The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

This magisterial history—sure to become the definitive work on the subject—recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness.

One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: religious tolerance, freedom of thought, speech and the press, of rationality and evidence-based argument. Yet why, over three hundred years after it began, is the Enlightenment so profoundly misunderstood as controversial, the expression of soulless calculation? The answer may be that, to an extraordinary extent, we have accepted the account of the Enlightenment given by its conservative enemies. Ritchie Robertson goes back into the “long eighteenth century,” from approximately 1680 to 1790, to reveal what this much-debated period was really about.

Any account of the Enlightenment must be in large part a history of ideas. But Robertson argues that it is not solely a philosophical movement; the Enlightenment saw the publication of the Encyclopédie, which is not only a historical and philosophical compendium, but also an illustrated guide to all sorts of contemporary machinery, handicrafts, and trades aimed to improve people’s lives in immediate and practical ways. Robertson chronicles the campaigns mounted by some Enlightened figures against specific evils such as capital punishment, judicial torture, serfdom and witchcraft trials, featuring the experiences of major figures like Voltaire and Diderot with ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary moment. Robertson gives due attention to philosophical and theological debates, but also looks to literature, music, and the visual arts as prominent means of conveying enlightenment ideas.

In seeking to correct one-sided views of the Enlightenment, Robertson ultimately puts forward his own. He does not reduce this transformative period to a formula, but instead makes the claim that indeed the Enlightenment was an attempt to increase human happiness, and to claim that happiness was possible in this world, without needing any compensatory belief in a better one beyond the grave.

Title:The Enlightenment
ISBN:9780062410658
Format Type:

    The Enlightenment Reviews

  • J Earl

    The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 by Ritchie Robertson is a very clearly written look at this important period with a shift of emphasis from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursui...

  • William

    A big study of the Enlightenment with emphasis on England, Scotland, France and Germany. Robertson begins with a chapter on the Scientific Revolution and then proceeds thematically, with each chapter ...

  • Danny

    At about 1,000 pages, this magisterial study, at the very least, maintains its value as a source for abounding synopsis. It has its shortcomings, and there are a few areas with which I would quibble. ...

  • Scott Carter

    Ritchie Robertson. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. New York City: Harper, 2020.Robertson gives an overview of the Enlightenment era and the shifting human purpose to that of th...

  • Aviva Dierckx

    Helaas is de Verlichting iets dat tegenwoordig verdedigd, gered, uitgelegd moet worden aan een heleboel mensen die haar als een afgesloten stuk geschiedenis/een karikatuur/een westers uitvindingetje b...

  • Wim Bildad

    I didn't quite finish the book. I stopped after one third. Lots of facts and details which one will forget quickly anyway. But i am missing the synthesis and the overview. When going deep in the perio...