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The foundations of the modern world
on 1 July 2013
Dr Padgen's thesis opens with a brief survey of some of the most influential thinkers, whose names are today in some way associated with the Enlightenment: Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Kant and the encyclopaedist philosophers D'Alembert and Diderot, amongst others. There follows a brief discussion of Scholasticism with a nod to Aquinas and the influence of his thought, before describing the demise of Scholasticism as a mode of higher learning at the hands of 17th and 18th century thinkers. This volume is therefore concerned with theology, philosophy and early scientific thought and their influence in changing society, both in Europe and elsewhere.
Dr Padgen then drafts a series of vignettes, virtually a blow-by-blow account of what the main protagonists were thinking, what was written and said, some of the difficulties they encountered. At times the detail is almost mind-numbing, yet given even a casual reading of this account, one is left in no doubt as to how we got from the end of the Thirty Years War to the present day, in philosophical, confessional, scientific and social terms.
If there can be said to be a defining moment in the unfolding of the Enlightenment drama, to borrow William Gibson's concept of `when it changed', that moment was almost certainly the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The last of the malignant wars of religion, the Thirty Years War, left much of Europe utterly devastated, perhaps even beyond the combined effects of WW1 and WW II, tens of millions died and the population of the parts of Europe affected fell by perhaps one third. In 1644 at the close of the war, the principal combatants and other interested parties, spent the next four years debating and arguing, before reaching an accord, the Peace of Westphalia. This accord sought to lay to rest confessional differences and hatreds, that had given rise to a long series of wars fought over religion and in simple terms it more or less guaranteed freedom of conscience and tolerance in matters of belief.
The change in the intellectual atmosphere occasioned by the Peace of Westphalia, virtually guaranteed that the claims of religion, the mode of understanding the natural world and a belief in an over-arching, supreme, being, or deity, resulted in both robust challenges and simple ridicule. Ironically one of the most important figures, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), a figure scarcely known today, was a major influence on several later commentators, both in the UK and on the Continent. Despite this, it seems that many, perhaps most proponents of emerging new ideas, were uncomfortable with a purely material universe, one notable exception being the Scottish philosopher, David Hume.
The new found freedom of enquiry came at a price: several thinkers were imprisoned, at least one went into exile and yet others had their published works burned by the public executioner at the instigation of sundry authorities, whereas David Hume was unable to secure a university post on account of disagreements regarding his opinions. Nor have such practices been allowed to fall into disuse: in the late 1940's the FBI seized and burned the works of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, and unless one enjoys a certain social or academic cachet, getting a letter either critical of the movement, or deemed an Enlightenment heresy, published in the Guardian or the Observer, never mind scientific journals, is a near impossibility. It is a sobering fact that there remain many parts of the world where to this day, such freedoms do not exist.
The author has chosen to allocate chapters to what he sees as the main themes of the Enlightenment, thus, after a preface and an introduction, both quite detailed, we have:
Chapter 1, `All Coherence Gone' describes the intellectual free for all which can be said to start with Hobbes and more or less ends with Kant, during the course of which, pretty much all received wisdom current up until c. 1650 was subject to searching critiques, though not necessarily for the first time.
Chapter 2, ` Bringing Pity Back In', treats of the debates about the nature of mans rights, the philosophical basis of the Enlightenment, showing links to the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics, as well as making comparisons with Scholasticism.
Chapter 3, `The Fatherless World' deals with the attacks on, and effective demolition of religious ideas and the introduction of a new, human based observational science, as a means of understanding the world.
Chapter 4, `The Science of Man', considers the nature of man, of how little man knew of himself, in contradistinction to the sciences, in which latter significant progress had been made in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The rise of humanism is covered, in the sense that most thinkers started from the assumption that all humans have certain things in common, regardless of race, culture, customs, beliefs and laws.
Chapter 5, `Discovering Man in Nature', is essentially concerned with what we now know as anthropology, the growing awareness of what was being lost in the burgeoning waves of colonial expansion, as other cultures were variously oppressed, enslaved and exterminated. The realisation too, that what was being reported by travellers was both partial and biased, being concerned to titillate a European readership rather than attempting honest reportage.
Chapter 6, `The Defence of Civilization' is perhaps more diffuse in it's focus, with the largest part being given over to Chinese civilization as seen from a European perspective and comparisons made, largely on the basis of ignorance and misinformation, between the culture of Europe and that of China.
Chapter 7, `The great Society of Mankind' is basically a survey of what constituted a civil society, reflections on the emergence of ideas of nationhood, liberty, democracy and an all-inclusive view of humanity.
Chapter 8, `The Vast Commonwealth of Nature', returns to the concepts of `sympathy' and `affectivity' which appear at various points in the text, qualities deemed to be universally embodied in human beings and seen to be the source or cause of various social groupings, from the clan to the nation or state and perceived in some quarters as a consequence of natural law. The common thread running through these reflections is the idea of the civitas maxima or Supreme State, widely acknowledged as a utopian chimera. Under this heading too are ruminations on war, revolution and related matters.
Chapter 9, `Conclusion: the Enlightenment and its Enemies.' This, the final chapter, continues in much the same vein as all of the foregoing, in that there is still much back referencing to what this or that earlier commentator said, and it is only with some difficulty that the author manages to detach himself from the 18th century, from Kant and Herder and finally arrive in the 21st century. I leave it to readers to decide whether or not the good doctor has succeeded in showing why the Enlightenment is still important.
This is a very considerable body of work, meticulously researched and a veritable vade mecum of all that anyone might reasonably wish to know of this historical Western social-philosophical project. Dr Pagden writes well and persuasively, yet despite this, it is a rather clever book that might be accessible to a far wider readership at half the number of pages, without necessarily losing the thread of it's historical evolution; indeed that thread might thereby become much easier to follow. Although not the fault of the author, the text would benefit enormously from the services of a competent proof-reader, not to say those of a sympathetic editor.
The Enlightenment project was, and to a large extent, remains the preserve of an elite, most of whom did not and do not have to deal with the fallout, the downside, the negative effects arising in consequence of the distorted realisation of utopian ideals. Horkheimer and Adorno's `Dialectic of the Enlightenment', mentioned briefly in the text, is an early, (1947), and powerful critique of those ideals.
The scope of this book is such, that any review is bound to fall short of doing the work full justice, so that the admittedly brief and telegraphic account given here is a reflection of that fact.