Darrin M McMahon

The Joys of Enlightenment

Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison


Harvard University Press 386pp £25.95) order from our bookshop

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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all,… ,
    • 'The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the m… ,
    • 'Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian… ,
    • 'Moss and Cynthia buy several properties through which to launder their ill-gotten gains, take lots of drugs, have… ,
    • 'Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?' From the LR archive:… ,
    • Thirty-two years ago this month, we published Muriel Spark's short story, 'A Playhouse Called Remarkable' Read it… ,
    • Time travel, bicycles and white horses populate @WomackPhilip's roundup of children's books by @marcussedgwick,… ,