Every age gets the Enlightenment it deserves, or at least the Enlightenment that suits the times. The term, of course, refers most often to the thought and culture of the long 18th century. But it is itself a recent creation. Used periodically in the first decades of the 20th century, it entered into broader public use only in the aftermath of the Second World War.
In the 1940s and 1950s, commentators imagined the Enlightenment as the wellspring of modern totalitarianism, the source, improbably, of both Nazi tyranny and Soviet oppression. In the 1960s and 1970s, by contrast, the Enlightenment did double duty as the font of bourgeois ideology and of a revolutionary radicalism that seemed to bubble up from below. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Enlightenment was pressed into service in the culture wars as an example of the limits of grand narrative, a ‘project’ that had gone awry, and at the same time as a model of level-headed certainty in an era of relativism and postmodernism. More recently, scholars have imagined the Enlightenment with the help of a string of qualifying adjectives (English, radical, Jewish, Protestant) as religious, moderate or atheistic. Now, David Wootton gives us an Enlightenment that initiated the unlimited pursuit of power, pleasure and profit. It is the perfect Enlightenment for the age of Trump.
Not that Wootton himself would celebrate it as such. His own view of it is somewhat mixed. And yet he is clear about its consequences. What he describes as ‘the Enlightenment paradigm’ ushered in a new type of civilisation, leading to ‘the triumph of the idea that power,