History of philosophy
Seeing the light
A well-documented account of the second golden age of Western philosophy
WESTERN philosophy has had two golden ages. The first was the remarkable explosion of thought in early Athens, sparked by Socrates and continued by Plato, Aristotle and their followers. Then came the great flowering in northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, when a diverse group of thinkers questioned received opinion and put their faith in reason in what is now known as the Enlightenment. This story is too simple to be the whole truth; but it is a narrative that is useful for those coming to the history of Western philosophy for the first time, even if they revise or abandon it later on.
“The Dream of Enlightenment”, the second in a planned trilogy that began with “The Dream of Reason”, Anthony Gottlieb focuses on some of the great Enlightenment thinkers, including Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire. He offers engaging summaries of their main ideas and choice details of their lives. They were freelance philosophers working independently of the universities, criticising mainstream views and liberating thought from its academic straitjacket and neo-Aristotelian dogmatism.
They were dangerous thinkers all, one publication away from exile, imprisonment or worse for their radical views on religion, politics and morality. Spinoza was the subject of a cherem, the equivalent of excommunication from the Amsterdam Sephardic synagogue; Locke disguised his
uised his authorship of “Two Treatises of Government”, and spent a number of years in self-imposed exile; Hume chose to publish his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” posthumously; and Rousseau fled to England when persecuted in mainland Europe. Metaphysics was far from the safe activity it is today, and was often condemned as blasphemy or heresy.
In an essay called “What is Enlightenment?”, written in 1784, Immanuel Kant crystallised the essence of the movement in the motto Sapere aude (“Dare to know”). Humanity had used reason to emerge from its state of immaturity, he argued. For many, Kant is the supreme example of an Enlightenment philosopher; though less provocative in his moral and religious conclusions than others, he pushed reason as far as it would go. Mr Gottlieb has, surprisingly, chosen to end his book with Voltaire and Rousseau, leaving Kant for a later volume, a decision that some might question.
That aside, “The Dream of Enlightenment” is an entertaining introduction to a range of daring thinkers of the long Enlightenment from Descartes to Rousseau. The author has a light touch, and his book is a joy to read. He manages to convey the excitement of ideas, and the humanity of thinkers, without swamping readers with complexity. His readings are at times controversial, as when he declares Locke’s political philosophy more Hobbesian than is generally thought, and in the prominent place he gives to Pierre Bayle, a 17th-century French Protestant, but it is for scholars to quibble over these interpretations.
A great strength of the book is the inclusion of details such as the mention of Voltaire’s marginal comments on Rousseau’s passages on primitive man: “How do you know?” and “How you exaggerate everything!”; the revelation that Spinoza did not live from his earnings as a lens grinder, but rather from grants from admirers and pupils; Hume’s reply to a publisher’s request for further volumes of his “History”, that he was “too old, too fat, too lazy, and too rich” to comply; and, perhaps most pertinent, the succinct summary of Locke’s philosophy by Charles Sanders Peirce, who was known as the “father of pragmatism”: “Men must think for themselves.”