🙂 🙂 🙂 😦
Like most people, I have a vague idea of what is meant by Enlightenment values – scepticism, reason, science etc. – and could probably name, if pushed, a few of the intellectuals and philosophers associated with it. I hoped this book might give me a clearer idea of the history and development of the period and of the contribution of some of the main players. And to a degree it did. Pagden concentrates very much on the intellectual developments and how they impacted on the political sphere. There is very little in the book about the cultural aspects of the Enlightenment – the salon culture is mentioned, but mainly in passing, and although he refers to the emphasis placed by some of the philosophers on arts and music, he doesn’t go into what impact this had on the artistic culture of the time.
In the first couple of chapters, Pagden briefly discusses the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, showing how the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers grew out of and built onto these. In the following chapters, he takes us on a roughly chronological journey through the period of the Enlightenment, concentrating on the writings of the philosophers and highlighting how they influenced each other. Towards the end, he discusses to what extent the French Revolution resulted from Enlightenment ideas and shows the philosophical backlash following this period. And finally, he very briefly highlights the influence that Enlightenment thinking still has, particularly in the West, on national and international forms of governance.
There is no question about the amount of scholarship that has gone into this book and I undoubtedly feel considerably better informed about the subject. However, there are several problems that prevent me from feeling I could wholeheartedly recommend it. Firstly, Pagden’s writing style is often so convoluted that I found I had to read and re-read to be sure I got the sense of what he was saying. His sentences are full of asides and fragmentary quotes that, while relevant, make the process of reading much harder work than should have been necessary.
“Hamann, the “magus of the north,” of whom Hegel said that he was “not only…original…But an Original,” and whose writings “do not so much have a particular style, as they are style,” was something of a crank (whom Goethe, although he thought him the “brightest head of his time,” once shrewdly compared to Vico).”
If you strip the extraneous matter out of this, basically it says “Hamann was something of a crank” – there, isn’t that easier? By all means, follow this up with a sentence or two telling us what Hegel and Goethe thought of him. But this sentence also brings me to my second problem – the book would have been considerably helped by a list of the philosophers with a brief summary of their contribution and beliefs. There are so many names that I frankly couldn’t remember who was who or what each believed. So a comparison to Vico means nothing to me, however shrewd it may be. There is, of course, an index and a bibliography, but this meant I was constantly flipping backwards and forwards to remind myself of what had been said about someone four chapters previously, or, as became the case more and more, deciding I didn’t care enough to bother.
Then there are the inconsistencies. Taking the example of the Peace of Westphalia, both of the following quotes are taken from the same page (28):
“The “Peace of Westphalia”, as it came to be known, was the first treaty between sovereign nations which succeeded in creating a lasting peace and not merely a temporary ceasefire, as all previous treaties had.”
Frankly this sentence stunned me as I tried to remember a period when Europe had a lasting peace prior to 1945. But I didn’t have to remain stunned for long, since the very next paragraph begins:
“The treaty did not achieve an immediate, or indeed, in the end, a lasting peace.”
It does become apparent what Pagden means by this (that wars stopped being specifically about religion following the treaty) but it’s just one of many examples of how the scholarship of the work is let down by the lack of clarity in the writing.
And lastly, the book is absolutely chock full of typos, missed words and uncorrected errors – the proofreading is the most abysmal I have ever seen in an academic work.
In summary, I’m glad to have read this and feel considerably enlightened by it, but feel it was much harder work than it need have been. A book that I think would probably be very interesting for someone with an existing fairly good knowledge of the period and the people involved in it, but perhaps not one I would suggest as an introduction to the subject for a casual reader like myself.
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.