The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–1790

Ritchie Robertson. Harper, $45 (976p) ISBN 978-0-06-241065-8
The so-called “Age of Reason” also put emotion and conscience at the center of a new social ideology, according to this sweeping study of the Enlightenment. Robertson (Goethe: A Very Short Introduction), a professor of German at Oxford University, defends Enlightenment thinkers against criticisms from the reactionary right and the postmodern left. Rather than preaching an arid rationalism, he contends, “Enlighteners” extolled sympathy and innate moral feelings as “the glue holding society together” and played on human emotions to support the abolition of capital punishment and slavery. They also were eager to reconcile science with belief in God; preferred persuasion and reform to violent change and state regimentation (most, Robertson claims, were antagonistic to the French Revolution); put empirical evidence and individual freedom above doctrine and authority; and held out happiness as the ultimate goal of inquiry and policy. Robertson’s far-flung thematic survey probes the work of philosophers and ideologues, among them Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant, and expertly interprets the period’s art and literature, including Samuel Richardson’s melodramatic novel Clarissa, which set all of Europe to weeping. Thanks to Robertson’s elegant prose and lucid analyses, this massive and deeply erudite work serves as a stimulating and accessible introduction to a watershed period in the intellectual development of the West. (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 09/30/2020
Release date: 02/23/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 1008 pages - 978-0-06-241067-2
Hardcover - 592 pages - 978-0-241-00482-1
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