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.