- Let There Be Enlightenment: The Religious and Mystical Sources of Rationality ed. by Anton M. Matytsin and Dan Edelstein
Let There Be Enlightenment: The Religious and Mystical Sources of Rationality is a valuable entry in the literature challenging the picture of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment as an essentially secularist and reason-centric revolution against authority, tradition, and superstition. For the authors in this volume, the process of enlightenment actually consisted in a variety of reform efforts distributed across a broad range of geographical locations as well as political and religious contexts. In addition to showing that these reform efforts entailed neither a radical break with the past, nor a complete disavowal of religious and spiritual practices, the volume also exemplifies the manner in which historians now understand "the Enlightenment" as a proliferation of different "Enlightenments" in the plural.
In light of these developments, however, contemporary scholars are faced with the question of whether "The Enlightenment" actually was a unified historical phenomenon. One important contribution of this volume is an extended argument that the "master metaphor" of light can serve as a unifying thread tying together these diverse enlightenments. As the book argues, this metaphor animated a range of eighteenth-century reform efforts and essentially connects the themes of religion and rationality. As the editors write in their introduction,
the widespread evidence of historical consciousness among eighteenth-century writers and their repeated insistence on living an in "enlightened age" (siècle éclairé) reveal a critical feature of their argumentation. At the heart of these rhetorical constructions was the light metaphor, whoever among French (lumières), English (enlightened), Italian (lumi), or German (Aufklärung) writers. This master metaphor is a critical point of entry for our studies, given that it also had a history of service in religious discourses.(6–7) [End Page 499]
The metaphor of light functions as a means for the volume to portray "the Enlightenment" as a collection of what contributor Jeffrey D. Burson calls "genealogies of 'light'" (239). In this way, the volume proposes a unified notion of Enlightenment that can accommodate the wide range of movements in the eighteenth century. The essays are divided into three sections entitled "Lux," "Veritas," and "Tenebrae." According to the editors, "Lux addresses the metaphorical and physical manifestations of light and Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century discourses; Veritas focuses on the philosophical debates of the period, dealing with issues of epistemology and political theory; and Tenebrae examines alternative genealogies of the Enlightenment's emphasis on rationality and tolerating, paying attention to religious and mystical discourses in different confessional settings" (13).
The first essay of Lux, Howard Hotson's "Via Lucis in tenebras: Comenius as Prophet in the Age of Light," reconstructs Comenius's Biblically-grounded account of a progressive enlightening of humanity through the growth of communicative forms, as well as his projects for the development of scientific societies. While Comenius was rejected by later Enlightenment philosophers because he "did not disguise the fact that his expectations were grounded not merely in technological and philosophical progress but also in more mystical forms of enlightenment, including prophecy, both canonical and enthusiastic," Hotson argues that we can reassess him as a "prophet" of the Enlightenment (24).
In "Whose Light is it Anyway? The Struggle for Light in the French Enlightenment," volume coeditor Anton M. Matytsin examines the way that the metaphor of light was contested by a number of groups with differing political, intellectual, and religious agendas: "The metaphors of light and darkness reveal the complex ways in which a variety of Enlightenment thinkers understood their own place in history and defined their own intellectual projects. Although there appears to be a sharp clash between the original religious senses of the metaphor and the later secular uses, both are essential for explaining the full spectrum of eighteenth-century thought" (74). Matytsin therefore cautions against assuming that there was only one possible progressive outcome to the period's many reform projects.