The Enlightenment in Britain and France


Based on Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity (Vintage Books, 2004), and Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment, and Why It Still Matters (Random House, 2013)

What if the Industrial Revolution, the greatest economic transformation in history, were just a sideshow?

Well, “sideshow” might be a little harsh, but if Joel Mokyr is correct, “adjunct” or “spin-off” would be reasonable (here). Europeans’ understanding of the world, and of the potential for human progress, changed drastically during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Scientific Revolution was part of this change; but to think of the Scientific Revolution as a series of discoveries, as many histories do, is to miss much of its import. The Scientific Revolution didn’t simply expand human knowledge: it changed the way that humans evaluated and understood information, and it gave them the mindset and the methodology required for technological progress. Another part of this change was the Enlightenment, which altered Europeans’ perception of themselves and other humans. The Enlightenment inspired them to remodel their societies, just as the Scientific Revolution had inspired them to manipulate the physical world.

The Enlightenment is most closely associated with Britain and France. The philosophies that emerged from these two countries were markedly different — so different that some historians prefer to reserve the term “Enlightenment” for France alone. These differences were, to a large degree, precipitated by differences in national institutions. Most of the British philosophers were active after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the monarch was constitutionally restrained and Parliament was extending its power. At roughly the same time in France, the exigencies of the military revolution (here) had undermined constitutional governments in the regions and consolidated the king’s power. Louis XIV considered himself an absolute monarch, answerable to no-one, not even the pope. The civil liberties that British citizens took for granted would not develop in France for at least another century. The dominant church in Britain was the Church of England, a moderate Protestant institution; but Catholicism maintained its hold on France, regimenting daily life and stifling the exchange of dangerous (to it) ideas. The British philosophers, living under relatively benign institutions, wanted to rationalize and defend their system. Their French counterparts wanted extreme change, as illustrated by an aphorism attributed to Denis Diderot: “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the public responded to these philosophies in different ways. British philosophy was widely read and debated, while French philosophy often struggled for a hearing. Diderot complained,

In England philosophers are honoured, respected; they rise to public offices, they are buried with the kings…In France warrants are issued against them, they are persecuted, pelted with pastoral letters.1

The economic policies associated with the British Enlightenment are discussed here, and the role of Enlightenment philosophy in the evolution of democratic institutions is discussed here. These political and institutional changes were simply the aftereffects of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment itself marked a change in the way that humans understood themselves. Before the Enlightenment, they were bit players under God’s direction; after the Enlightenment, they stood at center stage. The Enlightenment’s main concerns are the subject of this post.

Is Morality Innate?

Natural law was an integral part of Catholic theology. Its claim was that

…there existed in nature — and was thus available to all rational beings, independently of their beliefs or the cultures to which they belonged — a set of rules by which all human conduct was ultimately judged.2

Natural law had been discussed by Plato and Aristotle, but its elaboration was the work of the European scholastics, who argued that it was the source of our understanding of what was just and what was unjust. It was innate in all human beings. Natural law itself gave humans a basic moral code, and when coupled with human reasoning, a comprehensive moral code could be deduced from it. This code would be the same everywhere, so all humans constituted a single community.

Critics argued that the theory of natural law simply rationalized European norms. It was, according to John Locke, “props and buttresses, leaning on borrowed or begg’d foundations.”3 This criticism was validated by the reports of long-distance travellers, which revealed surprising variations in behaviour: some people buried their dead, other people ate them. Montaigne, after pondering these reports, rejected natural law:

The laws of conscience which we say are born of nature, are born of custom. Since man inwardly venerates the opinions and the manners approved and received about him, he cannot without remorse free himself from them, nor apply himself to them without self-approbation.4

John Locke rejected not only natural law, but the whole idea of innate knowledge.5 He believed that the mind at birth is a blank slate. Each of us absorbs information through our senses, and then forms it into an understanding of the world through reasoning. Virtue is simply a behaviour pattern that is maintained through self-interest: deviating from society’s norms harms us, and adhering to them helps us. The norms themselves, having been worked out within each society over many generations, can differ from one society to another.

These criticisms led to the abandonment of the idea that Nature dictated a comprehensive moral code. The inference that all mankind constituted a single community was left without foundations, as was a further inference, that man was naturally sociable and only achieved his full potential within a community.

Thomas Hobbes and Hugo Grotius offered a starkly different view of human nature. For Hobbes, the only things that were innate were the fear of death and the drive to stay alive. It was fear alone that brought men together. Their societies imposed constraints upon them, which they accepted only to avoid the free-for-all in which every man encroaches on every other man. Grotius likewise believed that the law of nature consisted only of avoiding injury or death to the best of one’s abilities, and seeking those things that ease one’s life. Loving one’s neighbour as thyself was not part of it.

The Enlightenment philosophers rejected natural law, but believed that Hobbes’s and Grotius’s dismal view of humanity was contradicted by the richness of life. Much of English philosophy seems to have been an attempt to reach the amiable conclusions of natural law without accepting its precepts.6

The Earl of Shaftesbury argued that religion, self-interest, and Locke’s sensation and reasoning, support a moral code but are subsequent to it.7 The ultimate source of the moral code is the “social affection” that each person has for those who around him. Their happiness makes him happy, so he is inspired to increase it.

Frances Hutcheson endorsed Shaftesbury’s view that virtue follows from a “moral sense” rather than, as Locke had suggested, from self-interest.8 Fellow-feeling and compassion, he argued, could not follow from self-interest because they expose a person to the suffering of others. They are therefore antecedent to self-interest. They are also antecedent to reason. Reason is subservient to the moral sense: it shows the path to promoting good but does not explain the impulse to do good. The preferred path, according to Hutcheson, is the one that “procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” This principle, taken up by Jeremy Bentham, became the foundation of the utilitarian ethic.9

David Hume also supported the idea of a moral sense.10 He argued that sympathy is the “chief source of moral distinctions,” and while not innate, is common to all men.11 The feelings of one person resonate with those of others:

As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so all of the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget correspondent movements in every human creature.” 12

The most careful analysis of the moral sense was provided by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). The word “moral” is now almost a synonym for “virtuous,” but it had a broader meaning to Smith and his contemporaries. It was derived from the latin mores, meaning customs or manners: it encompassed virtue but was not restricted to virtue. Smith intended his book to be a guide to human behaviour.

Like Shaftesbury, Smith believed that every man is invested in the happiness of others:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.13

He shares their happiness and their pain. The mechanism that establishes this connection is sympathy or, to use a more modern word, empathy. Our senses alone are not sufficient: we must feel their happiness or pain, not just observe it.

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers…It is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations…By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him…His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.14

We care about the well-being of others, but we also care about our own well-being — we are self-interested. Smith believes that self-interest is a powerful motivator, and that our societies could not function without it.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.15

Smith recognizes that all men are both self-interested and altruistic, and he believes that both factors are essential to human happiness.

How is the proper balance between self-interest and altruism attained?16 Smith’s answer to this question hinges on his understanding of happiness. Hobbes believed that people formed societies only to obtain the protection of the law. The advocates of natural law, on the other hand, believed that people were social beings who could attain their full potential only through their interactions with other people. Smith’s views are in line with natural law on this point: our happiness is determined by our relationships with other humans.

What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved?17

Here, to be “beloved” is not to be the object of romantic love, but to be valued by one’s peers. It is the “beloved” of “the beloved author of children’s books” rather than “my beloved wife.” The first requirement of happiness, then, is to be esteemed by one’s peers. The second requirement is that this esteem is based upon one’s actual character, and not upon false perceptions of one’s character. To be happy, we must be persons of integrity and the community must recognize our integrity.

Under this definition of happiness, a person will naturally balance self-interest and altruism. He will let altruism limit self-interest whenever other people are present because he does not want to forfeit their esteem. If no other people are present, a mental construct — the “impartial spectator” — takes their place.

When I endeavour to examine my own conduct…and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent in a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of.18

Altruism again moderates self-interest because the “I” who acts wants to be worthy of esteem.

The impartial spectator is not a conscience — it is not God looking over the actor’s shoulder. The actor is not trying to satisfy some divinely imposed code of conduct. He only wishes to please his peers, and as Locke and Montaigne had observed, his peers’ social norms are simply part of local customs.

For Smith, only sympathy is innate, but the combination of sympathy and reasoning is enough to develop a moral code. All men are alike because all men are able to empathize: in this sense there is a worldwide community of men. Different societies have different customs, but all customs have the same origins, namely the interplay of sympathy and reason.

Reason and Religion

In France and Germany Enlightenment philosophy centered on the role of reason in understanding current institutions and prescribing better ones. Kant explains:

Our age is the genuine age of criticism, and to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty, commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to the unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.19

Although both religion and government were taken to be oppressive institutions and underwent an intense scrutiny, the principal target of the French philosophers was religion.

The debate over natural law had left a back door through which religion could be reintroduced into morality: what can account for the human sense of sympathy, of fellow-feeling, if not the Christian God who made us all? This argument in itself might not be disagreeable to the philosophers, but its baggage certainly was. Accepting the Christian God would mean accepting concepts such as original sin, redemption by Christ, life as preparation for Judgement Day. Humans would cease to be free and progressive, and become pawns in God’s unfathomable plan.

The French philosophers responded with an attack on Christianity itself. The Bible, they argued, was a collection of fantasies. Moreover, its moral code was either so obvious — “thou shalt not kill” — as to not require divine instruction, or encouraged an undesirable servility. From these flimsy foundations had arisen a doctrine that had done incalculable damage to Europe. Ordinary people had died by the millions in the wars of religion, and by ones and twos in the churches’ (both Protestant and Catholic) enforcement of religious conformity. According to Voltaire, “Every sensible man, every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.”20

A central precept of Christianity was that the world was created by a divine and benevolent entity. This claim had its origin in Aristotle’s “first mover” argument, which was later amplified by Aquinas and became one of his proofs of God’s existence. It was accepted by some of the Enlightenment philosophers: Adam Smith, for example, argued that every person was under the care of a “great, benevolent, and all-wise Being, who directs all the movements of nature.”21 A difficulty with this claim was the “problem of evil”: the suffering of the innocent seemed to contradict the existence of an all-power and benevolent God. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German mathematician and philosopher, attempted to save the claim by arguing that what looks like evil is simply a human failure to comprehend the divine plan:

Leibniz argued that the deity had provided an order in the universe that was ultimately beneficial to all his creatures, but since no one could grasp the whole, no one could hope to understand the place that individual events played in this grand design…It is only our human inability to envision the whole of time and space that prevents us from understanding why the death of a child might, in fact, be a good [thing]. On Leibniz’s account, God had chosen which world to create from an infinite number of possible worlds that were present as ideas in his mind, and since he wills what is best, the world he actually created has the greatest possible number of compatible perfects. It was thus, in Leibniz’s celebrated — and much mocked — phrase, the “best of all possible worlds.”22

This idea, which came to be known as “theodicy,” was the ultimate untestable hypothesis. It was wickedly lampooned by Voltaire in his novel Candide, but others — including Adam Smith — adopted it as part of their personal beliefs.

Despite his brutal criticism of both Christianity and Judaism, Voltaire did not believe in a strictly material universe, and neither did a number of other strongly anti-clerical philosophers. They characterized themselves as deists. They accepted the existence of a supernatural creator, but not one that actively intervened in human affairs. As Voltaire explained,

When Nature created our species she gave us certain instincts: self-love to preserve ourselves, benevolence for the preservation of others, the love which is common to all species, and the inexplicable gift of being able to combine more ideas than all the other animals put together. Having thus given us our share, she said: “Now do the best you can.”23

The deists rejected all sources of divine revelation (holy books, prophets, miracles, mystical experience). The Bible, the cornerstone of Protestantism, was entirely dismissed. As Matthew Tindal explained, ”God, at all times, has given mankind sufficient means of knowing whatever he requires of them.” The Bible, being late in coming and narrowly known, could not be a necessary part of this knowledge. Where, then, could such knowledge come from? According to the deists, everything that could be known about creation and the creator was learned through direct observation of the world. The soul was a tricky thing, being inherently unobservable, and the deists differed on its existence: Viscount Bolingbroke thought it probably existed, Thomas Paine very much doubted it, Benjamin Franklin expected resurrection — perhaps the prospect of “eternal rest” was just too much for a busy man to bear.

Although atheism appears to have been more common in France than in England, censorship by the state and the Catholic Church made the French careful about what they professed in public. Voltaire, though scornful of religion, was a strong advocate of religious tolerance: if there must be religion, at least ensure that it is not allied with the state. A similar view was to be found in the United States. For example, Thomas Jefferson (another deist) argued that the “legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others” and hence the government’s power does not extend to religious belief:

It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.24

This view underlies the First Amendment of the American constitution (ratified in 1789): the Establishment Clause imposes the separation of church and state, while the Free Exercise Clause prevents the state from restricting religious practices.

The Common Man

The English emphasis on empathy and the French emphasis on reason led to radically different attitudes toward the common man: the English philosophers embraced him; the French philosophers disdained him.

For Adam Smith the welfare of the nation was inseparable from the welfare of its labourers:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.25

Their “share of the produce of their own labour” was almost always their wage earnings. Smith recognized that wages are determined by economic conditions, and certainly did not advocate any kind of wage floor. Nevertheless, the benefits of high wages were clear to him:

The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than where they are low.26

Smith believed that wages were naturally high in expanding areas like England and America, and he was content that they be high. He had little to say about those people who, through ill fortune or infirmity, were unable to earn these wages. In his writings he neither promoted nor opposed poor relief.

Smith believed that every man had a moral sense which allowed him to empathize with every other man. All men were alike in this way, but their progress through life marked them differently.

The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education…By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel.27

Smith thought that the government should play a role in minimizing the acquired differences. In particular, it should fund schools where any child could go to learn fundamental skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic.

This view of the common man was not confined to the coffee house and the debating society. England had a nation-wide system of poor relief — it was the first country to have one — but as well, many churches and private charities provided assistance to the poor. They built and operated schools, hospitals, libraries, and workhouses. The schools and libraries were intended to improve the prospects of labourers and their children, while the hospitals and workhouses provided for those with more dire needs. Some of these projects were funded by wealthy philanthropists, but many were implemented by voluntary associations of “middle class” persons (small manufacturers and merchants, clergymen, military officers). As well as providing direct assistance to the poor, they sought to change the conditions under which the poor lived.

Philanthropists were also, inevitably, reformers, exposing wretched conditions in prisons and workhouses, proposing varieties of social and legal reforms, and creating and subsidizing new institutions. Between 1720 and 1750, five great London hospitals and nine in the country were founded, and the following half century saw the establishment of dispensaries, clinics, and specialized hospitals (maternity, infectious diseases, insane asylums). An act providing nursing care in the country for the infants of paupers, and such other measures as the paving and draining of many London streets and the clearing of some of its worst slums, resulted in a dramatic reduction of the death rates, for children especially.28

Labourers also banded together to help each other.

The Friendly Societies — insurance clubs, essentially — founded by workers for their mutual aid, were voluntary and independent, self-governing and self-supporting. Members would contribute regular sums (kept, in early years, in strongboxes or wooden chests), to be dispensed to those in need because of illness, infirmity, unemployment, or to pay for funerals and other emergencies; some groups engaged local doctors to attend the sick…In 1793, they acquired legal recognition in an act of Parliament providing for their “encouragement and relief.” By 1801, a contemporary study estimated, there were 7,200 such societies with a membership of almost 650,000 adult males — this in a total population of 9 million.29

The French philosophers did not subscribe to Smith’s egalitarianism. For them, reason mattered above all else:

Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the

They believed that some people were capable of reasoning and others were not. These differences were largely innate — “destined by nature,” said Diderot — and education simply magnified them. The common man’s inability to reason opened an unbridgeable gap between the philosophers and the “rabble.” Diderot was emphatic on this point:

The general class of men are not made so that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit.31

Distrust the judgment of the multitude in matters of reasoning and philosophy; its voice is that of wickedness, stupidity, inhumanity, unreason, and prejudice.32

The French philosophers were personally dismissive of conventional religion, or of all religion. They nevertheless believed that it served a purpose within the broader society: the common people would be blinded by ignorance and superstition, and would live miserable and degraded lives, unless restrained by religion. It was better that they believed an edifying fiction than that they believed nothing. Voltaire put it this way:

I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated and robbed and cuckolded less often.33

The rabble should be inculcated with religious myths, but they should not be taught anything useful. The philosophers were not inclined to extend education to the lower classes. The children of agricultural workers should not be educated, since they would become agricultural workers in their turn and had no need of it. The children of certain artisans might benefit from reading and writing, but that was all. Here, the philosophers were fighting a rearguard action: the Catholic church had taken on the task of providing an education to children in the countryside, and was meeting with some success. With the exception of the reform-minded Turgot, the French philosophers were also generally opposed to providing permanent institutions for the support of the poor, regardless of whether the institutions were operated by the government, the church, or private charities. They saw these institutions as encouraging sloth among the lower classes, and barely took notice of those people who were destitute through illness or infirmity. The private philanthropy that was so common in Britain seldom occurred in France.34

Himmelfarb nicely sums up these contrasting philosophies:

Just as there was no “Age of Reason” in Britain, there was no “Age of Benevolence” in France.35

The Study of Man

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

Alexander Pope’s famous couplet captures the essence of the Enlightenment. It also encapsulates the outlook of one of the Enlightenment’s most influential scholars, David Hume.36

Hume believed that neither Christianity nor deism had any plausible foundation. Indeed, he could find nothing at all about religion that was credible:

The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgement, appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny concerning this

This doubt could never be removed, so philosophers should simply stop discussing the matter. They should instead address questions that are capable of resolution. Here is how Pagden explains Hume’s position:

Human beings could only acquire the kind of understanding their minds are equipped to acquire. That we could always imagine other kinds and could even pose questions to ourselves, incoherent though they might be, which in the nature of things had no answer, was simply a part of the human condition.38

For Hume, the most important questions that were capable of resolution were those that dealt with human behaviour. They were capable of resolution because human experience — the habits of daily life, the history of wars and political intrigues, travellers’ observations of faraway places — was essentially an endless stream of experiments. A careful study of these experiments would allow humans to learn much about themselves.

Hume believed that human nature was persistent through time and across the globe. If societies now differed in their customs, it was the result of their long isolation from each other. The differences between, say, a Frenchman and a Persian are not innate, but the result of extraneous factors (such as environment and culture) that pushed their customs in one direction or another. The idea of sympathy returns here: the people in each culture conform to the local practices, whatever they might be, because they identify with each other.

Despite these claims, there was a discordant element of racism in the writings of Hume, Rousseau and Kant, all of whom claimed that all humans are essentially the same, but that whites are nevertheless superior to others, and to Africans in particular. Kant’s views evolved through his life. In 1775 he was prepared to order human groups, with whites at the top and Africans at the bottom; but by the end of his life, he had decided that all humans were essentially the same, and he had denounced both slavery and colonialism. Kant — and others, including Diderot and Rousseau — recognized that the Africans they knew were almost always slaves, and that slavery itself was dehumanizing. According to Rousseau,

Slaves lose everything in their shackles, even the desire to escape. They love their servitude as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness. If therefore there are slaves by nature, it is because there had once been slaves contrary to nature.39

The slave’s nature was determined by his enslavement, not by the colour of his skin. According to the preacher Richard Price, the evidence for this claim was the Greeks, who had been conquered and colonized by the Ottomans:

Think of Greece, formerly the seat of arts and science, but now, having lost liberty, a vile and wretched spot, a region of darkness, poverty and barbarity.40

This understanding of slavery was consistent with an emerging interpretation of human nature: human societies evolved. The pace of evolution varied from one society to another because they faced different hindrances (such as an adverse climate) or even reverses (foreign conquest, or a natural disaster), but they were all evolving toward the same end. Indeed, part of the philosophers’ fascination with travelers’ tales was that the tales allowed the philosophers to look backward in time, to see what their own societies had once been like. (And it was always a look backward: the Europeans did not doubt that theirs was the most advanced society.)

This interpretation followed from the work of the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. Previous naturalists had imagined the natural world to be largely static, in keeping with the Biblical creation story. Buffon’s study of the fossil record led him to believe that the earth was much older than the Biblical chronology suggested (70,000 years, as opposed to the Biblical 6,000), and that all living things had changed through time. Humans were like all other animals in that they were physically changed, but they were unlike all other animals in that their societies also changed. Humans were aware of their own past, and able to imagine their future. These attributes allowed them to imagine alternative future societies, and to push their societies toward a preferred future. Human societies began simply, Buffon argued, but became larger and more complex over time. The various societies around the world are at different points on the evolutionary path, but they are all on the same path.

Buffon’s view of evolution was too mechanical for some philosophers — their command over their own destiny was a bedrock belief — but his basic framework was widely accepted. Here, for example, is Turgot’s version of it:

Thus the present state of the world, marked as it is by these infinite variations in inequality [of development], spreads out before us at one and the same time all the gradations from barbarism to refinement, thereby revealing to us at a single glance, as it were, the records and remains of all the steps taken by the human mind, a reflection of all the stages through which it has passed, and the history of all the ages.41

This understanding of the world encouraged the philosophers to think of the world’s societies as one people. Slavery and colonialism harmed persons on the other side of the world, persons whom the philosophers would never meet, but the philosophers believed that harm to them could not be tolerated any more than harm to one’s neighbours.

The flaw in this argument is that many Enlightenment philosophers were all too ready to tolerate harm to their neighbours. Edmund Burke said of the Enlightenment, “Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy.”42 Linus was a little more succinct.

You Must be Present to Win

Many raffle tickets state that you must be present (at the draw) to win. Perhaps this proviso is one way to think about the Enlightenment. Europeans before the Enlightenment were not present in their own lives. What mattered, they were told, was the salvation of their souls. This world was simply a brief and perilous preparation for the next world, and only the next world really mattered. The Enlightenment was the time when Europeans began to put aside this dogma. Instead, they focused on the current world — the world of answerable questions, Hume would say — and downplayed or entirely discarded the next. And when you focus on answerable questions, you get answers. European progress accelerated from this time.

  1. Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (Penguin, 2000), p. 7.
  2. Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 46.
  3. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Quoted in Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 52.
  4. Montaigne, “On Habit,” in The Complete Essays. Quoted in Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 54.
  5. These ideas come from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).
  6. This is the view of the historian Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment , p. 66.
  7. This idea was put forward in Shaftesbury’s An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit (1699).
  8. Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725).
  9. See Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789).
  10. Hume, Treatise on Human Nature (1740).
  11. The meaning of the word “sympathy” has changed through time. Today, “empathy” might be the more appropriate word.
  12. Hume, A Treatise Concerning Human Nature (1740). Quoted in Himmelfarb, Enlightenment, p. 34.
  13. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Part 1, Sec. 1, ch. 1.
  14. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), part 1, sec. 1, ch. 1.
  15. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), book 1, ch. 1.
  16. This interpretation of Smith’s philosophy comes from Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness (Portfolio, 2014).
  17. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, part 3, sec. 1, ch. 1.
  18. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, part 3, sec. 1, ch. 1.
  19. Immanuel Kant, “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784).
  20. Quoted by Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity, p. 154.
  21. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, part 3, sec. 2, ch. 3.
  22. Pagden, Enlightenment, pp. 111-2.
  23. Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), “Lois (Des)”. Quoted by Pagden, Enlightenment, pp. 115-6
  24. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Quoted by Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 133.
  25. Smith, The Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 8.
  26. Smith, The Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 8.
  27. Smith, The Wealth of Nations, book 1, ch. 2.
  28. Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity, p. 134.
  29. Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity, p. 143.
  30. From Encyclopedia (1751). Quoted by Himmelfarb, Roads to Modernity, p. 152.
  31. From Encyclopedia (1751). Quoted by Himmelfarb, Roads to Modernity, p. 152.
  32. From Encyclopedia (1751). Quoted by Himmelfarb, Roads to Modernity, p. 152.
  33. Quoted by Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity, p. 155.
  34. For more detail on the French philosophers’ attitudes toward education and the support of the poor, see Himmelfarb, The Road to Modernity, pp. 174-181.
  35. Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity, p. 181.
  36. Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1740. It was repackaged as Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in 1748, and followed by Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in 1751. The Treatise would become one of the most influential works of the late eighteenth century. I have not attempted even a brief overview of Hume’s philosophy. There is a good online survey here.
  37. David Hume, “Natural History of Religion” in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Quoted by Roy Porter, Enlightenment, p. 126.
  38. Pagden, Enlightenment, pp. 154-5.
  39. Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762). Quoted by Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 169.
  40. Richard Price, “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country” (1789). Quoted by Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 170.
  41. Turgot, Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind (1750). Quoted by Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 176.
  42. Edmund Burke, “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” in Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Quoted by Pagden, Enlightenment, p. 379.