The Enlightenment Vol 1: The Rise of Modern Paganism Paperback – 4 Oct 1995
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Extraordinary and brilliant. -- R. R. Palmer
Extraordinary and brilliant.--R. R. Palmer
Extraordinary and brilliant. --R. R. Palmer
Extraordinary and brilliant. --R. R. Palmer"
Gay's picture of the philosophes is persuasive, put forward with profound scholarship and ease of style. --George L. Mosse"
About the Author
Peter Gay (1923-2015) was the author of more than twenty-five books, including the National Book Award winner The Enlightenment, the best-selling Weimar Culture, and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time.
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Top Customer Reviews
I learned an immense amount about this period here, perhaps the most pivotal of the modern world. While a bit much, if taken in the right way it is a great guide to many of the debates that continue to this day and that originated with these intellectuals. However, I look forward to the next book, which is about what they did in a practical institutional sense rather than what and how they thought (covered by this first volume).
Recommended, but it is serious scholarly study rather than vacation reading!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
While the classicists inspired the philosophers of the Enlightenment, theis new breed of thinkers were generally contemptuous of religion and they sought to confront, to challenge and to overturn the philosophical concepts of the Hebrew and Christian thinkers who they viewed as their rhetorical adversaries in the battle beaten reason and faith.
Gay is an engaging writer with a gift for synthesizing a raft of material. Here he neatly summarizes the philosophical historians work: "...the philosophes wrote history with rage and with partisanship, and their very passion allowed them to penetrate into regions hitherto inaccessible to historical explorers. Yet it also made them condescending and oddly parochial: their sense of the past merged all too readily with their sense of the present." Although the philosophes view of history was critical, pessimistic, they saw the world "divided between ascetic superstitious enemies of the flesh, and men who affirmed life, the body, knowledge, and generosity; between mythmakers and realists, priests and philosophers."
Gay's book neatly depicts an age, the conflicts between enlightenment thinkers and the past, their areas of agreement and disagreement and, their battles with the weakened Christianity of the day. He points out how te philosophers used the scholarship and erudition of the Catholic orders against them. "The Enlightenment" is not a history of philosophy, summarizing the work of each major philosopher, but a history of the way that the ideas and the debate developed in the period. In this volume, he writes of Voltaire, Hume, Smith, Bentham, Gibbon, Diderot, Montsequieu, Lessing, Locke, Holbach, Rousseau and finally, Jefferson and Franklin, intertwining them in a consistent narrative. He concludes the book with a helpful bibliographical essay which will help point those of us who want to do further reading in the right direction. Elegantly written, in clear, crisp prose, "The Enlightenment" is a detailed and nuanced account of the men and ideas that gave us the gift - and curse - of modernity.
BOOK ONE: THE APPEAL TO ANTIQUITY
CHAPTER ONE: The Useful and Beloved Past
1. Hebrews and Hellenes: As the philosophes of the Enlightenment saw it, the world was divided into two irreconcilable patterns of life: superstition versus the affirmation of life; mythmakers versus realists; priests versus philosophers. The historical writings of the Enlightenment were all part of their comprehensive effort to secure rational control over the world and freedom from the pervasive domination of myth. The most glaring and notorious defect of the Enlightenment was its unsympathetic, often brutal, estimate of Christianity.
2. A Congenial Sense and Spirit: Rome belonged to every educated man Classic antiquity was inescapable, therefore, some of the philosophes' seemingly pagan ideas were simply the property of thinking men in their time. The philosophes identified with their favorite ancient philosophers, especially Cicero, who had contempt for the fear of death, contempt for superstition, and admiration for sturdy pagan self-reliance. Modern historians no longer think of Christianity as a complete swamp, but the reliance of the Enlightenment on ancient classicism has withstood two centuries of criticism.
3. The Search for Paganism: From Identification to Identity: The philosophes had been born into a Christian world. They knew their Bible, their catechism, their articles of faith, their apologetics, retained many of their Christian friends, and even had clergy in their families. Gibbons was not without anxiety when he wrote his notorious chapters on the origin of Christianity in "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." The German philosophes were reluctant to completely abandon the religion of the past. Diderot, the most ebullient of the French philosophes was driven and harassed by doubts. In a letter to his mistress, he cursed the atheism he accepted as true that "reduced their love to a blind encounter of atoms." Even David Hume, whose good cheer was celebrated, had to brood and struggle his way into paganism.
CHAPTER TWO: The First Enlightenment
1. Greece: From Myth to Reason: The philosophes' historical thought was closely tied and deeply, if unconsciously, indebted to the Renaissance. Pious historians during the Renaissance and in the 17th century aided secularization by refining techniques of research, throwing doubt on extravagant tales of Hebrew prophets or Christian saints. The Old Testament, which had served countless generations as authoritative was in decline. The philosophes used it as neither authoritative nor historical, but as an incriminating document. Petrarch removed the label "Dark Ages" from classical pre-Christian times and fastened it instead on the Christian era.
2. The Roman Enlightenment: The Greeks were the teachers of the Romans, but the Romans were the Greeks made plain. The philosophes' two most reliable sources of literature were the Romans Lucretius and Cicero. No propagandist ever conducted a battle of science against religion more exuberantly than Lucretius. Religion was just superstition maintained by terror. Science was reason, offering a complete and coherent account of the universe. Cicero gave them even more - a philosophy of the public servant was that of humanism. Not far behind was the historian Tacitus, who was Gibbon's source of much of what is in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." These and other Roman Stoics and Epicurians gave the philosophes much fuel for their political and religious criticisms.
CHAPTER THREE: The Climate of Criticism
1. Criticism as Philosophy: Hume proclaimed philosophy the supreme, indeed, the only, cure for superstition. Diderot - The philosopher should not be the inventor of systems but the apostle of truth. Adam Smith - Cultivation of philosophy is "the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition." For the Enlightenment, the Age of Philosophy was also, and mainly, the Age of Criticism - they were synonyms - and there were plenty of liberal Christians ready to allow the new philosophy elbow room, provided it stopped barely short of the holiest of matters.
2. The Hospitable Pantheon: Each philosophe took what suited him from the Romans (or from anywhere) and added their characteristic touches, leading to eclecticism - the school that denied being a school. The eclectic "makes a philosophy for himself, individual and personal, one that is his own." The favorite theft of the philosophes was from the Stoicism of Cicero, but since they addressed their propaganda to a largely Christian audience, they also quoted the founders of Christianity, including Jesus. Such adroit posturing barely concealed the philosophes' convictions that Christianity was the worst of fanaticisms.
3. The Primacy of Moral Realism: The philosophes' practicalities were worldly, designed to translate into reality Bacon's and Descarte's grandiose vision of man controlling nature for his profit and desire. In a culture in which men believed in God and yearned for salvation, the study of His nature were matters of intense blessed concern - but during the Enlightenment, they seemed more like verbal games. Nor could the philosophes separate the study of nature from the study of morality. They were confident that the public needed to be educated and it was their calling to educate them.
4. Candide: The Epicurean as Stoic: Voltaire wrote a reality tale - a dialogue on behalf of Newton's empiricism in a world that had discarded myth; and one that caricaturized and satirized Leibniz. Candide is essentially a declaration of war on Christianity.
BOOK TWO: THE TENSION WITH CHRISTIANITY
CHAPTER FOUR: The Retreat From Reason: Educated Romans had at least made a serious attempt to construct a civilization based on reason, not myth. Then came Christianity, which claimed to bring light, hope, and truth - but its central myth was incredible, its dogma a mixture of older superstitions, and its sacred book an incoherent collection of primitive tales. Once the church had discarded its apocalyptic expectations, it settled down to the business of organizing a Christian community - eventually a rigid hierarchy.
1. The Adulteration of Antiquity: In the callous hands of Christians, Greek and Roman literature survived, but barely, and at great cost. The church fathers could not deal generously with secular literature - they were at war for a higher cause. However, there was a minority that maintained an interest - and Christian policy ran somewhere between these two extremes. The great compromise, in the fourth and fifth centuries, was to adapt from paganism whatever could be adapted to religious purposes and to throw the rest away. They invented pious meanings for secular passages, converting and allegorizing meanings - but at least it kept the classics from extinction, though at the price of covering them with pious legends. Cicero was persistently misread into the thirteenth century.
2. The Betrayal of Criticism: Medieval philosophers believed the advent of Jesus had subordinated the need for higher degrees of insight. Abelard devoted much of his ethical and theological speculation to the disappointing thought that his favorite pagan philosophers had been born too early for Christ, thus missing out on salvation. The philosophes saw this as despising and abusing the resources of the mind.
3. The Rehabilitation of Myth: In the Christian millennium, myth was preserved, transcended, and raised to a higher level. The philosophes liked to deride medieval categories as infantile or vicious, but the myths merely followed inevitably from the medieval mind bent on finding religious significance everywhere. Science was done, but like philosophy, it was guided by man's search for holiness and salvation. The enormous distance separating the philosophes from the medieval world view is proof that the Enlightenment was the terminal point of a long process of alienation that had begun centuries before, in the Renaissance.
CHAPTER FIVE: The Era of Pagan Christianity - For all their enormous but gradual contributions to secular thought, Europeans were still overwhelmingly religious - religious fervor attenuating slowly and uncertainly.
1. The Purification of the Sources: Humanists of the Renaissance began to correct the corrupt interpretations of the Greek and Roman philosophers. Many new manuscripts, stored in monastery libraries and guarded by monks, were uncovered, although covered with dust, torn, and mutilated. Unknown copies of Cicero, a single copy of Lucretius's "De Rerum Natura," a single copy of Catullus, and whatever we have of Tacitus were uncovered by persistent Humanist effort bordering at times on thievery. Gradually, classis after classic was reborn, and Humanist scholars purified them of the corrupt accretions of centuries. The veil of pious interpretation was pierced.
2. Ancients and Moderns - The Ancients: The protestant heresy persisted and thus stripped Christian Europe of one of its most tenacious myths, the myth of a Catholic commonwealth centered at Rome. Exploration discovered strange cultures which raised disturbing questions about the souls of heathens and the value of Christian civilization. The Copernican revolution in cosmology began to reverberate among educated men. The printing press and translations, the book trade, the growth of science, and the explosion of interest in accurate interpretations of ancient Greeks and Romans - all these things questioned the authority of the papacy. As Voltaire put it, "a corner of the veil was lifted. The nations, aroused, wanted to judge what they had worshipped."
3. Ancients and Moderns - The Moderns: By the force of its logic, science began to cut its ties with philosophy and to assume a posture at first equal, and then hostile, to theology - less by literary than by scientific means. Even so, the Church first took the findings of Gallileo, Boyle, and Newton as evidence of faith rather than as a threat. Locke called for liberation from the shackles of antique and medieval rules of thought and his impact was huge, the last in a long line of pagan Christians. The philosophes, arrogant as they were, still displayed great reverence for this Age of Genius.
CHAPTER SIX: In Dubious Battle
1. The Christian Component: Locke and his disciple, Toland, both wrote books in 1695 and 1696. Locke tried to prove that Christianity was acceptable to reasonable men; Toland, that what was mysterious and miraculous about Christianity must be discarded - and within those two years the essence of revealed, dogmatic religion evaporated. The philosophes took advantage, striving to maintain a separation between reason and religion while well-meaning Christians continued to try to unite them. This was the beginning of deism, which maintained a healthy respect for Jesus as a teacher, but held that his teachings were distinct from what resulted as the Christian religion.
2. The Treason of the Clerks: Clerical establishments didn't collapse, but every part of life became more secular - there was a subtle shift where religious institutions and religious explanations for events were slowly being displaced from the center of life to its periphery. The evidence for a growing critical rationalism among educated Christians is overwhelming, with a decline in religious fervor. They were thus open to the antireligious propaganda of the philosophes, as Sunday sermons simultaneously grew less severe and more accommodating to an easier life. As the Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists fought amongst themselves, the philosophes triumphed over them all.
CHAPTER SEVEN: Beyond the Holy Circle - the philosophes appropriated Christian labors for their own purposes.
1. The Abuse of Learning: This was a time of the beginnings of Biblical critical scholarship. Diderot, Voltaire, and Gibbon each took particular advantage of a different scholarly friend, and applied that scholarship where it could be devastating to Christianity. The philosophes were missionaries - for the sake of their calling they were ready to exploit the best their enemy had to offer, without mercy or gratitude.
2. The Mission of Lucretius: Lucretius was to Epicureus what the philosophes were to the Enlightenment - purveyors of savage, brutal, and relentless diatribes against superstition and religion. Religion retreated to the extent that philosophy and science advanced.
3. David Hume: The Complete Modern Pagan - Whatever misgivings the philosophes had about their passion, Hume had the least. He thought all houses of faith were houses of infection and that a rational man must escape, after exposing, the squabbles of theologians. His philosophy embodies the dialectic of the Enlightenment at its most ruthless. Without melodrama, Hume lived cheerfully and without complaining, with no supernatural justifications, demanding no complete explanations, no promise of permanent stability, with guides of merely probable validity. He was a cheerful Stoic.
The philosophes taught a cheerful kind of self-reliance. Salvation was not to be found in the heavens above, but in the human race. They fought to replace barbaric institutions with new modes of thought that would inspire, not oppress, the human spirit. New modes of government (democracy). New methods of tending the sick (see Foucault's "Birth of the Clinic") and the insane (see Foucault's "Madness and Civilization"). New modes of punishing offenders (see Foucault's "Discipline and Punish"). New modes of thought. To examine our existing institutions we need not go back to the Middle Ages (the term "Middle Ages" is an example of enlightenment newspeak: the Middle ages designates nothing more than period the West lay fallow between the death of ancient paganism and it rebirth in the "Renaissance." It is a way of saying that while the Church ruled Europe, nothing of consequence happened) except as a point of contrast. They changed everything.
We have an odd relation to these philosophes. We recognize them as simplistic, overbearing, overconfident and, in many ways, flat out wrong. We also recognize them as the founding fathers of our world. They assured us, get rid of religion and wars would cease from the world, that religion (or rather specific religions e.g. Christianity) was the source of bigotry on the earth. So we did as they suggested and the wars just got bigger, the auto-de-fe's were replaced by concentration camps and the savagery they told us would disappear simply grew when the institutions built to contain them were dismantled.
They seemed to believe that we could have the results of Christian morality, without Christianity, if we simply replace religion with reason. The problem is that Christianity is a religion with a specific content and reason has no content at all. When you make the move you end up with a categorical imperative that we can debate the validity of, but is no real morality as it is effective only over individuals who accept its terms. And not all individual will understand the argument, much less accept the terms of it. The morality of reason preaches only to it own converts, leaving the rest to their own devices. The philosophes proved to be social tinkerers and we are their experiment.
Gay's book is beautifully written, wonderfully detailed and very, very long (I refer here to the two volume set), but it brings you into touch with those amazing individuals, their struggle together, and amongst themselves, the varying social climates in which they lived (Germay was different from France which was different again from England), their resentment towards the establishment, followed by their becoming the establishment. I could barely put it down.
I learned an immense amount about this period here, perhaps the most pivotal of the modern world. While a bit much, if taken in the right way it is a great guide to many of the debates that continue to this day and that originated with these intellectuals. However, I look forward to reading the next book, which is about what they did in a practical institutional sense rather than what and how they thought (covered by this first volume).
Recommended, but it is serious scholarly study rather than vacation reading!
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