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The Enlightenments

The famous 18th Century Enlightenment was actually different things in different places. Toni Vogel Carey on a tale of several cities.

The Enlightenment, we have been taught, was the Age of Reason, with a capital R. And it was “primarily a French phenomenon,” to quote a typical source. Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, Rousseau – these were the star players on the eighteenth-century stage. And while an occasional scholar might swim against the tide, it is only now that the tide itself shows signs of turning. A wave of recent scholarship, by Roy Porter, Emma Rothschild, Jonathan Israel, Gertrude Himmelfarb and others, is stripping the received word of its near-mythic status, and revealing it to be more like a near-myth. Ironically, eighteenth-century scholars would have been the first to question such truisms. We assume that academic freedom today is without equal in history. But in some respects scholarly inquiry in those days was actually freer – less specialized, professionalized and institutionalized. For one thing, the university was not where the real action in higher learning was taking place. Even in science – indeed, especially in science (or ‘natural philosophy,’ as it was then called) – the cutting edge belonged not to the universities, but to independent scholars, who put more stock in ‘useful knowledge’ than in college degrees or academic titles. They met informally in coffee houses and pubs, and in learned societies, whose journals might also publish their papers. Members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham, England were “outside the Establishment,” Jenny Uglow tells us, but that actually “proved a real strength” by unfettering them from “old traditions” and “stuffy institutions.” Her Lunar Men – James Watt (the steam engine), Josiah Wedgwood (pottery), Matthew Boulton (manufacturing), Joseph Priestley (oxygen) and Erasmus Darwin (doctor, inventor, evolutionist grandfather of Charles) – were not born to the manor, or to the academy, but to ‘yeomen’. Yet, independent philosophes like these, meeting spontaneously in geographically-dispersed “wise clubs” (the name of a learned society in Aberdeen, Scotland), formed an International Republic of Letters that was simply unprecedented in history. Diderot welcomed Hume to Paris with the words: “My dear David, you belong to all nations, and …I flatter myself that I am like you, a citizen of the great city of the world.”

There is no disputing that French was the lingua franca of eighteenth-century culture, and Paris the capital. And it is well-known that English-speaking notables like Hume and Benjamin Franklin were fervent Francophiles. But by the same token, French figures like Montequieu and Voltaire were positively infected with ‘Anglomania.’ It makes sense, then, that Condorcet identified “the forefront of world civilization” with “the Atlantic community,” by which he meant Britain and America as well as France.

The centuries-old university system, still under the wing of the Church, was temporally left behind when attention shifted from “the beatific life after death,” as Carl Becker puts it, to “the good life on earth.” Eighteenth-century thinkers found “the laws of God” not “in Holy Writ, but in the great book of Nature, open for all mankind to read.” Their ‘religion’ was Newtonian science, and its corollary, the uniformity and universality of human nature, which made eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism possible. Amidst their experiments and explorations, they took on the truly fundamental questions, and made it their business to answer them. They could tolerate anything except untolerance, tyranny and superstition. And against these “infamous things,” to quote Becker, that subvert free inquiry, Reason and Nature stood united as twin pillars of Enlightenment strength.

But there was also a sense in which reason was pitted against nature, by being ranked above it, and deemed capable of controlling the passions. This was Reason with a capital R, and to the rationalistic French, it was like honey to the bee. The key term philosophe’ is characterized in Diderot’s Encyclopedie by the telling motto, “Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian.”

The British were a tad less exuberant about the powers of Reason. For them, what drives us is instinct and desire, without which we wouldn’t bother to get out of bed. As Hume said straight-out, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

At this juncture the French parted company with the British Enlightenment – or Enlightenments, I should say, since there were at least two: the English branch of Alexander Pope and Bernard Mandeville, and the Scottish school of Francis Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith, et al. To some extent, each nation had its own Enlightenment story, told by its own philosophes, Kant in Germany being a case in point.

Human Nature

The split over French Reason and British Sentiment went hand-in-hand with a disagreement about human nature, and whether it is basically good, or bad, or both, or neither. John Locke opted in the seventeenth century for the last alternative, with the striking idea that at birth the mind is a tabula rasa, or blank slate. Eighteenth-century thinkers then proceeded to divvy up the other three possibilities.

To the French, if humankind is not entirely virtuous, it is “not natively depraved,” to quote Becker again. And guided “solely by the light of reason and experience,” man is capable of ‘perfecting’ this earthly existence.

To English thinkers like Mandeville and Pope, on the other hand, the passions are simply ‘Modes of Self-Love,’ troublemakers that create discord (‘faction’) among individuals and nations alike. Mandeville famously dismissed virtue as nothing more than “the offspring of flattery begot upon pride.” In other words, human nature is natively depraved. What rescues us from a sorry end is the phenomenon of counterpoise. As Mandeville emphasizes repeatedly in Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, “the dextrous management of a skillful politician” can create a good whole out of pad parts, by arranging the parts that they neutralize each other’s effects. Thus his trenchant couplets:

Though every part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise…
The worst of all the Multitude
Did something for the Common Good.

Counterpoise need not be a product of conscious design (‘dextrous management’); it can also come about naturally, as in a Newtonian equilibrium between centripetal and centrifugal forces. Mandeville trades on both senses, suggesting in Part II of the Fable that by a natural evolutionary process, people develop the habit of subordinating their selfish desires to the general welfare. His relentless use of paradox and satire confounds even the most distinguished scholars about which is the real Mandeville. If his primary aim was not simply to annoy absolutely everybody, was this Dutch-born English psychiatrist at heart a follower of Reason, like the French, or of Nature, like the Scots?

The Scottish thinkers, like their French confreres, found plenty of reason for optimism; it’s just that their reason was not Reason. Their philosophy rests on the premise that nature steers us in a positive direction, not the other way around. As Reid dryly notes:

Reason, if it were perfect, would lead men to use the proper means of preserving their own lives and continuing their kind. But the Author of our being hath not thought fit to leave this task to reason alone, otherwise the race would long ago have been extinct.

Sensibly enough, the Scottish thinkers viewed human nature as a mixture of good traits (“friendship, generosity, and public spirit,” to cite Hume’s list) and bad (“avarice, self-love, and vanity”). But where Mandeville believed in a Hobbsean a Hobbesian who believed in a dog-eat-dog existence, they chose the kinder, gentler Lockean worldview. Importantly, they considered self-interest inherently cooperative as well as competitive. And just as importantly, they believed that “the wisdom of nature” as Adam Smith puts it, “makes ample provision for remedying many of the bad effects of the folly and injustice of man.” Thus, in pursuing nothing but our own self-interest, we tend, by an ‘invisible hand,’ to promote the good of society, and to do so more effectively than when we actually try to promote it.

Being aware of the bad as well as the good, Smith didn’t trust to laws of nature alone, but insisted on the need for laws of justice. The late Robert Nozick argued in Anarchy, State and Utopia, though, that laws of justice (a ‘minimal state’) can also emerge by a natural, evolutionary, invisible-hand process. He must have meant Common law, as opposed to Statute law, which is deliberately written by legislators. Interestingly enough, the law contains its own dichotomy between Nature and Reason.

The main point of the invisible-hand principle is that private and public interest are not inherently at odds. And then there is little reason to suppose “the art of government,” to quote A.O. Lovejoy, “lies in contriving an artificial identification” between the two. Dugald Stewart, Smith’s first biographer, noted his disdain for the “complicated checks and restraints which swell the municipal codes of most nations.” That sounds like a jab at counterpoise; and Smith had harsh words indeed for Mandeville, whose barbs were aimed directly at Hutcheson, Smith’s mentor, and at Lord Shaftesbury, Hutcheson’s mentor. Matters are very complicated, though, because Smith got some of his most important material directly from Mandeville, including the seminal notion of the division of labor. And both took as their centerpiece the astonishing idea that individual self-interest is the natural and best route to societal well-being.

While the Scottish thinkers believed in Nature, this was by no means a ‘primitivist’ movement. The universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow during this period far outclassed those of Oxford and Cambridge. Edinburgh was known as the ‘Athens of Great Britain’, and as Uglow notes, Birmingham seemed at times like “an intellectual colony of Scotland.” Even among the general population, Glenn Morrow reports, there was a level of sophistication and an “appreciation for learning” unparalleled anywhere in Europe. In America too, Gladys Bryson tells us, college course catalogues were filled well into the nineteenth century with Scottish names – Hutcheson, Reid, Smith, Adam Ferguson, Dugald Stewart, and Hume, of course, whose skeptical ideas were anathema, and so cited everywhere. The Scottish school rose to dominance in America due to men like John Witherspoon, who left Scotland in 1768 to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), and thence a mentor to James Madison, and a Signer of the Delcaration of Independence. All things considered, it is not hard to see why Arthur Herman claims that the Scottish Enlightenment, while “less glamorous” than the French, was “more robust and original” – and indeed, “more important.”

First Things First

It seems clear by now that the Enlightenment can hardly be called ‘the age of Reason’ unless it was “primarily a French phenomenon.” But all else aside, many of the leading French figures didn’t step onto the eighteenth-century stage until midway through it. Diderot’s first work appeared in 1745, Rousseau’s literary career dates from 1750, and Condorcet was not born until 1743. True, Voltaire came into the limelight during the 1740s; but by then, Israel contends, “the real business was already over.”

Montesquieu and Voltaire were born before the turn of the century, and Peter Gay places them, along with the Scottish Hutcheson, in the first wave of the Enlightenment. But Shaftesbury and Mandeville came along a generation earlier; and once we take that into account, the whole picture starts to shift. Gay has received much of the blame for skewing it, but the French bias hardly originated with his two-volume Interpretation of 1967; it is even more exaggerated, I think, in Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, which came out in 1932. To be sure, no one covers everything. Israel, whose thesis is that the Enlightenment was, ultimately, a Spinoza phenomenon, is praised for having “followed up every byway,” yet he seems to omit any mention of Hutcheson or Adam Smith. Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments, another prodigiously scholarly work, is silent about Mandeville. And doubtless this short piece has its own glaring omissions.Bacon, Locke and Newton are the trinity typically cited as the precursors and prime movers of the Enlightenment. And interestingly, Hume and Smith each name Bacon, Locke, Shaftesbury, Mandeville and Hutcheson as their intellectual forebears; not a French name in the bunch. It is not my aim to de-throne France in order to enshrine some other country in its place. If forced to pick sides, though, England seems the most likely candidate for this honor, and Shaftesbury (1671-1713), whose education was overseen by Locke, the most likely patriarch.

The kindest, gentlest of all the eighteenth-century thinkers, Shaftesbury believed that benevolence pervades human nature, and indeed the entire cosmos. This set the tone for the French and Scottish Enlightenments; and as for Mandeville, he found Shaftesbury’s innocence and optimism so repulsive that they ‘inspired’ him, perversely, to put pen to paper.

Shaftesbury’s role in siring the Scottish Enlightenment is straightforward. He made ‘common sense’ a philosophical term, which gave rise to the Common Sense school of Reid and Dugald Stewart. He also coined the term ‘moral sense’ which was adopted and developed by Hutcheson, to the point where the Scottish Enlightenment became known alternatively as the Moral Sense school.

What may come as the real surprise is Shaftesbury’s paternal role in the French Enlightenment. We have it from Condorcet that “Voltaire’s crusading spirit was awakened by his trip to England,” to quote the historian Dorothy Schlegel, and that “Shaftesbury’s benevolence” was its “motivating force.” For a time in 1744, Rousseau, Diderot and Condillac dined together weekly. And what did Diderot talk about at these gatherings? Doubtless what was “uppermost in his mind,” Schlegel continues – Shaftesbury. After all, his first published work, due out the following year, was a translation of Shaftesbury’s Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit.

In a fickle about-face, however, the French came down from their Shaftesburian ‘high,’ and by the end of the 1770s, Schlegel reports, Diderot had “utterly demolished” Shaftesbury’s notion of virtue. After that, the French skies only got darker, until, following the French Revolution, the Jacobins closed the doors of the French learned societies in 1793, which effectively turned out the lights on the Enlightenment.

Happy Endings

Unlike the story in France, the eighteenth century ended spectacularly in America, the golden child of the Enlightenment, which sagely borrowed from the French, English and Scottish to form its own philosophy, and its own form of government. By no accident, both Dugald Stewart and Condorcet were elected members of the “American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge,” started by Ben Franklin in 1743 – the year Condorcet was born. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which appeared in the banner year 1776, was popular in America even before it caught on in Britain. Counterpoise provided inspiration for a strong central government to neutralize conflicts among the several states, with checks and balances to equalize power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Smith in Scotland, Mandeville in England, Madison in America – all were seeking the right balance, Gay says, between “private rights and public Happiness.” And all saw reason to suppose “the worst of all the multitude” would do something for, or at least not much against, the common good.

If the Enlightenment was not, in fact, primarily a French phenomenon, why have we been led to think it was? Part of the answer is that the French had both the last and loudest word. As Gay and the others have noted, the French served as ‘propagandists’ for the Enlightenment, while its ‘patron saints and pioneers’ were largely British. Since the eighteenth century, the doctrine that the Enlightenment was the Age of Reason has been perpetuated by the teaching and (text)books of historians. And as historians are intellectuals, who would naturally flock, as birds of a feather, to those who emphasize the mind over the instincts and feelings, Reason over Sentiment. It makes sense, then, to suppose that unthinkingly (so much for Reason) the French Enlightenment became for them, and their students, and then their students, the Enlightenment simpliciter. That would explain the “posthumous victory of the French over the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment,” which as Irving Kristol points out, has itself been “a major event in the intellectual history of the West.”

Today English is the lingua franca of world affairs, and America the capital. Diderot and the Encyclopedie are familiar mostly to literati, whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica, launched in Edinburgh in 1768, remains a staple of ‘useful knowledge,’ on- and off-line. It is a stretch to say that history might hang on a single letter of the alphabet. Yet it is not small thing that the French placed their faith in Reason with a capital R, while the English-speaking peoples opted for the more modest, lower-case version. Not only were their revolutions a lot more successful, both in the short and the long term, but even more to the point, their Enlightenments were a lot more reasonable.

© Toni Vogel Carey 2003

Toni Vogel Carey holds a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University. Formerly a professor, she now serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, and as a US Editorial Advisor to Philosophy Now.

• This essay is a revised version of papers presented in March, 2000 at the conference of the Southeast Association of Eighteenth-Century Studies, and in October 2000 at the conference of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars.


Finding out more

The Portable Enlightenment Reader, ed. I. Kramnick (Penguin, 1995).

• Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers(Yale University, 1932).

• Gertrude Himmelfarb, ‘The Idea of Compassion: The British vs. the French Enlightenment,’ Public Interest (Fall, 2001): 3-24.

• Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001).

• Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Harvard University, 2001).

• Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2002).

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