Enlightenment: James MacGregor Burns’s Version

January 16, 2014   •   By Robert Zaretsky

WILL THE REAL Enlightenment please stand up?

And you, dear reader, please sit down while historians hash out an answer, for James MacGregor Burns’s book is but the latest addition to the teeming throng of works devoted to the subject. Rarely has a movement devoted to fire and light created so much smoke and confusion.


Once upon a time, the Enlightenment was one, not many — a single event spanning 18th-century Europe, ranging far and wide, but whose language was French and capital was Paris. In its salons and academies thrived what Peter Gay, the 20th century’s ur-historian of the era, called the “party of humanity.” There were, he announced, “many philosophes in the eighteenth century, but there was only one Enlightenment.” These philosophes broadcast the good news of modernity: the rightness of reason, the possibility of progress, the existence of a set of laws governing all societies. These men and women believed that beneath the welter of linguistic and geographical differences, behind the chaos of historical events, below the heavy sands of tradition and superstition that a single and unchanging set of values abided could be unearthed and its progress mapped.

Two hundred and fifty years later, the simplicity of this view has given way to a far more complex picture. Indeed, in the 50 years since Gay’s several books on the subject, our understanding of the era has dramatically changed — the accumulated weight of historical research has collapsed the model of a single Enlightenment. In his insistence on a “unified field theory” for the Enlightenment, Peter Gay is the historical profession’s Albert Einstein. Time has taken its toll on Gay’s various metaphors — “party,” “family,” and “flock” — that tried to impose unity on the conflicting and contradictory characteristics of the Enlightenment. Like physicists working in the shadow of Heisenberg and Bohr, most historians have since resigned themselves to a phenomenon that refuses to obey any single set of laws.

But beyond this negative consensus — namely, that the Enlightenment was not what we once thought it was — there is little agreement as to what it was, when it was, and where it was. Of course, it was the intellectual movement that privileged the powers of reason. But the men and women of this era had better reason to praise reason than we do three centuries later. Charles Taylor has recently described this collision as “The Great Disembedding” — an awkward but powerful phrase. This “disembedding” was, in part, social. As Taylor notes, the sort of self-questioning we now take for granted had no place in this earlier world. It was, he asserts, as inconceivable for medieval or early modern men and women to ask themselves “What would it be like if I were someone else?” as it is for us not to ask ourselves this same question. Life then was collective, not discrete; its “purpose” fixed by tradition and religion, not individual aspirations or efforts. That we now not only ask such questions about our lives, but that also the question of identity has become so central to our lives is, for Taylor, “the measure of our disembedding.”

This led to a more radical, though more elusive, kind of disembedding, marking our banishment not just from a coherent and cohesive society, but also from a meaningful and purposeful cosmos. In Max Weber’s celebrated distinction, the “enchantment” of our ancestral world evaporated, leaving behind the dust-dry landscape of disenchantment. The causes of this spiritual drought were many, but the relentless light of philosophical reason is certainly chief among them. Once it was enlightened, the world banned the supernatural; the world had become a machine, liable to scientific explanation, just as it became a vast material depot, condemned to commercial exploitation. As for the torch of reason, it not only threatened to consume a world that has been transformed into an object, but also to consume itself.

In its geography, the Enlightenment has, thanks to a legion of young historians, also consumed its traditional borders. Historians have underscored, for instance, the importance of Holland in the early phase of the Enlightenment. The religious tolerance and proto-republicanism of the United Provinces provided a kind of intellectual hothouse in the last decades of the 17th century, allowing radical thinkers like Benedict de Spinoza and Pierre Bayle to flourish. Much has been written on Great Britain, a nation once thought immune to the Enlightenment, if only because it was empty of French philosophes. More recently, though, historians like J. G. A. Pocock and Roy Porter have argued that the British Enlightenment did not parallel the French experience for the simple reason that the British had already freed themselves of the oppressive political institutions found across the Channel.

These recent works on the Enlightenment, which range across the Western hemisphere, reflect an emphasis on national contexts. But for some historians, geographical borders are misleading; for them, it is less that “each country had the Enlightenment it deserved,” as Gay remarked, than that “each county within each country had the Enlightenment it deserved.” As Charles Withers argues, not only were national identities problematic in the 18th century, but so too was the linguistic, economic, and cultural stew of communities found within a single national border.

A similar flux afflicts the Enlightenment’s chronology. When confined to France’s borders, the Enlightenment stretched no further back than early 18th-century thinkers like the Baron de Montesquieu, author of The Spirit of the Laws and Persian Letters. Of course, historians readily acknowledged the impact of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke on France: how could they not when the French themselves praised this trio of Englishmen? But they tended to focus on Locke’s work, thus locating the beginnings of the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century. More recently, historians like Jonathan Israel have argued for a longer 18th century — or depending on one’s preference, a shorter 17th century. Until 1650 or thereabouts, Israel claims, European civilization shared the same religious, political, and philosophical beliefs. After the century’s midpoint, however, that same civilization began to fissure:

Everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason and frequently challenged or replaced by startlingly different concepts generated by the New Philosophy and what may still usefully be termed the Scientific Revolution.

Israel’s work reflects the historical profession’s abiding uncertainty over the conceptual and social contours of the Enlightenment. Earlier scholars like Gay located the revolutionary spirit of the Enlightenment in the work of the 18th century’s usual suspects: the flock who built, volume by volume, the monumental nest of the Encyclopédie. But Israel and others have taken issue with this interpretation: the standard-bearers of the radical Enlightenment, they argue, are Spinoza and Bayle, not Voltaire and d’Alembert. What other historians take to be the high noon of the Enlightenment in the mid-18th century was in fact its dusk. For Israel, the Enlightenment’s “most crucial developments were already over by the middle of the eighteenth century.”

In a similar fashion, cultural historians like Robert Darnton question the traditional focus on a “High Enlightenment” that starred celebrated philosophes who, when not writing great works, were busy exchanging bon mots in the literary salons of Paris. Such a focus, Darnton warns, ignores the subversive work of the “Low Enlightenment.” This Parisian Grub Street was a mirror universe to polite society and literary salons, a collection of embittered wannabes who, enamored by the prospect of joining forces with the philosophes, had quit their provincial homes and moved to Paris. But rather than finding a welcome mat, they instead bumped into closed doors: once a movement dedicated to liberating humankind from the shackles of tradition and superstition, the Enlightenment had become an institution devoted to conserving its power and prestige. These young men, spurned by their erstwhile heroes, turned their quills against them. In the shadowy world of clandestine publishing, these men denounced not only the claims of church and state, but also mocked the pretensions of the Enlightenment.

As Burns’s book reminds us, there will never be an end to interpretations of the Enlightenment. In many ways, it shares the same perspective offered by Peter Gay. Fire and Light is a heroic account of the era when giants trod the salon and café, tavern and club floors, heaving their great works into the public arena, carrying the banner of reason into battle against the forces of resistance and tradition, and laboring on behalf of a happier and healthier posterity. Like the men (and they are mostly men) he discusses, Burns is an enviable writer: his taut sentences glitter with intelligence, his succinct narrative moves seamlessly between countries and time periods, his sharply drawn portraits of thinkers capture our attention. In less than 300 pages, Burns eloquently reminds us of the reasons we celebrate the individuals and achievements of this era.

For full-time historians of the Enlightenment, however, these virtues can spill into vices. This is partly the consequence of conflicting ambitions and audiences: like his famous philosophes and pamphleteers, Burns is writing for the general reader. Professional historians, on the other hand, tend to write for one another. (And not even then: how many modern French historians, for example, read the work of their colleagues in colonial American history?) The balkanized character of our guild, the mere existence of historians who specialize in the Encyclopédie, would certainly have dismayed Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, the work’s editors. The “sanctuary” they created, where (in Diderot’s words) “men’s knowledge shall be secure from time and revolutions,” was not meant for the ivory scholars; instead, it was meant to be the possession of one and all.

But here’s the rub with works like Fire and Light. The academics, not Burns, remind us that the Encyclopédie was anything but academic — that is, stultifying. Except, that is, when Diderot and d’Alembert wanted it to be. They deliberately assigned many of the entries on religion and theology to dry-as-dirt clerics whose reactionary briefs unwittingly lampooned their Church’s official teachings. Moreover, Diderot cross-indexed these entries with other articles that either contradict or collapse their hoary claims. Though it might be an exaggeration to say that Diderot anticipated The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, even now the subversive work’s shimmer of playfulness and naughtiness takes one by surprise — as does its insistence that readers, rather than sitting back, instead fully engage it in their search for truth.

Yet none of this finds its way into Burns’s short account of the work. The Encyclopédie is thus doomed, in the general reader’s mind, to be shelved alongside childhood memories of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Unhappily, this fate is not limited to this masterpiece. While Burns’s rapid cuts between movements and men pushes along the story at a quick clip, so much gets left behind. Take Diderot, who Burns discusses only in relation to his co-editorship of the Encyclopédie. Yet this remarkable thinker began his career as author of The Indiscreet Jewels — a novel that juggles an array of philosophical topics by making that part of a woman’s anatomy talk, in the words of one (prudish) biographer, which “if it ordinarily had the power of speech would be most qualified to answer a Kinsey questionnaire.” He followed this work with Letter on the Blind, a brief for materialism that pulverizes our received ideas about the origins of our ideas, as well as casting doubt on God’s existence. As the story’s hero, a blind mathematician, replies to someone who claimed that a careful look at our world leads to God: “If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch Him.” These works, not the Encyclopédie, earned Diderot his first stint in prison. No wonder, then, that Diderot decided not to publish — also unremarked by Burns — later works like Jacques the Fatalist and his Master to Rameau’s Nephew, D’Alembert’s Dream to the Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, which turn inside out his world’s, and our own, moral, religious and artistic conventions.

Freewheeling and freethinking, this Diderot is a poor fit for the template Burns imposes on the Enlightenment, which in general results in carefully etched profiles, not full-face portraits. His Enlightenment is reasoned and reasonable. There is a cogent discussion of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, but no mention of his earlier and, in many ways, more original, and startling work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. David Hume is rightly identified as the author of the unsettlingly skeptical A Treatise of Human Nature, but the general reader will not know that the Treatise, as Hume himself sighed, “fell stillborn from the press,” and that it was through his more popular essays that the Scottish thinker became, in his words, an “ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation.” Montesquieu was, as Burns notes, the author of The Spirit of the Laws, the serene, nearly Olympian survey of peoples and forms of government. But what of the earlier Persian Letters, his epistolary novel of astonishing erotic power whose bloody and terrifying climax casts even greater doubt than Hume’s work on the powers of reason? How is it that the only work by Rousseau that Burns identifies is his Confessions, written long after the Genevan thinker had broken with the Enlightenment? Remarkably, there is no mention of his Second Discourse or Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater: deeply corrosive critiques of the fire and light Burns wishes to celebrate. For that matter, romanticism, the late 18th century’s aesthetic and ethical response to the Enlightenment, also evades Burns’s radar, even though he carries his account well into the 19th century.

While these count among the book’s sins of historical omission, a specialist would also check several sins of commission. Just a few examples: Burns writes that Rousseau’s fans “sought out the man himself in his Geneva lair, where he lived safe from the police and the censors of autocrats.” Yet, the facts are that Rousseau left Geneva as a young man, returned for a short spell in 1754, and never returned for the simple reason that, a few years later, he couldn’t: in 1762, the Genevan authorities condemned and burned copies of The Social Contract and Emile. He describes Hume as an “outspoken atheist.” Well, he might have been an atheist — though there remains much debate among scholars — but he was not at all outspoken: he agreed not to publish his most critical book on Christian belief, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, until after his death in deference to his many friends who were ministers in the Church of Scotland. In his passionate attack on Napoleon and all that he represented, Burns dismisses the Civil Code’s importance, but the many nations that adopted it following their own revolutions would not have agreed. In his discussion of the French Revolution, he is right to note that women were not accorded the same freedoms given to men. But of course, no other democratic country, including the fledgling United States, did much on this score, either. Moreover, Burns ignores the role played by Olympe de Gouges, the remarkable woman who, thanks to her demands that women be given the same liberties that men had claimed for themselves, had a rendezvous with the guillotine.

When he shifts from the Old to the New World, Burns shifts into a more consistent gear. Thanks to the writing, and more especially the teaching of the moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson, Scotland’s most important export in the 18th century was neither fish nor whisky, but happiness — or, at least, a certain understanding of the concept. Burns traces the impact of Hutcheson’s thought on our founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson, about whom he is both admiring and critical. Yet pride of place is given to James Madison, who most often finds himself in the shadow of his fellow Virginian. Yet, as Burns convincingly argues, “no one had a greater role in fashioning the American experiment, basing the government on Enlightenment principles and then testing them in action.”

It is a bit odd, though, to find a long discussion of Andrew Jackson, not to mention Martin van Buren, in a work devoted to the Enlightenment. Given that Burns wishes to show, as the book’s subtitle announces, how the Enlightenment transformed the world, he is right to follow the story into the 19th century. Still, a plotline that dwells on Jacksonian democracy requires more justification than labeling the 19th-century American economy as “enlightened” or observing that Jackson’s foes called his presidency a “Reign of Terror.” There was, of course, feverish debate over the nature of government and the balance of powers during this period, but even if the actors were citing chapter and verse from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, or even the Federalist Papers, the focus on this issue reduces the Enlightenment to the syllabus of American Politics 201.

It is a syllabus, moreover, based on Burns’s best-known book, Leadership, which proposes two types of leaders: transactionals who are practiced in the art of practicality, and transformationals who are blessed, as a recent and dramatically non-transformational president once said, with “the vision thing.” The American Enlightenment and Revolution, it appears, was salted with men who combined both qualities: Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. Perhaps because they were not born in Virginia, the leaders of the French Enlightenment and Revolution had vision, but little else. In many ways, this intriguing interpretation echoes Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution; and like Tocqueville, some specialists would argue that Burns makes his theory work at the expense of history. In the case of revolutionary France, there were potential Virginians like the Comte de Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès, yet both get only passing mention in Fire and Light. In fact, historians might even suggest that tyrant though he was, Napoleon was both transformational and transactional. What Burns dismisses as crass opportunism, like Napoleon’s concordat with the Roman Catholic Church, has struck other observers as an instance of transactional compromise on behalf of a transforming idea.

In the end, Burns’s Enlightenment has as much right to stand up when called as any other. While his history is not always right, his moral urgency is admirable. Our age needs heroes, and the Virginians, even with their flaws, are better candidates than most. And while we have good reason to question the era’s emphasis on the powers of reason, it is far preferable to the alternatives. Burns is right: the legacy of the Enlightenment has been, in so many respects, a good and great thing. A world without the values of freedom, equality, and justice, without the claims of reason, tolerance, and dialogue, without an understanding of the importance of the individual, would be inconceivable.

But at the same time, these benefits have not come without tremendous cost. Far-sighted critics who lived during the first great waves of the Enlightenment were already tabulating this grim balance sheet. Rousseau and Joseph de Maistre, J. G. von Herder and Giambattista Vico, Edmund Burke and J. G. Hamann disputed the reigning orthodoxies of the age. Their insights have since been adopted by critics of the Enlightenment hailing from all points of the ideological compass, from traditional conservatives and progressive communitarians to Marxist and postmodern theorists. At the very least, what all of these camps hold in common is Marx’s diagnosis that, with the ascendancy of Western reason, “all that is solid melts into air.” As Taylor notes, “We are now in an age in which a publicly accessible cosmic order of meanings is an impossibility.” A merely secular outlook “involves stifling the response in us to some of the deepest and most powerful spiritual aspirations that human beings have conceived.” In the end, for most students of the Enlightenment, it is less the rightness of its methodology we question, than the rightness of the world it has given us.


Robert Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor and the author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.