On December 9th 2020, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech to the Federal Parliament: ‘I believe in the power of the Enlightenment.’ She said, ‘If Europe is what it is, it must thank the Enlightenment and the idea thereby derived that there is a scientific knowledge that is real, and that one shall better stick to it.’ Yet, as the Enlightenment covers a complex period spanning centuries and different cultures in Europe; the question as to what it really entails and meant, remains a highly disputed matter. Professor Ritchie Robertson has written a new book The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness which offers a dynamic and refreshing contribution to our understanding of what the Enlightenment meant—not only today—but to those who, as he argues, at the time consciously took part in this movement. According to Robertson’s account, happiness was ‘the overriding purpose of enlightened thought and activity’. This movement, therefore, did not only aim to understand the inner workings of life itself but also, and perhaps most importantly, aimed to make practical use of this knowledge to improve life.
An important part of our understanding of the Enlightenment hinges upon understanding what constitutes a scientific inquiry and other concepts such as tolerance, sociability, liberty – and, above all, reason. Robertson, however, writes that ‘the Age of Reason’ slogan ‘obscures’ other aspects of the period, which had important characteristics of feeling, sympathy, and sensibility, which goes beyond the purely rational and scientific aspects the Enlightenment is often associated with. Robertson demonstrates how these more sensible characteristics were expressed in the pursuit of happiness. Real science should also encompass sensibility, working towards human rights, the right to use one’s own understanding and to seek happiness.
Particular highlights of the book include Robertson’s attention to detail, such as Edward Gibbon’s entry into the Salons in Paris, whilst still offering an insightful and intellectually rich breadth, such as his disentanglement between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The Revolution, he writes, was a political event independent of the Enlightenment ideals that political reform is achieved through the ‘gradual spread of reason’ and ‘liberty’, as argued by Hume and d’Holbach. ‘Revolutions never make people happier’.
There are some who seek to critique history by reading it through a modern lens. This opens up what Robertson calls the ‘abuse of hindsight’ – the tendency to read the past solely from a present-day perspective. Not only does this produce a false reading of history, I think, but it also creates boundaries between the past and the present. Instead, in this book, Robertson aims to make the reader aware of the continuity of time. For good or ill, we are partly children of the Enlightenment – and the pursuit of happiness continues.
Dr Elisabeth Thorsson is a writer and academic at the Department of Philosophy, University of York.
Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.