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The Enlightenment

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This magisterial history—sure to become the definitive work on the subject—recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness. One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: relig This magisterial history—sure to become the definitive work on the subject—recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness. One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: religious tolerance, freedom of thought, speech and the press, of rationality and evidence-based argument. Yet why, over three hundred years after it began, is the Enlightenment so profoundly misunderstood as controversial, the expression of soulless calculation? The answer may be that, to an extraordinary extent, we have accepted the account of the Enlightenment given by its conservative enemies. Ritchie Robertson goes back into the “long eighteenth century,” from approximately 1680 to 1790, to reveal what this much-debated period was really about. Any account of the Enlightenment must be in large part a history of ideas. But Robertson argues that it is not solely a philosophical movement; the Enlightenment saw the publication of the Encyclopédie, which is not only a historical and philosophical compendium, but also an illustrated guide to all sorts of contemporary machinery, handicrafts, and trades aimed to improve people’s lives in immediate and practical ways. Robertson chronicles the campaigns mounted by some Enlightened figures against specific evils such as capital punishment, judicial torture, serfdom and witchcraft trials, featuring the experiences of major figures like Voltaire and Diderot with ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary moment. Robertson gives due attention to philosophical and theological debates, but also looks to literature, music, and the visual arts as prominent means of conveying enlightenment ideas. In seeking to correct one-sided views of the Enlightenment, Robertson ultimately puts forward his own. He does not reduce this transformative period to a formula, but instead makes the claim that indeed the Enlightenment was an attempt to increase human happiness, and to claim that happiness was possible in this world, without needing any compensatory belief in a better one beyond the grave.


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This magisterial history—sure to become the definitive work on the subject—recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness. One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: relig This magisterial history—sure to become the definitive work on the subject—recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness. One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: religious tolerance, freedom of thought, speech and the press, of rationality and evidence-based argument. Yet why, over three hundred years after it began, is the Enlightenment so profoundly misunderstood as controversial, the expression of soulless calculation? The answer may be that, to an extraordinary extent, we have accepted the account of the Enlightenment given by its conservative enemies. Ritchie Robertson goes back into the “long eighteenth century,” from approximately 1680 to 1790, to reveal what this much-debated period was really about. Any account of the Enlightenment must be in large part a history of ideas. But Robertson argues that it is not solely a philosophical movement; the Enlightenment saw the publication of the Encyclopédie, which is not only a historical and philosophical compendium, but also an illustrated guide to all sorts of contemporary machinery, handicrafts, and trades aimed to improve people’s lives in immediate and practical ways. Robertson chronicles the campaigns mounted by some Enlightened figures against specific evils such as capital punishment, judicial torture, serfdom and witchcraft trials, featuring the experiences of major figures like Voltaire and Diderot with ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary moment. Robertson gives due attention to philosophical and theological debates, but also looks to literature, music, and the visual arts as prominent means of conveying enlightenment ideas. In seeking to correct one-sided views of the Enlightenment, Robertson ultimately puts forward his own. He does not reduce this transformative period to a formula, but instead makes the claim that indeed the Enlightenment was an attempt to increase human happiness, and to claim that happiness was possible in this world, without needing any compensatory belief in a better one beyond the grave.

34 review for The Enlightenment

  1. 5 out of 5

    J Earl

    The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 by Ritchie Robertson is a very clearly written look at this important period with a shift of emphasis from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of happiness. This is as much a history as it is a work about the philosophical works of the time. Robertson offers excellent readings of the major works as well as many of the minor works, but most importantly he weaves these ideas into the history. Many books will touch on events in illustrating The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 by Ritchie Robertson is a very clearly written look at this important period with a shift of emphasis from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of happiness. This is as much a history as it is a work about the philosophical works of the time. Robertson offers excellent readings of the major works as well as many of the minor works, but most importantly he weaves these ideas into the history. Many books will touch on events in illustrating the importance of these works, but they often concentrate on one or two major events that most clearly show whatever aspect of the work they are emphasizing. Robertson certainly chooses events that support his readings but he chooses far more widely than most. The idea of happiness needs, for the reader, to be separated from what we often think of as happiness in contemporary society. Happiness now is largely commodified and measured in luxury and/or leisure time and objects. Happiness during the Enlightenment(s) was far more concerned with making life better for more people, making the world so that everyone might find some enjoyment from their time here. I don't know that the general idea of happiness being an important element in what Enlightenment thought was about is entirely new, I seem to remember Pagden touching on the same basic theme, though perhaps without using the word happiness as much. But Robertson makes a much stronger case through both textual analysis and historical interpretation. As such, this book stands alone in my reading in broadening my concept of what the thinkers of the time were seeking and trying to accomplish. I would highly recommend this to readers regardless of their background in Enlightenment texts. I think Robertson explains the works well enough for anyone to grasp the main ideas and situate those ideas in the bigger picture. For those who haven't read many of the works I also think this will help you to decide which texts you might find interesting and which you might want to skip. For those who have read many of the works I think reading any good interpretations is beneficial in that it makes us think and revisit what we may have taken for granted or forgotten. We don't have to agree to get value from reading this, though I think it is hard to find fault in most of what is presented. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Scott Carter

    Ritchie Robertson. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. New York City: Harper, 2020. Robertson gives an overview of the Enlightenment era and the shifting human purpose to that of the pursuit of happiness. The author provides a thorough introduction to the period by offering something of a history and reader mix. Robertson’s scope is fairly broad, covering religious, philosophical, literary, artistic, scientific, and political contributions. I do not have a strong background in Ritchie Robertson. The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790. New York City: Harper, 2020. Robertson gives an overview of the Enlightenment era and the shifting human purpose to that of the pursuit of happiness. The author provides a thorough introduction to the period by offering something of a history and reader mix. Robertson’s scope is fairly broad, covering religious, philosophical, literary, artistic, scientific, and political contributions. I do not have a strong background in Enlightenment thinking and history, yet Robertson did a good job providing explanations and making the texts accessible. With my background being primarily in reading Orthodox, Protestant theology, I do not think the author’s choice of references are the best. Nevertheless, the author provokes me to read further and better understand the era and undercurrents of thought. I would recommend this volume to others interested in an overview of the period and a launching point into which texts to further study.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Toronto Reader

  4. 5 out of 5

    Simone Barbera

  5. 5 out of 5

    Gazmend Kryeziu

  6. 5 out of 5

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    Anna

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    Shaunterria

  11. 5 out of 5

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    Brian Hanson

  13. 5 out of 5

    Edwin Santana

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    Sergio Alonso De Leon

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    Sean Gibson

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    Allen Phillips-Bell

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    Jeff Schauer

  20. 4 out of 5

    Roshin Unnikrishnan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shashwat

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    Juan Farfán

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    Jan

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    Robert

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    CatieMay

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    Colm Lynch

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  32. 5 out of 5

    Christian Morse

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    Mikael Raihhelgauz

  34. 4 out of 5

    George

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