by Caio Moraes Ferreira
Chapters 10 and 11 of Jack Spievogel’s World History: Modern Times offer a somewhat conventional take on the transition from an early modern to a modern European society. In broad strokes, Spievogel’s scheme shows us how, in the late seventeenth century, emerging ideas regarding the role of reason and rationalism in scientific inquiry helped shape the sensibility of a new intellectual movement. Following the book’s plot, this movement—the Enlightenment—sought to apply the principles of the Scientific Revolution to the political world, thereby uncovering laws of social organization based on nature, rather than tradition or the arbitrary use of power. The Enlightenment’s ambitions faced their biggest obstacle in the entrenched despotism of European kings, who failed to properly follow through with the emerging ideals of reason, progress and just governability promoted by European philosophers. Thus, the spirit of seventeenth-century rationalism slowly morphed into a radical project of political upheaval which culminated in the French Revolution, an episode that saw its guiding principle of reason veer dangerously close to the very display of arbitrary power it sought to replace.
Like most narratives of continuity, these two chapters tell a pedagogically effective story of ideas being established, expanded, politicized and radicalized in the span of two centuries—one that is part epic, part tragedy. It teaches students to look for patterns in the unfolding of historical events and to understand the longue durée of Western History. With its strengths, however, also come its share of problems.
The first issue emerges in the beginning of chapter 10 itself, where the author explores the Scientific Revolution. While Spielvogel effectively details some of the technological and mathematical innovations that took place in the period, his tone and framework still endorse a reductive opposition between “faith” and “science.” In a particularly questionable section called “Opposing Views: Faith vs Science,” the author invites students to compare two famous quotes by Gallileo and Cardinal Berllarmine on the topic of heliocentrism. The brevity of the quotes and the lack of a more nuanced contextualization of the period generates a distorted view of the Scientific Revolution, one that only serves to reinforce the (generally imprecise) idea that the Catholic Church was opposed to scientific inquiry (or, at the very least, that it was a voice of superstitious conventionalism). This problem is somewhat compounded when the chapter moves into more philosophical matters. To be sure, the book does a good job summarizing Descartes’ and Francis Bacon’s projects for students. However, the notion that rationalism was the central leitmotif of the Scientific Revolution (or the intellectual take away of the entire seventeenth century) erases the richness and the variety of the period. Students who are then confronted with the works of important philosophers like Hobbes, Pascal or even Locke (who is here presented as the greatest English progenitor of the Enlightenment) would likely be perplexed by their empiricist and religious inflections.
As we move into the eighteenth century, the book shows another crack in its armor: the near exclusivity of significance awarded to French intellectuals in the Enlightenment project. In fact, Spielvogel goes as far as to say that: “Most leaders of the Enlightenment were French, although the English had provided the philosophical inspiration for the movement. It was the French philosophes who affected intellectuals elsewhere and created a movement that influenced the entire Western world” (312). This kind of preference not only displaces the contributions of eighteenth-century British intellectuals such as Hume, Fergusson and Burke (the one exception being Adam Smith), but it also completely effaces the place of the German Enlightenment (to make an important, but still highly conventional addition).
To be precise, the predominance of the French in Spielvogel’s narrative is just a symptom of a larger problem, one that goes to the very core of understanding the Enlightenment as a “movement,” rather than as a broader historical period where distinct, parallel and competing “movements” took place. The pressure to present the eighteenth century as a transition from early modern rationalism to modern liberalism not only reduces the period to a single political project, but also overstates its ideological coherence. In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that chapter 10 does help students sidestep one of the biggest platitudes about Enlightenment thought—the equivalence of “anticlericalism” and “atheism.” Likewise, it is important to commend the book for attempting to shed light on some of the contributions made by female intellectuals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (even if, in the end, those sections could be expanded to feature more examples). Nevertheless, crucial aspects of the period’s political and social thought (emerging ideas about the senses, emotions and the mind; new theories on race, gender and sexuality; reflections on the legitimacy of slavery, the relationship between mercantilism and war) go almost unmentioned. One particularly crucial omission is the influence of the Enlightenment in modern colonial practices, which would have greatly benefited the book’s effort to present a critical take on global history. Similarly, the sections on neoclassical art, literature and aesthetics—arguably the areas where the philosophes were most influential and experimental—feel overly short and vestigial.
Crucial aspects of the period’s political and social thought (emerging ideas about the senses, emotions and the mind; new theories on race, gender and sexuality; reflections on the legitimacy of slavery, the relationship between mercantilism and war) go almost unmentioned.
In chapter 11 (which covers the French Revolution more closely), the book strategically combines two factors to explain the growth of revolutionary ideologies: the influence of “Enlightenment ideals” and the worsening of the economic and material conditions of the lower classes (above all, peasants). Again, this is a somewhat conventional model that does have visible strengths. However, the same way Spielvogel overstates the influence of liberalism in Enlightenment thought, he also slightly overstates the influence of the philosophes in the revolutionary pursuits of the late eighteenth-century bourgeoisie (to say nothing of the peasantry). At the same time, the book does not cover a series of more subtle, but important changes in eighteenth-century French culture. For example: it says very little about the reign of Louis XV and the gradual erosion of the monarchy’s symbolic status that took place during it (a process that helps explain the rise of revolutionary ambitions in what was still a highly traditional Christian society).
That said, it is important to mention that chapter 11 presents an effective narration of the Revolution’s progress, from the end of the monarchy to the end of the Napoleonic Empire. While Spielvogel’s framing and broader understanding of the period could perhaps be expanded, his command of the facts, characters and political projects at play is visible. Similarly, his ability to render elegant the stark changes in status quo that mark the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century should not be ignored. In the end, these chapters pay the price of the broader narrative they adopt, and it should be said that different narrative structures would have produced different blind spots. Still, a few additions could have presented the richness of this period a little more clearly and could have better conveyed its lasting impact in contemporary society.
Bell, David, The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism 1680 – 1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
Edelstein, Dan, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Koselleck Reinhart, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998).
von Mücke, Dorothea, Practices of the Enlightenment: Aesthetics, Authorship and the Public (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
Caio Moraes Ferreira is a fourth year PhD student in French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Before starting his academic life in the United States, he received both a B.A and an M.A in History from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His research interests include the French and German Enlightenments, eighteenth-century aesthetics and philosophy of history, neoclassical theater, early modern rhetoric, modern French historiography and the history of literary criticism. He is currently working on a dissertation on the relationship between neoclassical literature and the philosophy of history of the eighteenth century.
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