A British history professor guides readers through four centuries of Western thought to show how new ideas about politics, ethics, and economics stepped into a gap opened up by religious conflict and the Scientific Revolution. As ideas about godliness and Aristotelian virtue faded, theories about the rational pursuit of power, pleasure, and profit moved to the fore.
Mr. Wootton’s book originated as a series of lectures delivered at Oxford, and it retains a somewhat didactic feel. Much of it is donnish intellectual history, full of interesting but digressive discussions ... The consumer revolution was a defining feature of the 18th century, particularly in the British-speaking world ... Mr. Wootton assumes rather than explains these transformations. His main concern is with the theorists who described (and justified) the psychology required to live in such a world ... Mr. Wootton writes to provoke. His style is engaging, and he has a practiced eye for finding the historically telling detail (often etymological) ... Mr. Wootton explicates complex social and political theories with admirable lucidity ... It is perhaps doubtful that modern ethics are quite this easily reduced to a system of self-gratification. And to the extent that they are, Mr. Wootton is not always sensitive to the limitations of this development.
Wootton compellingly writes about the 17th-century French philosopher Pierre Gassendi ... Wootton excels in unpacking [Adam Smith's] complicated intellectual legacy ... Wootton’s notion of modest, practical Aristoteilian-esque virtue in the face of limitless appetite is a compelling one, and he stakes his claims methodically and persuasively.
This is decidedly not a traditional history of the Enlightenment as a philosophical or political project. In place of a doctrinal history, Wootton traces instead the emergence of what he calls 'the Enlightenment paradigm' ... This is a book that paints with a broad brush: Wootton proposes no less than a moral history of the present, by way of an idiosyncratic account of the Enlightenment ... Perhaps recognizing that a claim as bold as this could not withstand direct explication, Wootton’s approach is more circuitous. The chapters themselves are subtle and often witty explorations of Enlightenment texts, many of which are familiar and some of which are not ... This might seem pedantic, and at certain moments it is, but the larger impression is charming and often persuasive. With detours such as these, Wootton provides an unusual but fascinating foray into all the great themes of moral and political philosophy, from happiness to politics to commerce to love ... Wootton’s take on the Enlightenment, then, is quite distinct from those offered in today’s Enlightenment wars. And yet, because it is rooted in such a blinkered account of the present, it is not necessarily more compelling, or more useful ... More importantly, though, Wootton commits the sin that the best exemplars of the Enlightenment itself did not: he does not heed the evidence of the world around him. We heirs of the Enlightenment do not lead lives as dismal as Wootton thinks. The boilerplate critiques of our degraded moral universe have little purchase in the world of religious exploration, familial intimacy, and political idealism that we actually inhabit ... the Enlightenment needs and deserves a stouter defense than this.