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Prof. Ritchie Robertson publishes book on the Enlightenment

1 December 2020

Ritchie Robertson (Schwarz-Taylor Professor of German Language and Literature), tells us about his new book, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790, which was published in November by Allen Lane:

‘Soon after becoming Taylor Professor of German, I gave an inaugural lecture on conspiracy theories involving Jesuits and Freemasons, which flourished in the eighteenth century. A version was published in the Times Literary Supplement. Entirely unexpectedly I received a letter from Stuart Proffitt, the director of Penguin Books, asking me to write a general account of the Enlightenment for the educated reader. Realising that it would take me well outside my comfort zone, and that I intensely wanted to do it, I agreed, and the result of five years’ work is now available in a handsome form (the paperback should follow in 2021).

‘Mine is a broad, international account of the Enlightenment. Scotland, England, Germany and France receive most space, but other countries, especially Italy, appear too, and I was especially pleased to discover a Finnish Enlightener, Anders Chydenius (who wrote in Swedish).

‘I have tried to dispel the hoary cliché of ‘the Age of Reason’. The rationalism of the seventeenth century, which saw mathematical proof as the model of knowledge, was displaced by an increasing emphasis on sympathy, sensibility, feeling. By the late eighteenth century, thinkers were exploring the relation between mind and body, thought and sensation, and seeking the ideal balance between the two. Enlighteners were not rationalist, but rational and reasonable; ‘reason’ is often equivalent to ‘good sense’.

‘I have also tried to obtain and convey some faint sense of what it was like to live in the Enlightenment. Life was much less secure than now. Medical science made slow progress. Travellers normally took pistols with them for fear of highwaymen. Supernatural belief was declining, but atheism was rare: many people, including some Catholic clergy, sought to reform religion by placing the emphasis on morality. The public was keenly interested in science. Experiments were normally conducted in public. Isaac Newton’s model of an orderly universe was widely accepted. Yet even the boldest estimates took the earth to be 70,000 years old at the very most.

‘In such ways I have tried to express the difference of the past. We readily, and on the whole rightly, appeal to ‘Enlightenment values’. But Enlightenment thinkers were very different from modern liberals. So I have tried to avoid what historians call ‘presentism’ and present the Enlightenment in its own terms, drawing on a wide range of primary sources in various languages. Readers must judge whether it works.’