Tweet Share In her book The Enlightenment, Dorinda Outram gives a broad introduction to the history and historiography of the Enlightenment. Please note that this post is from Evaluate with care and in light of later events. She begins by attempting to define what the term means. Thus, she says, the Italians, Germans, and French—to name only three locations—all mean something slightly different in by the related terms as applied to themselves and their works. Despite this potential for complexity, there has been a certain homogeneity in some historical accounts.
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As Outram points out, much recent historical research has focused on the social context in which Enlightenment ideas were produced, received, and marketed. Herein lay the source of great change during the eighteenth century, and herein also lay the source of great complexity. Economic expansion, population growth, increased literacy, and the proliferation of learned societies — to name only several of the many changes — diminished the authority of the monarchy and religious establishments while giving greater influence to the writers and thinkers who shaped the changes during the Enlightenment.
One category in which change was particularly marked was that of religion. Some historians, such as Gay, Vovelle, and Thomas, saw the Enlightenment as above all a challenge to religion, while others — chiefly Hegel — saw the Enlightenment as a corollary to the Reformation insofar as both movements sought to free human thought.
Nevertheless, as Outram argues, the picture becomes more complex when one looks beyond the small group of anti-religious writers confined mostly to the French Enlightenment. Many religious movements during this period sought to make orthodox religious beliefs commensurable with human reason and other Enlightenment ideals. Religion did, however, come under threat during the Enlightenment, and the application of reason to the interpretation of scripture heightened the ambivalence surrounding not only Christianity, but also the legitimacy of the monarchs who found sanction by evoking a divine order.
Heretofore the two fields of inquiry had been closely connected, and indeed remained so for much of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment never posed a uniform attack on religion, and religion never blindly refuted the precepts of the Enlightenment; the theme was one of complexity and ambiguity. Were Europeans different? Were European ideals universal? Was civilization morally ideal?
Outram argues that Europeans often saw native peoples as natural and inherently good — not corrupted by civilization — and found in natives a set of qualities resembling those of classical Greece and Rome during their most virtuous eras. One of the greatest contradictions within Enlightenment thought involves that of gender. How could a movement seeking to establish freedom and equality simultaneously garner so-called scientific evidence to support the idea that women have a qualitatively lower ability to reason?
As with the other topics of discussion, Outram emphasizes that the picture was one of complexity and ambiguity: the Enlightenment both created a masculine political culture, and provided the theoretical basis for those who were to later struggle to free women from restrictive definitions of gender. Similarly, the relationship between the monarchy and the people was one of complexity. Many states, particularly in central Europe, already possessed well-developed theories of legitimation — such as Cameralism — that in fact sought reform by reconciling traditional notions of hierarchy with emerging Enlightenment ideals.
There remained certain contradictions, of course, such as the exclusion of large numbers of people from the exercise of universal rights, and the Enlightenment certainly influenced the course of the Revolution of , but as Outram emphasizes throughout her book, the connections are less direct, and the Enlightenment less unified, than historians have traditionally assumed.
One could study the Renaissance, or the Reformation, or the Romantic Movement — for example — as specific areas of inquiry within their respective centuries. In this way, perhaps Outram criticizes the book that Gay never intended to write; perhaps also she overstates the complexity of the Enlightenment.
Nevertheless, her study is coherent and compellingly argued, and it finds its enduring value in the issues it emphasizes and the questions it raises.
Dorinda Outram on the Enlightenment