Indeed, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, upon reading the manuscript, wrote to d’Argenson that he ‘appears a bit more partial to democracy than to monarchy’, while the fermier général Dupin wrote to d’Argenson that there was an ‘immense distance […] between our current situation and what you propose’. This is the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s treatise, based on four different manuscripts held in archives and libraries in France, and presented here with a selection of d’Argenson’s other political writings that have never been published.

D’Argenson is probably best known to posterity as a chronicler of his time thanks to his widely cited nine-volume Journal et mémoires, one of the most important existing sources on the politics of the 1730s to 1750s, as a member of the short-lived Club de l’Entresol, and for his Notices sur les œuvres de théâtre published in 1966. Among the philosophes, d’Argenson was known, as d’Alembert wrote in the dedication to one of his books, for his ‘breadth of knowledge’, ‘love of the common good’, and for being a ‘philosophe in your sentiments’. His true intellectual passion was ‘the principles of the true science of humanity, those of morality and politics’, as le Beau stated in the eulogy given to the Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres upon d’Argenson’s death.

The depth of d’Argenson’s critique of the social and political order is perhaps more surprising given his status as the scion of a powerful political family. His father was the powerful lieutenant general of police under Louis XIV and then Keeper of the Seals during the Regency, his brother Minister of War, and he himself served a brief tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs during the War of Austrian Succession. Rousseau commented when citing d’Argenson’s manuscript in the Social Contract, published two years before the Considérations: ‘I have not been able to deny myself the pleasure of occasionally quoting from this manuscript, although it is unknown to the public, in order to honor the memory of a good and illustrious man, who kept even in the Ministry the heart of a good citizen, and views on the government of his country that were sane and right.’ This critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations brings to light for the first time those views and, in an introductory essay, situates them within d’Argenson’s full political philosophy and the political and intellectual context of his time.

– Andrew Jainchill, Queen’s University (Canada)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Andrew Jainchill is the editor of the May Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume, D’Argenson, Considérations sur le gouvernement, a critical edition, with other political texts, which utilises rare manuscripts and previously unstudied archival sources to produce the first critical edition of d’Argenson’s Considérations.

The age of lightness

Le petit-maître et la dame en l’air, engraving, c.1780 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

France is a light-hearted nation… This classical common belief is echoed repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century and bears witness to the deep axiological, scientific and ethical upheavals which this volume explores. By analysing the importance of, and issues at stake in, these transformations, the articles gathered within tell the story of another age of Enlightenment: the story of an age of lightness.

Lightness is at the crux of how the French eighteenth century represents itself both in contrast with previous centuries and through parallels between European nations.

The notion of lightness therefore constitutes an essential paradigm of the historiography that developed immediately after the French Revolution. The intellectual heirs of the eighteenth century do not only find in this period an age of reason, progress, Enlightenment and citizens’ rights; they also feel, at times, contempt, at other times, nostalgia for the alleged lightness of its mores, the futility of its taste or the frivolity of its childish ways. Between the industrious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century exploiting the voluptuous representations of fêtes galantes and the fascination of our own twenty-first century for the delightful frivolity of Marie-Antoinette’s era, the eighteenth century in its lightness has never lost its charm. Yet, crucially, it also challenges the progressive narrative of the history of reason and usefulness in the definition of the very values on which our community is built.

(Attr. to James Gillray), Politeness, c.1779, hand-coloured engraving (source: the Trustees of the British Museum).

It is therefore particularly revealing to analyse the concepts and values associated to the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century. Such an approach yields breakthroughs in understanding why, and to what extent, this idea of lightness has been related to the French national character in general as well as, more particularly, to its eighteenth century.

Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français offers an interdisciplinary perspective that bridges multiple fields of study related to the question of lightness. The fifteen chapters deal with paintings, morals, sciences, political history, literature and technology as well as economics. Together, these articles reveal the complexity of the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century by proposing not only new and original analyses of well-known sources (Hogarth, Fontenelle or Voltaire) but also discoveries of texts and objects less often studied (such as La Morlière, le Père Castel, Octave Uzanne, carriages or perfumes).

Richard Newton, British servants with Honesty and Fidelity against French servants with Perfidy & Impudence (detail), 1795, hand-coloured etching (source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).

The critical and historiographical approach taken by this collection challenges preconceived notions and other prejudices, and unveils the national, diplomatic and at times existential concerns which contributed to the construction of the representations of eighteenth-century France. Far from proposing yet another traditional thematic approach, this volume offers the analysis of an endogenous and problematic paradigm around which multiple visions of humanity and of the world are articulated; it aims to offer a contribution to the renewal of eighteenth-century studies. Whilst it transforms how we look at a key moment in the construction of modernity, it also lays bare the sources of the fascination exerted by the French eighteenth century.

– Jean-Alexandre Perras (Institut d’études avancées de Paris) and Marine Ganofsky (University of St Andrews)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Marine Ganofsky and Jean-Alexandre Perras are co-editors of ‘Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français’, the April volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

Reasonable doubt and the birth of Enlightenment

There has rarely been a better time to write about skepticism than the current so-called post-truth era. Recent debates over fake newsalternative facts, and the role of expertise in public policy have shaken the United States, Europe, and the world. Contemporary pundits and political demagogues often play the skeptic in an attempt to sway popular opinion and fuel nascent populist movements. By questioning how we know what we know, whether we can know anything with certainty, or whether any source or testimony can be fully trustworthy, these figures seek to undermine the basic shared assumptions of liberal societies.

The Skeptical Enlightenment is the March 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The use (and arguably abuse) of skepticism raises troubling questions, but they are neither new nor peculiar to the present. They harken back to previous crises of certainty. Skepticism first emerged in the world of contentious philosophical debates of ancient Greece. There, the skeptics posed challenging arguments that offered an appealing alternative to dogmatic schools of thought that claimed to offer true and certain claims about the surrounding world. The skeptics, by contrast, called for a suspension of judgement on all questions and insisted that we could know nothing with certainty – not even the proposition that we could know nothing with certainty! The most radical articulation of skepticism, known as Pyrrhonism, was revived in early modern Europe during the Reformation and reached its peak popularity in the early 1700s. Through these debates about truth and certainty, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers first came to articulate our modern understanding of rationality – one that used a limited skepticism about what was known and knowable to arrive at useful understandings of nature and of human affairs.

This volume of essays provides a timely explanation of how Enlightenment thinkers successfully grappled with the challenges posed by an earlier crisis of philosophical confidence. We dispute popular and commonplace narratives that continue to depict the Enlightenment as an unalloyed Age of Reason when Europeans boasted an unbounded confidence in the powers of human understanding. Instead, the essays in this collection depict a complicated, variegated, and entangled Enlightenment culture to which skepticism was far more central than anyone thought. We build on recent scholarship to show how eighteenth-century responses to powerful skeptical arguments led thinkers to redefine reason, moderate its ambitions, and turn toward morally and socially useful ends.

Philosophers no longer considered rationality an innate or nearly infallible faculty. Instead, they accepted the fallibility of human understanding, the limitations of individual experiences, and the need to interrogate one’s assumptions. Such a reorientation made the cultivation of a healthy and limited skepticism indispensable to the improvement of the human condition, and it placed education at the forefront of Enlightenment theories of progress.

Recognizing the limits of human understanding in philosophical and theological questions also increasingly led thinkers to accept religious toleration. Contrary to what one might expect, critics of organized religion and those who championed faith against reason both embraced skeptical doubt. In a further irony, notable opponents of skepticism emerged from amongst those who tried to defend the rational foundations of belief. Many of the essays in this collection thus examine the persistence of religious belief in the Enlightenment while untangling the complex interactions between religion and philosophy in this period.

We suggest that rethinking the central place of skepticism in eighteenth-century learned culture provides important insights into the most vital concerns faced by the intellectuals of this period. Indeed, skeptical doubts were pervasive in various fields of knowledge, including not only epistemology and metaphysics, but also history, jurisprudence, theology, and political thought. Essays in this volume therefore highlight how debates between the skeptics and their opponents helped inform the modern evidentiary foundations of these fields and disciplines. We explain how notions such as probability and common sense emerged as bulwarks against skeptical critiques.

Examining the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers struggled with fundamental questions about truth and certainty invites us to consider how best to grapple with similar challenges in our current ‘post-truth’ moment. While the historical contexts are vastly different, important similarities nevertheless exist between the present and the eighteenth-century skeptical crisis. Then as now, various economic uncertainties, the proliferation of new forms of media, and new technologies all combine to create the sense that the real world might not be as it appears. Then as now, some answers can be found in a reexamination of the fundamental assumptions and truths that may no longer be as self-evident as we might think. Then as now, the ability to grapple with these questions has profound moral and political implications. This study of the Skeptical Enlightenment reminds us that fake news and the self-interested machinations of the powerful are powerless against a healthy dose of skepticism deployed in the service of humanity.

– Anton M. Matytsin (Kenyon College) and Jeffrey D. Burson (Georgia Southern University)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Anton M. Matytsin and Jeffrey D. Burson are co-editors of the latest Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume.