What is called 'the age of reason' should properly be considered 'the age of feeling, sympathy and sensibility', argues Robertson. The opposition between reason and tradition, which was crucial to the Enlightenment, has been conflated with an opposition between reason and emotion, which was not. These are fairly standard points, as is highlighting the role of 'sensibility' in Enlightenment ethics, and how Francis Hutcheson, Lord Shaftesbury and David Hume variously argued that emotion, rather than reason, was, and should be, both the spur to, and the foundation for, moral behaviour. More original is Robertson’s fine-grained portrayal of how both reason and emotion were recalibrated in the Enlightenment.
There’s a certain kind of book that defies a direct approach. It arrives on the doorstep, several inches thick, dense with learning ... Ritchie Robertson’s thousand-page The Enlightenment , a beautifully written account of a period that everyone has heard of but few pause to think about ... Robertson is not uncritical, but he takes issue with, or qualifies, these and other charges leveled at those he calls 'Enlighteners,' a catchall term that includes everyone from the grand thinkers—Voltaire, Rousseau, Newton, Hume—to agrarian reformers and village autodidacts ... One may wish that the book had been sold by the morsel—as shavings of truffle rather than total bulk weight. That said, alongside Diderot it seems compact. And Robertson has divided the book into a hundred or so mini-chapters, each an anecdote-inflected essay that slots into a larger framework.
...the general reader can be forgiven for feeling a tad daunted. Now, however, help is at hand, in the form of The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790 by Ritchie Robertson, a work that is at once readable, authoritative and wide-ranging ... The author is a professor of German literature and thought at Oxford University, but whatever the specific subject addressed, the quality of scholarship is uniformly high ... From the use of statistics to the novel to animal rights and vegetarianism, reaching across perhaps a dozen different nations, the book’s range is astonishing ... To the idea of reason, Robertson skilfully counterposes those of sensibility and sociability ... In a brilliant chapter, Robertson encompasses Adam Smith’s demonstration that even human commercial exchange rests on imagination ... He rightly highlights the centrality to European thought of Newton, Boyle, Locke and Hobbes ... the need for independent thought, conditioned always by a knowledge of history such as this, has rarely been more important than today.
... deeply impressive ... The whole spectrum of [...] passions is marvelously represented in these pages (which, charmingly, are illustrated throughout with the frontispieces of seminal Enlightenment works, rather than tired stereotypical paintings of Catherine the Great’s drawing room and such). Robertson has written a big, enthusiastic book about other books ... Diderot and his fellow valiant thinkers might not have liked the idea that reason, sympathy, and equality are so constantly vulnerable – but they’d have applauded such a big and optimistic book as this.
...masterly ... A professor of German at Oxford, he is a champion of the thinkers who promoted 'the advance of reason, good sense and empirical enquiry' against superstition and tyranny, from the late 17th century until the French revolution ... Enlightenment intellectuals not only thought big. They wrote long ... Mr Robertson’s 1,000-page whopper imbibes something of the spirit of these mammoth compendia. Not every reader will choose to plough straight through ... Those who do will find that Mr Robertson sweetens erudition with humanity, much as his subjects did.
Two rather disconcerting realizations emerge as you read. First, one can’t help but notice how we seem to be backing away from the Enlightenment’s intellectually progressive principles in our 'modern' times. Second, with nearly 800 pages of text, the book is exhaustive, which is a euphemism for 'exhausting.' Though marketed to the general public, it seems written for scholars ... Robertson, a professor of German at Oxford University, does a decent job of establishing how Enlightenment principles helped move society beyond faith and toward science ... The Enlightenment is a heavily researched book. As mentioned, its main text runs 800 pages, with hundreds more of notes and citations. Which begs the question of a work aimed not at academics but a general audience: Why? ... In an attempt not to leave out anything, the author leaves in everything. The result was that it became nearly impossible for me to find evidence of the book’s central thesis.
This tension, between the objectives of the historian and the advocate, runs throughout Mr. Robertson’s book, lending it both interest and partiality ... To be sure, Mr. Robertson is no harrumphing apologist. A professor of German literature at Oxford University, he is splendidly erudite. Generally admiring of the intellectuals he styles (somewhat unhappily) the 'Enlighteners,' he nevertheless surveys their failures with a clear eye. A distressing chapter of his book does indeed document the racial views of Hume and Kant, which, though only sporadically expressed, were mean, ignorant and obdurate. Another long section presents the pervasive misogyny of the period ... Among the strengths of this book is its use of literature and its author’s vast knowledge of German letters in particular ... Mr. Robertson also seems to share the antipathy that many of his heroes displayed for more orthodox, revealed religion. He quotes at unjustifiable length Voltaire’s rather gauche scriptural criticism, in which he typically offered simplistic, literal readings of the Bible and mocked the results. Mr. Robertson is also perhaps too impressed by Hume’s overestimated attack on miracles ... These themes of ethical sentiment and rational religion dominate but don’t reliably focus Mr. Robertson’s book. The study is simply massive, nearly a 1,000 pages. Though well written, it will be difficult for readers to endure from beginning to end ... For stretches, the book reads like a general history of 18th-century Europe ... Though overly voluble at times, Mr. Robertson is a splendid writer, astoundingly versed in European letters and gifted at vividly sketching the views of the Enlighteners. He has produced a book that will work best when sampled, with each chapter read as a free-standing essay ... In this sense, Mr. Robertson has written a fitting tribute to his topic ... Mr. Robertson, armed with a prodigious knowledge of the Enlightenment’s literary output, has captured the tone and spirit of this milieu. Whether, in the face of critics either religiously orthodox or politically woke, he has produced a case for the intellectual relevance of the Enlightenment is a more open question. Individual readers will, one might mischievously suggest, feel differently about that.
... robust ... Traditional accounts of the European eighteenth century have emphasized scientific advancement, the rejection of religion, and France. Robertson allows for more complexity ... the book’s most fascinating insights connect popular novels to a 'sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings.' The result is a fresh and expansive discussion of the philosophical substrate from which many cherished ideals first sprouted and a potent defense of an era that has been much piled-upon of late.
A long, thoroughly satisfying history of an era that was not solely about reason but was 'also the age of feeling, sympathy and sensibility.' ... Robertson, a professor of German at Oxford, has clearly read all the original sources and most modern scholars and arrived at his own conclusions, which are alternately unsettling and stimulating and consistently engaging ... Robertson delivers a masterly overview, but he devotes far more text to religion, which, unlike science, preoccupied almost everyone ... except for the near absence of politics, war, and trade, this is a magisterial history of Europe and the West during this period, featuring more than 100 chapters, each rarely longer than 10 pages, and offering delightful analyses of its ideas, individuals, and controversies ... Robertson delivers his thoughts on each in short chapters, most of them jewels. An entirely absorbing doorstop history of ideas.
The so-called 'Age of Reason' also put emotion and conscience at the center of a new social ideology, according to this sweeping study of the Enlightenment ... Robertson’s far-flung thematic survey probes the work of philosophers and ideologues, among them Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant, and expertly interprets the period’s art and literature, including Samuel Richardson’s melodramatic novel Clarissa , which set all of Europe to weeping. Thanks to Robertson’s elegant prose and lucid analyses, this massive and deeply erudite work serves as a stimulating and accessible introduction to a watershed period in the intellectual development of the West.