The Dark Ages did not become dark, or the Middle Ages medieval, until the 19th century, when it turned out that the Nuova Scienza, the ‘New Learning’ of the Italians, had really been the Renaissance, a rebirth of old learning. But the Enlightenment named itself as it was happening: l’Illuminisme, Aufklärung, Haskalah. As Vincenzo Ferrone argues in this illuminating history, the Enlightenment was simultaneously a philosophical ideal, self-conscious and abstract, and a historical event so messy and protracted that its origins, nature and extent remain controversial. It is an impossible hybrid, like Aristotle’s ‘goat-stag’ – in Elisabetta Tarantino’s translation, a ‘conceptual Centaur’.
For Ferrone, the philosophers’ Enlightenment rests, like the proverbial elephant on a tortoise, on what Voltaire called in 1765 a ‘philosophy of history’. This philosophy saw history as a progress of stages, amenable to rational understanding. This succession of ‘vast historical scenarios’ formed a ‘universal history’ of all life forms.