The Enlightenment Summary

Norman Hampson

The Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment Summary

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The Enlightenment is a nonfiction history book by English historian Norman Hampson, first published in 1991. It is a history of the period known as The Enlightenment, or “The Century of Lights” in France. The Enlightenment was a philosophical and intellectual movement which dominated European thought for the majority of the 18th century, moving public opinion away from belief in divine right and unquestioning obedience to authority, and towards concepts such as reason, liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state. It was an era in which old institutions such as the monarchy and organized religions began to wane in power, and individual freedom to express oneself in art, literature, and politics increased. This period was also closely associated with the scientific revolution and the rise of prominent philosophers. The Enlightenment considers this historical period from the perspective of its most significant figures and how they influenced the world around them. Hampson also examines the political climate of the time, and how the Enlightenment influenced the American and French revolutions. Considered one of the most exhaustive scholarly examinations of the Enlightenment, Hampson’s book is a commonly-used source material for college courses.

The Enlightenment is divided into two sections. The first section, “A New Heaven and a New Earth”, focuses on the period 1715-1740 and the effects of the Scientific Revolution. Chapter one is about the social and political climate of the time, including information about the economy and the ruling regimes. Hampson argues that the liberal, rather than repressive rulers who were in power at the time were key to enabling change. Chapter two looks at the scientific discoveries made at the time, and how religion began to change to allow scientific discovery to flourish. The Roman Catholic Church, which had ruled Europe as a de facto government for centuries and had a long arm in the middle ages, had lost much of its land and power, and scientists no longer had to worry about formal heresy charges. Isaac Newton, an icon in the scientific community, had become an almost religious figure in his own right to like-minded scientists who were determined to build on his discoveries. Many of these scientists were Deists rather than traditional Christians. Chapter three looks at human nature, and how ideas about human nature were reflected and challenged by philosophers such as Locke, Voltaire, and Descartes. Chapter four moves on to how “Enlightenment” became a way of life, with people committing themselves to its ideals and developing communes for study, philosophy, and scientific exploration. The severe class distinctions in this period, with the upper class and nobility having the luxury to study, while the poor were confined to largely manual labor, may have stoked resentment that would explode in the 19th century and beyond.

The second half of the book, titled “Not Peace but a Sword”, focuses on some of the specific philosophers of the period 1740-1789. These include Diderot, Rousseau, and Kant. Chapter five looks at the social and political environment in the second half of the eighteenth century, as Enlightenment ideas become more and more widespread. While intellectual growth continued, several countries ran into economic problems and the continent began to see the first signs of the radicalism that would later erupt. Chapter six looks at Rousseau and Kant, their examination of man’s inner voice and how they influenced their respective cultures. Germany, in particular, saw the rise of a new breed of artist, led by Goethe, who challenged national orthodoxy. Chapter seven brings the focus back to science, as it looks at the concept of scientific time and how the early study of human history and its predecessors led the way for the work of Charles Darwin in the next century. It also looks at the greater exploration of historical time and how studies of the past became more mainstream. Chapter eight makes a deeper examination of the link between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which took place a mere twenty years after the conclusion of what is generally known as the Enlightenment period. Hampson, a scholar of the French Revolution, sees a direct link between the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the radicalism that took over France. The previous century had created a breach between the working class and the elites that eventually boiled over. The book ends with a look at the lives of the significant figures of the Enlightenment, and some of the most significant works published during the period.

Norman Hampson was Professor of History at the University of York from 1974 to 1989, and was considered one of the foremost experts on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. A fellow of the British Academy and the first president of the Society for the Study of French History, he was known for challenging the orthodoxies of previous scholars of the Revolution. He was a reviewer and writer for the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, and wrote eleven books related to the French Revolution, the period that led up to it, and its most significant figures.