Artisanal labour and the ethics of craft

Scholars today are rewriting histories of the eighteenth century to be more ambitious in scale and inclusive in scope. As a discipline whose foundations have traditionally been located in the European Enlightenment, art history has long defined itself through exclusive canons of ‘artists’ and ‘art’ that have valorized certain individuals and objects at the expense of others. Recent directives to decolonize art history, as well as architectural history, demonstrate that these disciplines seek to credit those who labour as part of art- and knowledge-making processes.

Artisanal objects represent the material and archival evidence of someone’s work and, accordingly, histories of art and architecture double as histories of labour. Our volume Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks recognizes artisan-labourers and contextualizes their identities in order to acknowledge distinct processes of facture – be that artisanal labour standardized, precarious, oppressed, or coerced – and the working conditions under which eighteenth-century artisans operated. Our volume captures the diversity of artisans from a range of occupations – sculptors, manuscript illuminators, ornamental carvers, desk– and chair-makers, clockmakers, garden designers, ceramicists, architects, and jewellers – working in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, colonial America, viceregal Mexico, Mughal India, Qing dynasty China, and colonial Australia. The dialogues between historians of art, architecture, material culture, sociology, and technology featured in our book demonstrate how contested histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Enlightenment are also fundamentally artisanal histories.

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is the June 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The contributions in Crafting Enlightenment all argue for artisanal participation within the pluralities of Enlightenment thought, along multiple narratives of Enlightenment that existed across the eighteenth-century world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Enlightenment’s European intellectual origins, we consider how artisans from the long eighteenth-century and the products of their labour responded to a multifaceted Enlightenment that meant very different things in different places, as historian Sebastian Conrad has argued. Our version of this transnational Enlightenment extends well beyond the eighteenth century, from seventeenth-century projects of state building to nineteenth-century consequences of imperialism and cross-cultural encounters. We hope our volume encourages readers to delve more deeply into the intertwined narratives between art objects and labour – like the artisans discussed, the objects themselves also represent critical moments of transnational exchange.

Crafting Enlightenment offers a timely reminder that artisans employed craftsmanship and labour to assert their own creativity across the eighteenth-century world. These important queries around pluralism and inclusive practices continue to resonate throughout the academy and governments via policy. In addition to identifying historical eighteenth-century actors who have been marginalized by history, scholars might further chart ambitious intellectual territory by tracking how the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources today continue to advance the problematic agenda of colonialism around the world. Public attention is now increasingly trained on the ways that local materials, outsourced labour, and working conditions determine our habits of consumption. Such ecologies of natural resources and labour, identified as such in the long eighteenth century, have allowed us to explore how transnational networks highlight discrepancies between certain privileged artisans who had access to imperial commissions and others who did not and remain uncredited for their work. These issues are as relevant today as they were in the long eighteenth century. Artisanal craftsmanship remains at the heart of social critique, demonstrating how the objects we make and use reflect our personal biases. The practices of contemporary craft – hand-woven textiles being one example – demonstrate how feminized labour, materiality, gender, and race have pulled these techniques towards ideological ends. Ethical questions prompted by artisanal production inflect ongoing debates in art and architecture, signalling how the structural limitations of Enlightenment thought have persisted in determining the production and reception of craft.

Lauren R. Cannady (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jennifer Ferng (University of Sydney)

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in June 2021.

Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2)

This contribution follows on from part 1 of ‘Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment’, published last week, and is adapted from the author’s article in ‘A Companion to World literature’, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire and the Biblical Orient

In the Protestant lands of Enlightenment Europe, in Britain and Germany especially, there were biblical scholars who became Orientalists in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible. By the second half of the eighteenth century there was widespread discussion of the ‘sublimity’ of Hebrew poetry and the Bible’s ‘Oriental’ style was an issue debated by eighteenth-century translators of the Bible: should the Orientalisms of the Hebrew original be rendered literally, as Johann David Michaelis believed, even at the risk of defamiliarizing the biblical text? Or should the Oriental style be tamed to suit the taste of the times? Even though not a reader of Hebrew, Voltaire was certainly sensitive to the ‘Oriental’ style of the Hebrew scriptures and, as a parodist and ventriloquist of genius, he took every opportunity to play with his ‘Oriental’ voice. The Oriental fiction Zadig has a parodic dedication signed by the Persian poet ‘Saadi’, preceded by a bogus ‘Approbation’ naming a Turkish chief judge, a spoof on contemporary French censorship (OCV, vol.30B, p.113-16). This parody of overblown ‘Oriental’ style becomes a philosophical discourse of choice and a favoured device in Voltaire’s high-profile campaigns of the 1760s against religious intolerance, carried on under the slogan Ecrasez l’infâme. Voltaire uses it in De l’horrible danger de la lecture (1765), a hard-hitting attack on censorship, written ostensibly in the voice of an Ottoman mufti, and again in the Epître écrite de Constantinople aux frères (c.1768) and the Avis à tous les orientaux (c.1769), both pleas for toleration and rational religion (OCV, vol.67, p.1-9, and vol.70A, p.1-10). These two polemical pamphlets, untypically, remained unpublished in Voltaire’s lifetime.

Mandement du muphti (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

When Voltaire needs to beg a favour of the duc de Choiseul, then foreign minister, he writes him a letter addressing him in the style of an Oriental potentate (9 January 1767, D13823). A mysterious text entitled Mandement du muphti, published anonymously in French in London in 1772, and claiming to be a translation from the Arabic, is a humorous attack on Voltaire, concluding with the hope that he be impaled in front of the château de Ferney. No one has ever been able to identify with certainty the author of this strange work but, given its bravura use of the Oriental voice, there is every chance that this work is by Voltaire himself, and that he is here parodying his own Oriental voice.

Voltaire clearly relishes the playful possibilities of the Oriental style but his creation of an Oriental voice is emphatically not innocent. Although himself no Hebrew scholar, he was steeped in biblical criticism and unstoppable on the subject of the illogicalities and absurdities of the Old Testament. Voltaire likes to emphasize the fictional, even fairy-tale, quality of the Hebrew scriptures, and so remind his readers of their status as an Oriental text. In 1759 Voltaire wrote to Mme Du Deffand: ‘je vous avouerai que je ne lis que l’ancien Testament, trois ou quatre chants de Virgile, tout L’Arioste, une partie des mille et une nuit’ (D8484). In this respect, Voltaire’s Orientalism takes a radical turn, for in placing the Bible and the 1001 Nights on the same footing as works of entertainment, Voltaire is using an argument from comparative literary history to undermine Christian orthodoxy. Faced by an ancient historical or theological text, Voltaire’s greatest term of abuse is to brand it a ‘fable’: as a character in Jeannot and Colin remarks, ‘Toutes les histoires anciennes, comme le disait un de nos beaux esprits, ne sont que des fables convenues’ (OCV, vol.57B, p.280). In Aventure indienne there is a hilarious description of Bacchus walking across the Red Sea without wetting his feet, these details, the narrator notes, ‘comme on le raconte fidèlement dans les Orphiques’ (OCV, vol.60B, p.253): for Voltaire to imply an equivalence between Bacchus and Moses is amusing (and he was familiar with the current of scholarship since the Renaissance that deliberately sought out comparisons between mythological and Christian figures); but to hint that biblical scriptures might be as fanciful as mythological accounts is seriously provocative. Similarly Ralph Nablow shows that a mythologicial reference in the conclusion to La Princesse de Babylone (OCV, vol.66, p.203) has a distinct biblical echo.

Voltaire, Le Taureau blanc ([London], 1774).

Voltaire’s most daring Oriental work, written when he was 80, is undoubtedly Le Taureau blanc (1773-1774), an Oriental fiction constructed on the fables of the Old Testament. As Roger Pearson writes in his translation of Candide and other stories, ‘As an Oriental tale devoted to the Bible it is unique not only among Voltaire’s stories but also among all eighteenth-century Oriental tales’ (Oxford, 2006). The heroine of the tale, princess Amaside, demands to be entertained by the stories told her by the old serpent, but she turns out to be more discriminating than Scheherazade, and is bored by all his tales from the Old Testament: ‘“I find stories like that boring,” remarked the fair Amaside, who had both intelligence and good taste … “I require a story to be essentially plausible, and not always sounding like the account of a dream. I prefer it to be neither trivial nor far-fetched … But, worst of all, when this sort of nonsense is written in an inflated and incomprehensible style, I find it dreadfully tiresome.”’

In encouraging his readers to regard the Old Testament as an Oriental text, one more among so many, he was taking his habitual relativism to new levels of impertinence, and of radicalism. The Christian Bible might be seen by some as the founding text of world literature – as it is by the Chicago professor of literary criticism Richard Moulton in 1911 in World literature and its place in general culture – insofar as it speaks across linguistic and cultural barriers, and has meaning in many different cultures in many different periods. Voltaire, in his role as literary historian, seems to take pleasure in reminding us that the Word of God is the product of a specific group of Eastern cultures.


Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (Londres [Amsterdam], 1776) (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Voltaire’s researches as a historian, allied to his insatiable literary interests, made him enormously receptive to world literature and it is no exaggeration to characterize him as a pioneering historian of comparative literature. Relativism is at the core of his philosophical approach, so a work like his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (1776) uses the wisdom of imagined Chinese and Indian cultures to comment on religion and politics in France. If his belief in the universality of human reason encourages him to minimize the distinctions between different literary cultures, his determination to undermine the unique position accorded to the ‘fables’ of the Old Testament encourages him to emphasize the ‘Oriental’, non-European, quality of the Hebrew scriptures. Voltaire’s unprecedented literary celebrity earned him a European, and eventually a global, readership. True, it is Goethe who is credited with inventing the word Weltliteratur, much influenced as he was by ‘Oriental’ poets; but it is hard to think that Goethe’s conception of world literature would have developed as it did had it not been for the intellectual example of Voltaire.

Nicholas Cronk

Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment

This contribution to Talking about Voltaire and the Enlightenment is adapted from the author’s article in A Companion to World Literature, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire, like all thinkers of the Enlightenment, was well versed in classical literature and was especially interested in the world literature of his own day, reading English, Italian and Spanish, along with English translations of texts not yet translated into French, such as Camões’s The Lusiads, and the Qur’an in George Sale’s scholarly edition. He is also a historian of European literature. His Essay on epic poetry (1727), which he wrote and published in English before producing a French-language version, is a pioneering essay in comparative European literature, comparing the different European epic poets from Homer to Milton. The Letters concerning the English nation (1733) is comparative in a different way, contrasting tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry in the French and English traditions. This is European literary history for a European audience.

J. B. Du Halde, Description de la Chine (Paris, 1735) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

But Voltaire’s voracious literary appetite extends beyond Europe. His tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine, first performed at the Comédie-française in 1755, has its source in a thirteenth-century Chinese play, translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao, that Voltaire found included in Du Halde’s Description de la Chine (1735), a best-selling work on all aspects of Chinese culture. The philosophes of the Enlightenment were fascinated by the example of Chinese religion and culture, and they drew their information primarily from the Jesuit Du Halde, whose work was translated into English (1736), German (1747), Dutch (1774), and Russian (1774).

Voltaire’s interest in literature beyond Europe is intimately connected with his historiographical interests more generally. Before the Enlightenment, what was called ‘universal history’ in Christian Europe was invariably the history of the Christian world. A well-known example is Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1679, published 1682). Relativism is at the heart of Voltaire’s thought and he resolved to write a history of the world that would present Europe and European culture alongside other continents and cultures, so decentering Europe, and the Christian religion, from its ascendant position. The Essai sur les mœurs, as his universal history is usually known, was begun in the 1740s and appeared in its first full edition in 1756; Voltaire continued to revise the work until his death in 1778. This innovative work recounts the history of China, India, Africa, America, and the Muslim world alongside that of Europe, and the range is unprecedented. The essential ideological aim is clear: Voltaire seeks to sketch the progress of human civilization, which for him amounts to the triumph of reason; the underlying assumption is that all human cultures, whatever their apparent differences, share the same fundamental beliefs in reason and a supreme being (in this he differs from Bayle, who in the seventeenth century had praised China as a sophisticated atheistic culture, unlike that of Europe).

Voltaire’s declared ambition in the Essai sur les mœurs is not just to recite the deeds of kings and warriors but to tell the story of human intellectual endeavour. This attempt to sketch the history of culture – in practice this means, for Voltaire, literature – is remarkably innovative, even if the ambition was hard to realize, given the resources then available to him. So, in chapter 82 of the Essai, devoted to science and the arts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Voltaire contrasts what he sees as the decadence of European culture with the vibrancy of the Muslim world. He discusses the Persian poet Saadi, whom he describes as a contemporary of Petrarch, and equally famous as him (OCV, t.24, p.282-83). Voltaire was able to find ample information about Saadi in d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale (1697); but, more than that, he gives us an extended example of one of Saadi’s poems, 15 lines of exemplary alexandrine verse. Voltaire’s openness to the East turns out to be cultural appropriation on a grand scale, but the gesture was influential none the less. Jaucourt’s article on ‘Poésie orientale moderne’ in the Encyclopédie (1765; vol.12, p.839f.) is lifted directly and explicitly from Voltaire’s text, and quotes in full Voltaire’s imitation of Saadi’s verse.

Voltaire’s predilection for tendentious translation of selected literary passages – what the French call belles infidèles – is a key part of his practice of literary comparativism, and it is not only Saadi who is subjected to this process; Shakespeare and others are rewritten in the Letters concerning the English nation, and a number of Latin poets are translated, more or less freely, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Of course, the ideological gesture is always to the fore: Voltaire is trying to do for literature what he does for religion – to suggest there are universal human values.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Voltaire’s attempt to reconceive universal history. The Essai sur les mœurs was a huge bestseller that reset the intellectual horizons of Enlightenment Europe. To take just one example, Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments, talks about Africans in one example (V.2.9) and on another occasion uses China in a thought experiment (III.1.46), and it is hard to imagine that he would have had such easy recourse to examples like these if Voltaire’s universal history had not paved the way. The work is equally influential regarding the history of world literature. Voltaire’s appropriation of the literature of other cultures for his own uses is a polemical gesture that he makes no attempt to hide. Even so, his determination to include literature in his treatment of world history was highly innovative and, more generally, Voltaire’s eagerness to discuss literature from outside Europe is remarkable and without precedent. As a practitioner of comparative literary study, Voltaire is a pioneer.

Charles Parrocel, Mehemet Effendi, Turkish ambassador, arrives at the Tuileries on 21 March 1721 (Château de Versailles).

Voltaire and the Oriental

In the eighteenth century Europe’s long-standing fear of the Turk was replaced by fascination. Following the failed siege of Vienna (1683) and the ensuing Peace of Karlowitz (1699), the Ottomans sent more frequent embassies to the European capitals, most famously to Paris in 1721 and 1742, where the magnificent spectacle of the ambassadors’ entourage aroused widespread comment and excitement. This eighteenth-century obsession with the Oriental made itself felt in painting and literature, in the applied arts as well as in fashion.

The actor Le Kain in the role of Genghis Khan in Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (1765). Drawing by M. F. A. Castelle, engraved by Pierre Charles Levesque.

The Orient, used in this broad sense, embraces Turkey, Persia, China and India, and the newly fashionable interest in these cultures reinforced Voltaire’s desire to investigate culture beyond the confines of Europe. All of Voltaire’s non-European literary explorations can be loosely grouped under the Oriental label and he became celebrated for his extensive use of this exotic material. Voltaire is pioneering in the extent to which he uses Oriental subject matter in his tragedies: in addition to his play Zaïre, translated into many languages,and L’Orphelin de la Chine there are many more. To some extent, this is a question of local colour: eager to differentiate himself from the classical tragedians of the previous century, who had mainly found their sources in Greek mythology and Roman history, the Orient offered Voltaire the chance to explore new emotional terrain. Furthermore Voltaire was keen to reform French classical tragedy by giving greater importance to costumes and sets and by introducing spectacular scenic effects, and here again, in Sémiramis for example, the Oriental subject matter suited him well. Audiences loved the exotic costumes and the actor Le Kain had himself depicted as Genghis Khan in L’Orphelin de la Chine, complete with feather headdress, in a portrait that circulated widely as an engraving. There are ideological reasons for Voltaire’s choice of Oriental subject matter. He had no interest in writing tragedies about cultures alien to him and his audience, quite the contrary in fact; his desire was not to explore the emotional terrain of an ‘other’ culture, but to use the other relativistically to refract on his own. A case in point is Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète, first performed in 1741. The character Muhammad is portrayed as a despotic religious leader who manipulated the credulity of his followers to achieve his own cynical ends: Voltaire intended the work, of course, as an implicit attack on Christian religious fanaticism and he uses Islam as a cover for Christianity. Eighteenth-century audiences everywhere understood the subterfuge and the play was widely performed. Modern audiences no longer understand this relativistic strategy and the play has become all but unperformable because it is now misunderstood as nothing more than a crude attack on Islam.

Zadig, Antoine-Jean Duclos (1742-1795) after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Kehl, 1784 (Wikimedia Commons).

It is in the field of fiction that the eighteenth century was most open to Oriental influence. Antoine Galland’s reworking into French of the 1001 Nights (1704-1717), itself the basis for translations into other European languages including English and German, enjoyed phenomenal success. Galland’s work in turn had enormous influence on the evolution of fiction all across Europe, and it has been calculated that the number of French ‘Oriental’ fictions published during the eighteenth century numbers nearly 700 (see Marie-Louise Dufrenoy, L’Orient romanesque en France, 1704-1789, Montreal, 1946-1947, i.343). Voltaire is nothing if not reactive to literary fashion, and over an extended period he writes some 11 short fictions making use of this Oriental framework, amounting to nearly a half of his entire fictional production: in order of publication, Zadig, ou la destinée, Le Monde comme il va, Memnon, Lettre d’un Turc, Histoire d’un bon bramin, Le Blanc et le noir, Aventure indienne, La Princesse de Babylone, Les Lettres d’Amabed, Le Taureau blanc, Le Crocheteur borgne. In works like Zadig or La Princesse de Babylone, he plays with the Oriental motif deriving from Galland, always keeping his reader alert in the way he treads a fine line between parody and pastiche.

Voltaire is allergic to fairy tales, and fables in general, because he wants humankind to make use of reason; but he is a master of pastiche and he enjoys playing with the metafictional possibilities that the Oriental tale can create. In the article ‘Fiction’ of his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, he recounts an Oriental tale which purports to be a familiar story but which is in fact Voltaire’s own invented pastiche of the 1001 Nights. The other great narrative advantage of Oriental material was the easy pretext it provided for erotic subject matter and Voltaire makes generous use too of these opportunities. A number of French Oriental fictions, usually with a philosophical sting in the tail, were published as being by ‘M. de V… ‘: Voltaire had, of course, nothing to do with them but, in the minds of his readers, he was closely identified with the genre.

Nicholas Cronk

A continuation of this piece, ‘Voltaire and the Biblical Orient’, will be posted shortly on this blog.

Reviewing Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790: our own personal Enlightener

Around 1980, during a conference in Cambridge on the early history of political economy, I sat at dinner next to the German intellectual historian Hans Erich Bödeker. In the midst of some general chat about the state of things, he asked me whether in England people at large had lost faith in the Enlightenment. Taken by surprise, I said tentatively that I didn’t think most people in England had a view on the Enlightenment either way: the thing, or concept, simply didn’t have that sort of place in our culture.

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment, cover.

Forty years later, I still think that’s broadly true. Newton and Smith may be names to conjure with, but I doubt that they’re generally thought of as Enlightenment intellectuals; Hume, Gibbon and Godwin don’t have a place in our national story remotely comparable to that occupied by Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France. There have been changes. The Enlightenment has a larger presence in British public culture than it had in the last century. One’s more likely to encounter it in TV history programmes, or in the text framing exhibitions, moreover as a feature of our own and not just other nations’ history – even if one’s still more likely to encounter representations of the period foregrounding court intrigue, or ballroom belles, or indeed the East India Company, or the slave trade. Awareness of there being a case against ‘the Enlightenment project’ has spread too, whether in its postmodern, or, more widely, in its post-colonial form.

Ritchie Robertson’s huge but readable Allen Lane/Penguin tome in some ways reflects these changes. The commissioning editor – who, by the author’s account, took a close interest in the shaping of the book – must have believed there to be an anglophone reading public with an appetite for an 800-odd-page survey on this theme (and its respectful reception by the broadsheets suggests that he was right about that, or at least that quite a few readers will be persuaded that this is something that they should have read). And if this loosely centred book has an overall mission, both I and its other reviewers take that to be to dispel the various newish forms of suspicion or disdain that may attach to the category.

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh, annotated (unnamed photographer).

The book occasionally argues its case in this regard. Yes, Hume wrote an objectionable racist footnote, and refused to retract it – but that isn’t all that there was to Hume, or to the Enlightenment. Indeed some of his peers objected to what he said too – otherwise the question of retraction wouldn’t have arisen. ‘Enlighteners’ (as Robertson calls them, Englishing the German Aufklärer) didn’t, he readily concedes, get everything right. But nor did they adhere to any single set of dogmas. On the contrary, they were always questioning and arguing. We may still find value in some of the ideas they came up with, but above all it’s their spirit of enquiry, and their (admittedly uneven) openness to diverse voices that entitles these thinkers to our notice and respect.

Overall, the book develops this case not so much by explicit argument as by the way in which it proceeds. What we’re offered here is, in effect, a reader’s guide to the Enlightenment, one that takes us through the writings in which ideas were advanced and thrashed out. A striking number of pages are devoted to summaries of key or otherwise illuminating texts. And all the illustrations are of title pages of books. Robertson puts us in a position to hear these authors’ voices, their concordances and discordances. And, as we hear them, he’s there with us, or just in front of us, listening, responding. I think this approach works quite well. The texts aren’t too mediated – we get quite close to them. But they are mediated, by an informed, affable, reflective persona, who tells us what strikes him, and sometimes enlarges on what seems to him more or less sensible and usable in what he’s read. He’s our own personal Enlightener.

Thomas Paine, Age of reason, 1793

Title page of the first volume of Thomas Paine’s Age of reason, Paris and London, 1793.

I don’t think the book’s overarching argument is primarily addressed to scholars in the field – more to a wider public, or scholars in adjacent fields, because scholars who work on the Enlightenment already know how polyphonic it was. But they’re not ignored: their work deeply shapes this account. Notably, it underpins many of the book’s second-level interpretative positions. Thus, its conception of the Enlightenment as a European, and not a distinctively French phenomenon, and its insistence on the importance of religion as a context in which Enlighteners worked, critically but also very often sympathetically, with the aim of reforming rather than obliterating. It’s striking that the book has more chapters on religion than on science. Also, last but not least, Robertson goes with the trend of scholarship when he downplays the notion of an ‘age of reason’. Not merely was reason, when lauded, lauded more as critical instrument than as source of certainty, but also, through the century, its dependence on emotion was increasingly stressed. Emotion motivated, coloured and was itself a source of insight. The Enlightenment science of man was a science of an only partly rational being.

Others of the book’s features are more idiosyncratic, reflecting the author’s specific knowledge and interests, or the consequences of the way he set about writing it. The Enlightenment as conceived here was an intermeshed assemblage of relatively formally developed ideas. It didn’t inhere primarily in widely held, let alone popular attitudes and beliefs, though its thinkers were aligned with some broader currents in thought; putatively enlightened rulers are exceptional among non-authors in being given attention (and actually some of them did present themselves as authors, notably Frederick II of Prussia, but also Catherine II of Russia, with her propagandistic Nakaz).

A multilingual edition of Catherine II, Nakaz, 1770

A multilingual edition of Catherine’s Nakaz, St Petersburg, 1770. (PY Rare Books, London)

Scholars have done an enormous amount of work in recent decades on the infrastructure of Enlightenment – correspondence, publications, translations, libraries, academies, societies, universities (sometimes), discussion groups and salons. We hear something about this infrastructure here, but as context, not as a major focus of interest in its own right. Again, what is surveyed here is a pan-European Enlightenment, extending to North America; other parts of the world feature only as objects of enquiry – whereas some scholars have started trying to bring them into the story in other ways. Given that the author is a professor of German, it’s not surprising, though it’s a merit of the book that, among Europeans, he aimed from the start to give Germany as much attention as England and France. It’s noteworthy too, though, that he gives equal weight only to these three. Italy receives a fair amount of attention (Robertson thinks more in terms of language-regions than petty states, so feels free to write about ‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’). Thinkers and writers from other places – Dalmatia, Switzerland, Finland – make interesting cameo appearances. The Netherlands, however, plays quite a small part, and Spain seems almost entirely absent, as if perceived only through the haze of its ‘Black Legend’ (Charles III isn’t among the enlightened rulers investigated). These limits to the book’s vision probably stem partly from the author’s ‘Reader’s Guide’ approach, which allows him to treat equally only works in languages he can comfortably read.

Robertson is a literary scholar – which may help to explain his very textual approach. But that feature of his background probably also helps to explain some of the book’s other distinctive and attractive features. Thus the generic breadth of the texts it covers – here, novels, plays and poems feature alongside essays and treatises. At a recent discussion of the book (on which more in a moment), the historian Anthony La Vopa singled out for special praise the chapter in which Robertson explores in turn Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloïse, and Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, and makes them speak to one another.

The book’s chapters each focus on a different theme about which Enlighteners thought. Sometimes the chapters are a bit miscellaneous, as the book seems to strain for almost encyclopedic coverage. But all in their various ways provide helpful introductions, sometimes excellent introductions, to thought and debate around the given theme. One chapter is devoted to Aesthetics: not a common topic in historical surveys, so the more welcome here.

If the book’s overarching message is primarily aimed at non-specialists, and much of what it says (inevitably) summarises recent scholarship, does it nonetheless have something distinctive to say to historians and literary scholars whose own work focuses on the period? And what will they make of it? An opportunity to test this was provided by a recent panel discussion, organized by Oxford’s interdisciplinary (though mainly historical and literary) ‘Enlightenment Workshop’, a seminar that’s been run during two terms of each year for some thirty years, for most of those years on the premises of the Voltaire Foundation in Banbury Road. Its establishment around 1990, and flourishing since, illustrates once again the rising trajectory of ‘the Enlightenment’ in British life. The Workshop’s range and character also testify to changing conceptions. Voltaire may be the tutelary genius of the place (his bust stands on the mantelpiece in the seminar room), but he presides over notably geographically and thematically varied terrain. It’s suggestive of this diversification that the Foundation’s long-running publication series, Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, has recently been rebranded Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment.

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, Amsterdam, 1738, frontispiece. (public domain)

When the pandemic first raged last year, the Workshop shut up shop. This year it has reconvened, though now of course on-line. The panel discussion of Ritchie Robertson’s book, followed by his impromptu response, and open discussion, marked the Workshop’s first meeting in the new format. As we’ve all repeatedly seen during the pandemic, the on-line format has benefits as well as costs. In this case it opened the way to an audience of unprecedented size: some 120 people watched the discussion live (only one fifth of those from within Oxford). Following its first airing, the YouTube recording was started by several hundred more people (though some didn’t linger long). At the same time, habitual attenders reported feeling uncomfortably distanced from the proceedings – and anonymized, as questions they posed were passed through a moderator who didn’t report (probably scarcely had the chance to register) their names.

There were three speakers on the panel. I started things off. I’m an Oxford historian, a specialist in the period but not primarily in its intellectual life. The other speakers were Karen O’Brien, another Oxford scholar, in her case of English literature, and Anthony La Vopa, an American historian of German social and cultural history, who has presented at the Workshop in the past (indeed, his last book The Labor of the mind: intellect and gender in Enlightenment cultures, was the subject of an earlier panel discussion); in this instance he spoke from his home base in the States. Like the author, the panellists are literary and historical in scholarly orientation, not, for instance, philosophical; indeed, none of the panellists would (I guess) characterize themselves even as intellectual historians. This made it likely that they would approach the book essentially on the author’s own terrain. The normal inclination of any reviewer is to find things to praise and things to criticize. All the panellists spoke warmly of the book’s range and lucidity. But all were also struck by some things the author doesn’t do.

I noted, thus, that the book does strikingly little with an issue that has loomed large in the more general scholarly literature in recent decades: the definitional question, What do we mean by ‘the Enlightenment’? What’s the case for using such a term, and for applying it to particular times, places and people? Jonathan Israel, in his several books (2001-) which play up the foundational role of the Dutch and distinguish a ‘radical’ from a ‘moderate’ Enlightenment, has offered one notable answer to these questions; John Robertson, in his The Case for the Enlightenment (2005), which uses the cases of Scotland and Naples to explore differences in modes of participation in common debates, offers a different vision; Dan Edelstein, in The Enlightenment: a genealogy (2010), adopts an entirely different approach, looking at how some thinkers and writers, initially in France, came to represent themselves and their age as ‘enlightened’. My own view, partly intuitive, partly arising from this scholarship, is that we never will agree on the character and boundaries of an entity termed ‘the Enlightenment’. But the category is not just diffcult to ditch, it also has heuristic use. Several different accounts of ‘the Enlightenment’ each in their own way help us to discern patterns, and to frame worthwhile questions. But even if (as I think), it’s acceptable to mix and match frameworks of reference, yet still (I would maintain) we need to be aware of which one we’re employing at any given time, and what its limitations are.

It’s not obvious that Ritchie Robertson agrees with this. He seems happy to dub people ‘Enlighteners’ without making clear on what basis he does that, and sometimes he reifies the Enlightenment: tells us for example that ‘the Enlightenment agreed’ on some point. At some level this doesn’t matter very much; it’s a mode of writing; he’s mostly concerned to give content to things that fall within generally accepted ‘Enlightenment’ parameters. Still, if there’s no clarity about criteria, the status of claims about what the Enlightened thought remains radically unclear. Do they amount to a definition of Enlightenment – are they specifying a criterion? Or are such statements synthetic, telling us something empirically verifiable about a set of people judged by other, unspecified criteria to be enlightened? Or are we being told that there was a general consensus among all serious thinkers at this time: is ‘Enlightenment’ operating in this instance just as the name of a period? If you’re the kind of reader who asks yourself questions like these, you’ll be left fretting, because they won’t be answered. Responding to this comment, the author said that he felt enough had been written about those issues by others, and it would be boring to harp on about them. Fair enough. I’m sure he has a point. Personally, I do fret a bit about such things.

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank,1819

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank (1819). (British Museum, public domain)

I also noted some fuzziness in the book’s treatment of the Enlightenment’s legacies. The book’s terminal date is 1790, though in fact it carries its account through the French Revolutionary Terror, that is, to 1794 (but not to post-Terror phases of the Revolution). What’s the argument for stopping precisely there, or indeed approximately there? In what senses were early nineteenth-century thinkers and rulers continuators of Enlightenment, or its heirs, and in what senses not? Like many other writers on the topic, Robertson doesn’t argue the case for stopping where he does; he just stops. He often uses Kant’s critical comments on enlightened traditions of thought to wrap up discussions, though – which might seem to imply that things did take a new direction in the last decades of the century, that is, not just because of the Revolution but also because of other shifts in thought. But then, in what sense and through what causal chain are we heirs to the Enlightenment, as the author often implies that we are? All this remains unclear.

Karen O’Brien in her comments picked up on another major theme of the book, the subject of its subtitle, indeed: The Pursuit of happiness. She noted that, as in other respects, and entirely legitimately, Ritchie Robertson builds on themes in recent scholarship. She suggested, however, that while the theme works convincingly as a recurrent motif, arguably – given the central role it’s assigned – it should have been given more analytical and discriminating attention. Robertson occasionally hints that there were a number of very different conceptions of happiness around (this emerges, for instance, in his account of ideas about punishment). But not much is made of these distinctions, or their implications for how thinkers subsequently diverged.

Tony La Vopa expressed appreciation especially of the book’s dialogic staging: the very suggestive way in which it brings different texts into conversation with each other. But he too noted some omissions which struck him as important. He said he was surprised that the book didn’t say more about the modern social theorists who have been among the Enlightenment’s most influential recent critics and interpreters: Horkheimer and Adorno; Foucault; Habermas. They’re noted, but briefly, and scarcely directly engaged with. The author explained that he had initially written more about Habermas at least, but his editor thought that this section should be cut. La Vopa also suggested that something important gets missed if one doesn’t say much about the Enlightenment’s penetration into everyday life. Inasmuch as Enlighteners engaged with religion, for example, they engaged with institutions, concepts and practices which touched people’s lives very deeply, for example, through the institution of marriage.

In his response, Ritchie Robertson largely agreed with panellists’ characterization of what the book does and doesn’t do, while defending or at least explaining his choices in terms of his own interests and his vision of the book’s mission. He said, remarkably, that this massive, very learned and very lucid book had been easy to write. His editor, Stuart Profitt, had somehow discerned that he had it in him, and, confronted with that proposition, he had found that it was true.

In the brief question period that followed, one of the most consequential questions came, to my mind, from the Hungarian historian László Kontler (though it came to Robertson and the panel in anonymous form; only YouTube watchers could see who asked what question). Kontler in his work has been preoccupied with the shape of the Enlightenment across the map: the different forms it took in different places; in what ways differently located thinkers interacted, and in what ways they cross-fertilised. One can’t rise far above the very particular in that line of enquiry without having to think hard about what one might mean by ‘Enlightenment’, in a context in which one’s going to want simultaneously to recognize some kind of unity and to admit difference. Kontler asked if chronologies of Enlightenment differ depending on one’s geographical focus. But this, like other definitional and demarcational issues, largely lies outside the agenda of Ritchie Robertson’s book.

Because the book doesn’t engage very directly with scholarly arguments, it’s not clear that it will reshape how scholars think about their subject. But who knows, perhaps it will, precisely by going around the back of those arguments, and implicitly at least posing new questions, which may help to shape the way a new generation, who grow up with this book, will think.

As to the place that Enlightenment occupies in our public culture: will it get caught up in the culture wars which politicians are reportedly pondering whether to stir up for political gain? Anything is possible, but this doesn’t look likely to me. It may figure in the occasional scrap, as over whether or not we should blacklist Hume. But by and large, wider dissemination of the notion that the Enlightenment was an important phase in history has, as I’ve noted, been associated with the diversification and geographical extension of the term’s scope. With any luck, we’ll keep seeing it as polyphonic, and all of us will find Enlighteners that we want to argue for, as well as ones that we want to argue with. Ritchie Robertson’s book – even if it doesn’t push diversification and geographical extension to anything like their limits – should help to advance this cause.

– Joanna Innes

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790, Allen Lane, 2020.

Our warm thanks to the editors of the Oxford magazine, where this review first appeared (no.429, Fifth week, Hilary term, 2021).

Lumières de Descartes. La première diffusion de la philosophie cartésienne dans le Royaume de Naples

Agatopisto Cromaziano, nom de plume de Appiano Buonafede, écrit dans son œuvre De l’histoire et de la nature de toute philosophie (Della istoria e della indole di ogni filosofia, 1788) que le ‘rétablissement philosophique cartésienne’ avait été un vrai obstacle épistémologique qui avait limité la diffusion de la science de Newton; en effet, pour Buonafede, la philosophie de Descartes était en Italie un mélange de quelques notions cartésiennes (les idées claires, les principes évidents) avec la philosophie de Galileo Galilei. Mais cette présentation de la philosophie de Renato (comme Giambattista Vico appelait Descartes) était fausse ou pour mieux dire elle voulait présenter une histoire de la philosophie italienne toute indépendante de la pensée de Descartes.

Giuseppe Valletta

Giuseppe Valletta (1636-1714), fondateur de l’Accademia degli investiganti.

Paolo Mattia Doria, Giambattista Vico et Giovanni Battista De Benedictis, entre autres, ont décrit Descartes comme un philosophe corrompu et épicurien, mais c’était seulement le premier impact d’une nouvelle philosophie sur une philosophie qui était en difficulté aprés la condamnation de Galilée. D’ailleurs, le rapprochement de Descartes et de l’atomisme antique est courant à l’époque, par exemple Pierre Bayle dans son Dictionnaire historique et critique, dans l’article ‘Démocrite’ écrit que ‘c’est encore Democrite qui a fourni aux Pyrrhoniens tout ce qu’ils ont dit contre le témoignage des sens; car outre qu’il avait accoutumé de dire que la Vérité était cachée au fond d’un puits, il soutenait qu’il n’y avait rien de réel que les atomes et le vide, et que tout le reste ne consistait qu’en opinion. C’est ce que les Cartésiens disent aujourd’hui touchant les qualités corporelles, la couleur, l’odeur, le son, le saveur, le chaud, le froid; ce ne sont, disent-ils, que des modifications de l’âme.’ Et comme pour Pierre Bayle, on peut se demander si Giuseppe Valletta, auteur d’une Lettre apologétique de défense de la philosophie moderne et de ses spécialistes (Lettera in difesa della moderna filosofia e de’ coltivatori di essa, 1791), a l’intention d’attirer l’attention sur les éléments de la physique atomiste – et pour Valletta la philosophie atomiste de Démocrite avait un origine Mosaïque – qu’on a cherché di christianiser en soulignant sur la foi chrétienne de Descartes, en opposition des théories impies, telles que le refus de l’immortalité de l’âme et l’éternité du monde, que Valletta assignait à la philosophie aristotélicienne.

Tommaso Cornelio

Tommaso Cornelio (1614-1684).

Mais pour bien comprendre la première diffusion de la pensée de Descartes, avant tout chose il faut souligner que c’est le philosophe Tommaso Cornelio qui, les derniers mois de l’année 1649, a fait connaître a Naples beaucoup des œuvres des philosophes étrangers, pas seulement Descartes, mais aussi Francis Bacon et Pierre Gassendi et d’autres encore. Et à Naples les textes de Descartes sont étudié dans le cadre d’une querelle anti-péripatéticien et anti-scholastique, qui explore d’un point de vue critique la philosophie de la nature de la Renaissance, en se référant sans intermédiaire aux théories de Kepler, de Galilée, Gassendi, Bacon et Descartes, mais aussi à des auctoritates anciennes tels que Démocrite et Lucrèce, Platon, Pythagore et Epicure. Mais il faut encore souligner que pour gagner contre l’opposition des aristotéliciens dans le Royaume de Naples, la philosophie de Descartes et de ses companions doit démontrer sa supériorité dans la médécine.

Tommaso Cornelio, Progymnasmata physica

Tommaso Cornelio, Progymnasmata physica (Venetiis, F. Barba, 1663).

En effet les questions epistémologiques et scientifiques soulevées par la médecine engagent Tommaso Cornelio et ses amis de l’Accademia degli investiganti,  Leonardo Di Capua et Sebastiano Bartoli, et font gagner à l’Accademia une visibilité européenne dans l’an 1656, lorsque à Naples éclate une épidemie de peste. Cette pandémie marque un moment dramatique dans l’histoire de la ville: la médecine des savants fait l’expérience de son impuissance, tandis que la propagation devient irrésistible à cause de la paresse des autorités compétentes et l’ignorance des savants qui insistaient pour suivre les théories de Galien, contaminées avec des infiltrations astrologiques.

Largo Mercatello durante la peste a Napoli

Largo Mercatello durante la peste a Napoli, 1656, par Micco Spadaro (Domenico Gargiulo) (c.1609-1610 – c.1675).

Et alors, Descartes n’est qu’un auteur, un philosophe, un savant, mais il se transforme en un symbole de la nouvelle philosophie, une nouvelle science que ne veut pas jurer sur les doctrines des anciens (nullius jurare in verba magistri) mais interroger la nature des choses. C’est la libertas philosophandi qui est le but des partisans de la philosophie cartésienne, c’est à dire de la philosophie moderne, et Giulia Belgioioso a suivi le parcours de Descartes à Naples en démontrant que ce n’est pas seulement la philosophie ou les œuvres de René Descartes mais aussi l’image différente du philosophe (La variata immagine di Descartes. Gli itinerari della metafisica tra Parigi e Napoli) qui est un emblème de la nouvelle science de la nature et, après l’épidémie du 1656, un modèle idéal pour les nouvelles recherches qui ont l’ambition de défaire l’émerveillement. Ettore Lojacono (Immagini di René Descartes nella cultura napoletana dal 1644 al 1755) écrit que cette ambition mêle la tradition aristotélicienne avec la pensée de Bacon et Descartes, selon lequel l’émerveillement est un motif de réflexion mais aussi le signe d’un état d’ignorance qui est dû surtout aux préjugés d’Aristote.

Leonardo Di Capua

Leonardo Di Capua (1617-1696).

Gaetano Tremigliozzi et Giacinto Gimma, dans une petite œuvre écrite pour défendre Carlo Musitano et la médecine moderne contre la médecine de Galien (Nuova Staffetta da Parnaso circa gli affari della Medicina pubblicata dal sig. Gaetano Tremigliozzi e dirizzata all’illustrissima Accademia degli Spensierati di Rossano, in Francfort, 1700) rapprochent Descartes et Hippocrate tels que partisans de la science médicale face aux partisans de Galien; modernité philosophique n’est pas seulement suivre la philosophie cartésienne ou baconienne mais, comme beaucoup des Novateurs, adopter une stratégie rhétorique qui a pour but d’isoler le philosophe péripatéticien et le médecin sectateur de Galien, en utilisant l’héritage de la philosophie de Démocrite, Epicure et Hippocrate.

Parere del signor Lionardo di Capoa divisato in otto ragionamenti

Parere del signor Lionardo di Capoa divisato in otto ragionamenti (Naples, 1689), page de titre.

Les premières lumières de Descartes dans l’Italie du Sud étaient lumières d’un physician proche à la révolution scientifique mais elles sont surtout les lumières d’un philosophe qui n’est pas encore devenu le philosophe du Cogito. Et il faut attendre l’an 1755 pour la première traduction de Fortunato Bartolomeo De Felice du Discours de la méthode (Dissertazione del sig. Renato Des Cartes sul metodo di ben condurre la sua ragione e di cercare la verità nelle scienze), traduction presque inconnue et sur laquelle a attiré l’attention Ettore Lojacono, et encore dans cette traduction la métaphysique de Descartes n’a pas la première place, face à la querelle sur l’âme des bêtes: à savoir, la diffusion de la philosophie de Descartes dans le Royaume de Naples a été surtout une réflexion sur la science et la médécine de la modernité.

Fabio A. Sulpizio

Virtue in crisis: Enlightenment perspectives

With frightening speed, COVID-19 has brought about a global crisis. In western democracies the phenomenon was first tracked and measured from a distance, then discovered to be not just ‘their’ problem, but ‘ours’ too. In the process, common behaviours were subjected to new scrutiny; with the virus, moral sentiment proliferated. Formerly anodyne acts were proclaimed to be vices, twinned with equal and opposite virtues. Politicians devised lists of what may and may not be done, and other lists, of what should and should not be done. These lists concerning ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are in fact a plea for civic virtue: if the majority are sufficiently virtuous, the nation will be healed. Striking a utilitarian note, certain commentators began to argue that the good of some must now be sacrificed for the good of all, and current lives, for future prosperity.

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life. Engraving by G. Vidal after Ch. Monnet. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the Enlightenment era, natural disasters, contagions, and wars also fed debates about civic (and other) virtues. Then as now, these were embedded in larger discussions of morality, the common good, and the relation between individual citizens and the polity. For instance, we may recall an exchange that took place between Rousseau and Voltaire, following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Voltaire wrote a poem expressing rage against Optimists who might still argue, with Alexander Pope, that ‘partial evil’ is ‘universal good’. In the case of the Lisbon earthquake, ‘partial evil’ would consist in many thousands of deaths. Yet according to Voltaire’s Optimists (whom he addresses as ‘wretched mathematicians of human suffering’), universal good would be sustained by those very deaths. After all, children could inherit their parents’ wealth, stone masons find employment, and animals feast on rotting corpses. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau objected that the disastrous effect of the earthquake was not tied to some unfathomable cosmic riddle. It was, rather, the consequence of the European tendency to live in large cities, where so many are exposed at once to a single danger; and neither God nor nature, but humanity was responsible for this. More generally, as in his celebrated Second Discourse, Rousseau argues that, as it pursues what (other) philosophes see as progress, civilisation reaps what it sows.

If we can hear echoes of such debates in contemporary life, it is because we are, in important respects, heirs of the Enlightenment. Many of us think about virtue and the common good in an entirely secular way; our moral duties are owed, we feel, not to God, but to our fellow citizens. It makes sense to describe this as a ‘post-Enlightenment’ view. After all, it counted as a bold step when, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle wrote that a society of atheists might be capable of virtue.

But by the mid-eighteenth century, secularisation, linked by the historian Paul Hazard to a ‘crisis of the European mind’, had gained extensive ground. In France, atheistic thinkers suggested that virtuous behaviour should be understood as whatever contributes to the common good in this, the only life we have. Diderot and the materialist coterie of the baron d’Holbach, for instance, tended towards this view. But Voltaire and Rousseau, who abhorred atheism, were secularisers, too; for they rejected ecclesiastical explanations of the Lisbon earthquake (or anything else). In brief, secularisation in France was in the first instance a case of pushing back against the mundane influence of the Church and its theology. We should be wary, however, of casting a few major writers as the isolated prophets of secular modernity. If there was a crisis of the European mind, it was caused by a nexus of cultural, social and historical forces which far exceeded the ‘Republic of Letters’.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2020

James Fowler is the co-editor of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Enlightenment Virtue, 1680-1794, in which contributors analyse complex and shifting relations between religious and civic virtue during the Age of Enlightenment.

During the Revolution, various factions laid claim to civic virtue. Speaking for the Montagnards, Robespierre asserted, not only that virtue was the essence of the (French) Republic, but that Terror could be an ‘Emanation of virtue’. He also echoed those, including Rousseau, who (had) admired the ‘male’ virtues of Sparta, or other ancient republics. Despite women’s participation in the Revolution, the virtues prescribed by the Terror were gendered ones; indeed, what was virtue in a man might be vice in a woman. The Moniteur universel of 17 November 1793 held up three recently executed women as examples of vice: Marie Antoinette; ‘la femme Roland’ (married to the Girondin Jean Roland); and Olympe de Gouges (author of a Declaration of the Rights of Woman). The former queen was a ‘bad mother’ and ‘debauched wife’; as for the others, they had in different ways ‘forgotten the virtues of their sex’. For a brief period, at least, it must have seemed that the state did not distinguish between private, public, and gendered virtue, nor between unvirtuous thoughts and crimes against the nation. Public executions became, as never before, virtue’s instrument.

In moments of national crisis, we tend to inquire, earnestly and urgently, what should count as civic virtue. If only half-consciously, we may turn to notions of the common good, especially utilitarian ones, which we have inherited from the Enlightenment era. Certainly, that period is an excellent place to start if we wish to put the current debate into historical perspective.

– Dr James Fowler, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

The ‘Rights of Man’: Our debt to the Enlightenment?

Barely a week passes without some news story, from somewhere around the globe, involving human rights – most often, sadly, a story of their violation. But how far back does the story of human rights itself go? How deeply rooted in history is the idea that human beings have rights that they can assert against state and other forms of power?

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This is not a question a single book can answer. But Vincenzo Ferrone’s new book The Enlightenment and the Rights of Man goes further than most. It tells the story how, in Western Europe, the notion of the rights of human beings grew and took root, from beginnings in the seventeenth century to the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The starting point is natural law theory. This itself has foundations in antiquity and medieval thought. But it was in the seventeenth century, with figures such as Grotius and Pufendorf, that it was elaborated into a fully worked-out body of thought. The rights of individuals were in fact not one of its primary concerns. But in allowing for a source of law that lay beyond the limits of existing or ‘positive’ law, it made room for an idea of individual rights that pre-dated and could claim priority over the law of the state. It was this idea that later thinkers such as Locke, Barbeyrac, Rousseau, and Filangieri could take up and develop. What was needed, finally, was for talented popularizers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Mirabeau, and Schiller to spread the gospel of the rights of man to public opinion at large – which, as Ferrone shows, they did with gusto, and with considerable success. Through their efforts, the rights of man were entrenched in public discourse, becoming a political cause in the process.

This of course is not to say that the political programme of the rights of man has ever been universally accepted. On the contrary, it has been contested, and has suffered numerous setbacks. Ferrone indeed closes his book with the story of one such defeat.

It concerns the short-lived order of the Illuminati, an offshoot of freemasonry. Committed to radical political aims, it was founded in 1776 and banned in 1784. The fear of its influence, exaggerated for propagandistic purposes by its enemies, led to repressive measures in a number of jurisdictions, both Catholic and Protestant. The excesses of the French Revolution after 1792 did the rest to discredit claims to individual human rights in large parts of Europe. The revival of the idea, in the political struggles of the nineteenth century, lies beyond the scope of the book.

For Ferrone himself the cause of human rights, as formulated in and by the Enlightenment, is far from spent. In a time when many have queried the legacy of the Enlightenment, he delivers a passionate defence of its central claims. But whatever side of the argument you are on, you will find in his book a narrative that gives ample food for thought. The case for the illumination provided by intellectual history is rarely made as forcefully as it is here.

– Kevin Hilliard


What can the Enlightenment teach us about theater and emotion?

What connects the religious zealots who tried to annihilate theater under Louis XIV to an early Enlightenment attempt to hoist theater up as the most complete method of understanding and influencing human behavior? How did theatrical affect transform from a dangerous contamination of the soul to a particular regime of emotional pedagogy that was supposed to help spectators navigate the complexities of society? What happens to spectators when they watch a play and how did notions of that “infiltrating” moment change during a tumultuous, yet understudied, period in French history? And most essentially, why should tensions and debates about theater, spectatorship, and emotion in early modern France interest us now?

In The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, I investigate a departure from discussions of dramatic literature and its undergirding rules to a new, relational discourse on the emotional power of theater. Through a diverse cast of religious theaterphobes, government officials, playwrights, art theorists and proto-philosophes, I show a concerted effort during the early Enlightenment to use texts about theater to establish broader theories on emotion, on the enduring psychological and social ramifications of affective moments, and more generally, on human interaction, motivation, and social behavior.

What emerges in this study is a fundamentally anthropological assessment of theater in the works of anti-theatrical religious writers such as Pierre Nicole, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bernard Lamy, and Armand de Bourbon-Conti. These enemies of the stage – and countless others – argued that emotional response was theater’s raison d’être and that it was an efficient venue to learn more about the depravity of human nature. A new generation of pro-theatrical writers – dramatists and theorists such as Jean-Baptiste (the abbé) Dubos, Antoine Houdar de La Motte, Marivaux, Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, and others – shared the anti-theatricalists’ intense focus on the emotions of theater as well as their conception of theater as a unique and powerful experience on the senses. However, unlike their skeptical counterparts, early eighteenth-century theatrical scientists of man did not view emotion as a conduit of sin or as a dangerous, uncontrollable process. For this group of playmakers, political operatives and theoreticians, performance provided for cognitive-affective moments of feeling and learning about oneself and others.

Theater scholars working in the French tradition have often dated this “transformative” conception of performance to the advent of Denis Diderot’s great theatrical project, the drame (or drame bourgeois). Diderot’s drame was a ground-breaking movement in the history of European theater. The famous philosophe recast the relationship between actor and spectator, invented a new theory of illusion, reoriented the purpose of drama towards intimate community engagement, and proved that sensibility could be a significant tool in creating a virtuous and “enlightened” society. The Emergence of a theatrical science of man reaches back a few generations before Diderot to find a surprising path to his revolutionary project. My book traces a moment when writers began to use plays, critiques, and other cultural materials about the stage to study (and, in their minds, “improve”) the emotional, social, and political “health” of kingdom. I hope that my book will encourage readers to wonder if this conception of theater, emotion, and transformation is still relevant today.

The European Enlightenment never settled any debates on the nature of theatrical emotion, nor did it provide any definitive conclusions about the struggle between absorbing effects and distance as the most effective means for promoting social understanding and change through the performing arts. From Antonin Artaud’s rekindling of theatrical contagion, to the alienating rationality of Brecht’s drama, to attempts to correct injustice and build knowledge through kinesthetic practice in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, more recent theatrical movements have continued to debate the most fundamental question about theater, that is, what can it do? If twentieth-century greats, like Artaud, Brecht, Boal, and others, labor to come to terms with theater’s power, then why should anyone expect to find definitive answers in the eighteenth century? However, if the Enlightenment was indeed a set of discourses, actions, and processes – an “age of Enlightenment” rather than “an Enlightened age”1 – it appears that writers at the time kept true to the Kantian claim by bringing to the forefront, but not forever resolving, the most complex questions of their day.

I invite students and scholars from disciplines as (seemingly) distant as contemporary performance studies to seventeenth-century religious history to read my book. I hope readers will appreciate a unique imbrication of emotion, religion, and theater; one story of how France became modern; one route to the Enlightenment and its theatrical science of man.

– Logan J. Connors, University of Miami

1 Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the question: what is Enlightenment? (1784), in What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-century answers and twentieth-century questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 58-64 (62).

Logan J. Connors is the author of the January volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, an exciting new perspective on the polemics of affect, emotion, and theatrical performance in early Enlightenment France.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Believing in an age of Enlightenment

Over the past few decades historians have justly complicated the narrative of the Enlightenment’s essentially secular nature. The once normative tale of philosophes heroically sparring against religious belief to plant the seed of modern secularism has given way to a landscape that is far more complex and nuanced, challenging the stark difference between the religious and the secular. Whether it be the story of religious reformers seeking to find a via media between traditional articulations of belief and the opinions of radical critics or the investigation of how philosophical perspectives had their genesis in mysticism and theology, scholarship on the Enlightenment has affirmed the important role that religion played in the era’s intellectual and cultural transformations. In so far as the eighteenth century was an age of secularization, it was so partly as a result of the ideas and actions of those who self-identified as proponents of religious traditions, and not just their vocal opponents. [1]

However, scholars have only scratched the surface of religious belief in the Enlightenment. In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, we dig deeper into the manifestations and impact of belief in France and its empire during the long eighteenth century. In their various ways, the contributors demonstrate how belief continued to show up in conversations, representations, and institutions, sometimes in unpredictable ways. They find the persistence of religious belief at the heart of social, cultural, and political life well into the nineteenth century.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, edited by Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins, is the latest volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

At the center of our investigation is the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. Active throughout Catholic Europe, Jansenism found a home in France and impacted ecclesiastical and political life in dramatic ways. At first glance, the penitent and rigorist sensibilities of Jansenists seem far from the progressive and worldly predilections of enlightened philosophes. A deeper look, however, reveals how Jansenist belief contributed to a host of social and political reforms including the critique of absolute monarchy, the promotion of religious toleration, and the articulation of the rights of the citizen and the rule of law. Jansenists present historians with examples of intensely devoted Catholics whose religious beliefs contributed to their engagement with the political public sphere.

Jansenism, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout the long eighteenth century it competed with other voices in the Church over what it meant to believe in an enlightened age. The conflicts wrought by Jansenists and their internecine nemeses, the Jesuits, dominated political conversations in France certainly until the latter’s expulsion and suppression in the 1760s and even after. The tensions between these groups involved disparate ways of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with new epistemologies. In their disagreements about such matters as human nature, society, and politics, they both articulated forms of enlightened Catholicism that competed with one another throughout the eighteenth century.

An anti-Jesuit polemical image showing members of the Jesuits falling through a sieve held by God and shaken by a member of the French parlements, judicial bodies in the Old Regime.

The centrality of this conflict in the conversation about belief and its manifestations during the Enlightenment owes much to the work of Dale K. Van Kley, whose scholarship this volume honors. His work over the past four decades has provided the foundation for all of our contributors’ investigations into French religious life. Van Kley has shown that the competition between Jansenists and the partisans of the Jesuits defined religious culture in France and consequently played a formative role in shaping how belief impacted political and social institutions during the Enlightenment and well into the revolutionary era.

The persistence of the Jansenist–Jesuit struggle complicates the long-standing narrative of France’s progressive secularization beginning in the eighteenth century. It sheds new light on the way that we frame the Enlightenment’s connection with secularization and, therefore, modernity. Amidst increasing voices calling for the separation of social and cultural life from the auspices of the Church, many continued to see religious belief as not only a part of their identities but also an important tool for navigating the social and political spheres of the modern world.

– Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins (Vassar College and Baylor University)

[1] For an example, see the work that Alan C. Kors has done on the history of atheism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe: Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, vol. 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Lighting the Enlightenment

Try googling ‘light and enlightenment’ and see what you find. Buddhism, new age religion, mindfulness, and spirituality top the list. Scroll down and you may come across a few fleeting references to 18th-century theology. But if you are hoping to find discussions of the Enlightenment in the context of lanterns, illumination, and light, you’ll need to search a little harder, or be prepared to be left in the dark.

Was there really no relationship at all between that great movement of 18th-century culture and actual illumination? Between the Enlightenment and light itself? To be sure, scholars have long probed the question in metaphorical terms, showing how a master Christian metaphor was wrested from the hands of those who had once proclaimed Jesus as the exclusive light and way. But to search for some connection between the material practice of lighting and the Enlightenment of the mind appears to have struck many as too basic, or too banal, to spark reflection.

And yet it is clear that light in the age of Enlightenment was more than just a metaphor. We know from the pioneering work of social and urban historians of the night such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, A. Roger Ekirch, Craig Koslofksy, and Alain Cabantous that the long 18th century was, quite literally, a century of lights in the sense that it witnessed an unprecedented conquest of the dark. Marked by a concerted effort to publicly illuminate cities, this conquest took the form of hundreds of thousands of lanterns that were erected in urban centers from Paris to Potsdam. Whereas in 1660, not a single city in Europe possessed regularly illuminated streets, a century later that situation had changed. Voltaire, for one, took note of the transformation, observing ruefully in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) that while ‘five thousand lamps lighted up Paris every night,’ Rome itself was not lighted at all. The symbolism was perfect. Paris had become the true beacon of the world, at once illuminated and enlightened. Rome, not so much.

Although scholars of the Enlightenment have been slow to register these developments, and to ask what impact they may have had on the light of the times, that is beginning to change. Social and urban historians such as Marco Cicchini and Sophie Reculin have been mapping the topography of the 18th-century lighting revolution with ever-greater precision, showing how light moved from a luxury to a necessity in the 18th century, and how new urban spaces around theatres, public promenades, and squares were transformed by illumination. Meanwhile, literary scholars such as Marine Ganofsky have analyzed (in this very blog) the ways in which illumination transformed the night into an erotic adventure-zone, a space free of fear and open to pleasure, where libertines could frolic. And in my own work I have sought to explore the relationship between illumination and Enlightenment in a number of ways.

An enlightened history of the lantern by a society of men of letters, by Jean-François Dreux du Radier. Although the work was written as a satire, it effectively contributed to what was a new Enlightenment genre: the cultural and technical history of lighting practices. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

For one thing, a surprising number of Enlightenment figures were themselves directly interested in lighting and illumination. Benjamin Franklin, the son of a tallow chandler, took a keen interest in lantern design and helped to organize the public lighting of the city of Philadelphia. Lavoisier penned a treatise on the best means to light a great city like Paris, and experimented constantly with fuels, wicks, and the angles of reflection and refraction in the light emitted from lanterns. Voltaire, too, like Marat and Madame Du Châtelet, experimented with flames. Diderot wrote about the history of candles. Jefferson studied whale oil, among the 18th-century’s most important lighting fuels. Goethe not only studied optics, but also concerned himself with the intricacies of stage lighting.

Just as importantly, a host of lesser lights pursued Enlightenment through illumination. Some, like the inventor and engineer Bourgeois de Chateaublanc, devoted their energy to technical matters, like perfecting the new reflector lamps, the réverbères. Others, such as Jean-Francois Dreux du Radier and his ‘society of men of letters’, wrote satirical histories of lanterns, mocking the pretensions of a new genre, the comparative history of light. Still others, like Pierre Tourtille-Sangrain or Charles de Rabiqueau, pursued the business of illumination as the counterpart to the business of Enlightenment. As the latter declared on his calling card, advertising his services as an entrepreneur de l’illumination, Rabiqueau could ‘enlighten the mind as well as matter.’

‘He enlightens and illuminates, both matter and the mind’! The calling card of the inventor, scientist and entrepreneur de l’illumination Charles de Rabiqueau, advertising his services and spectacles at his shop on the rue St. Jacques in Paris. © Archives Nantes.

And that is precisely the point. Enlightenment and illumination went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, public lighting created the conditions for a vastly expanded urban sociability that was central to the emergence of the public sphere. Shops stayed open longer, theatre curtain times were pushed back, and restaurants and cafés served long after dark, later than ever before. Salons and visiting hours were also extended into the night, meaning that enlightened discussion was very often conducted after the sun went down. Street lighting led the way, creating the appearance (if not always the reality) of greater safety and rational control over the environment, combatting not just crime but superstition and fear.

Light, in these respects, was a vivid symbol of progress, and contemporaries were highly aware that its implementation set the enlightened apart. As Anne-Louis Leclerc du Brillet observed typically in a draft history of street lighting written sometime in the 1730s, ‘The usage of public lighting in cities does not seem to have been established in any nation previously – even in those that passed for the most civilized (les plus policés).’ Public lighting, in short, was unique to the modern age, and it reflected perfectly the novel sense that contemporaries were living in a novel time, a singular epoch of progress and advancement. To illuminate the night was to begin to understand and control what had long been considered another realm, dispelling darkness and the superstitions it fostered.

Not all, to be sure, welcomed the light. A dialectic of illumination was the counterpart to the dialectic of Enlightenment, giving rise to protests and a European (and North American) wave of lantern smashing over the course of the 18th century. When viewed from this perspective, lanterns could seem a little bit like surveillance cameras; they were not always welcome. And yet by the last third of the 18th century, the evidence is strong that proponents of illumination were overcoming their less enlightened antagonists. It is telling that a good number of the cahiers de doléances written up in France before the convening of the Estates General in 1789 asked for more light, not less. Like Goethe on his deathbed, the Enlightened and illuminated citizens of the age desired mehr Licht.

– Darrin M. McMahon

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Dartmouth. His article, ‘Illuminating the Enlightenment: Public Lighting Practices and the Siècle des lumières’, appears in the August 2018 edition of ‘Past & Present’.