- Reviewed by
Writing an account of a phenomenon as complex and contested as the Enlightenment is a difficult task under any circumstances, but writing a "very short introduction" to the Enlightenment—in this case fewer than 120 pages of text, after allowances are made for illustrations, lists of sources and further reading, and the index—is a challenge that few scholars [End Page 669] could profitably meet. Fortunately, John Robertson is among those few, and he has given us a splendid little book. Robertson is aware that "what can be associated with Enlightenment has expanded geographically, socially, and intellectually, well beyond the initial associations of lumières and Aufklärung" (10), and, for this reason, a brief study like this one cannot cover everything. He therefore sets clear geographical, social, and intellectual boundaries. As a historian with expertise focusing on the northern and southern fringes of Europe (Scotland and the Kingdom of Naples), he is naturally inclined to view the Enlightenment as geographically capacious, though it "remains a phenomenon of the European world" (14). French and German thinkers are by no means neglected, but the attention paid to Scots and especially Italians gives this work a geographical range that is uncommon and refreshing.
Socially, too, Robertson's approach is expansive: one of the book's five chapters, titled "Enlightening the Public," is devoted to the social world of the Enlightenment, including institutions that traditionally make up the public sphere, such as coffee houses, masonic lodges, salons, universities. This social chapter also deals with the emergence and spread of print culture and the growth of intellectual authority and public opinion in various national contexts. In covering these topics, the author ranges widely and often incorporates recent scholarship into his account. In regard to the role of women in French salons, for example, Robertson first discusses the "strong case" made by Dena Goodman to establish the "intellectual agency" (90) and leadership of the Parisian salonnières as a force for Enlightenment, but he then presents Antoine Lilti's counterargument (newly available in English in a 2015 abridgment of the 2005 French original), stressing the salonnières' social subservience to the aristocracy and intellectual subservience to men of letters, with the result that "the salon was after all neither an institution of the public sphere nor a major instrument of Enlightenment" (91). The London Bluestockings are given the credit for empowering women in the cultural and intellectual sphere that is denied to their counterparts in Paris.
It is in the realm of intellectual life that the author trims his topic's sails, by conceptualizing the Enlightenment as "a distinct intellectual movement of the 18th century, dedicated to the better understanding, and thence the practical advancement, of the human condition on this earth" (13). Part of the meaning of this definition unfolds in a chapter titled "Engaging with Religion," which deftly explores seventeenth- and eighteenth-century inquiries into the history of religion, the emergence of toleration—focusing particularly on Voltaire's Traité sur la Tolérance and "an exclusively this-worldly argument for toleration" based on manners rather than conscience—and new approaches to the tension between "the sacred and the civil" (42, 43) in the work of writers such as [End Page 670] Edward Gibbon and Pietro Giannone, author of a civil history of Naples published in 1723. In all these areas of inquiry, Robertson argues, Enlightenment thinkers sought to discover the historical foundations of religion as a means of bringing about an accommodation between the religious and secular worlds. This is decidedly not an Enlightenment characterized primarily by atheism or anti-clericalism, and the leading modern proponent of that interpretation, Peter Gay, is never mentioned.
The key to the author's view of the intellectual life of the Enlightenment appears in "Bettering the Human Condition," one of the book's "three main chapters" (13), along with the two discussed above. Here, as in the chapter on religion, Robertson displays his virtuosity as an intellectual historian. The focus is on three...