To what extent is it possible to speak of a European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century



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To what extent is it possible to speak of a European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century

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The 18th century was a time of great cultural change in Europe. Until recently, historians like Peter Gay viewed the Enlightenment as a unified cross-European intellectual movement amongst a core group of intellectuals, or philosophes, who shared an anti-religious and progressive outlook on the world.1 More recent scholarship, however, finds the Enlightenment’s scope to be greater than originally believed. Studies like Robert Darnton’s on eighteenth century reading habits attest to the popularity of titles outside the realm of traditional enlightened philosophy.2 Such findings call for a reconsideration of the Enlightenment’s effect on those outside the intellectual elite and the variance of its ideas. In order to gain an understanding of the Enlightenment’s extent in eighteenth century Europe, the intellectual progress that occurred in both the elite and other social strata will be recognized, followed by a look at the actual diffusion – or lack thereof – of such progress across regional and national divisions. It will be found that the European Enlightenment consisted of both a high and low enlightenment of society but that such enlightenment was nonexistent in many European areas and differed in outlook from nation to nation.

The extent of enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe is more easily understood when viewed, as Roy Porter does, in terms of two enlightenments: a high enlightenment and a low enlightenment.3 The ‘high enlightenment’ can be seen as the intellectual progress achieved by the elite of the time – the nobles, intellectuals and professional elite– who attended salons, joined intellectual societies and could afford subscriptions to publications such as Diderot’s Encyclopédie.4 While the high enlightenment received impetus from the writings of the natural philosophers whose names are well known today, it was not confined to them. It includes the increase in popularity and presence of intellectual curiosity that occurred in response to those works and the academic institutions created to accommodate it.5 In these we find definite proof of a high enlightenment across different parts of Europe. Intellectuals of the time formed a ‘republic of letters’ whose works were read internationally, thanks to translations.6 Many who did not themselves write were involved in the reading and debate of such ideas through newly formed societies and salons centred on them.7 Even a select few leaders – and many more advisors – showed interest in the ideas of the Republic of Letters. For example, Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great communicated with the philosophers Diderot and Voltaire, respectively, and Frederick, in line with enlightened ideas, demonstrated great religious tolerance in his treatment of Jews, Jesuits and Huguenots.8 While the existence of this high enlightenment is apparent, defining its ideas proves more difficult. The individualistic nature of high enlightenment thought led to such variety in ideas that parameters inclusive of all are hard to come by. An example of Enlightenment contradictions is David Hume’s Essay on Miracles (1748), which used reason to question the existence of miracles, and Thomas Sherlock’s Trial of the Witness of the Resurrection of Jesus (1729), which used reason to confirm their existence. 9 Further, there is no central organization or party charter to which historians can look for a definitive set of Enlightenment principles.10 There are, however, a few generalizations that can be made about high enlightenment thought: it emphasized the importance of intellectual curiosity, debate and independent thought; was open to the revaluation of all current bodies of knowledge, and encouraged the pursuit of practical ideas that could help advance man and society.11 Even these, however, have their exceptions.

The ‘low enlightenment’ refers to the cultural developments of the working class whose access to new ideas was limited by wealth and status. While traditionally viewed as relatively unaffected by Enlightenment thought, the study of literacy rates and reading habits tells a different story in parts of the eighteenth century working class. Print media was the most significant medium through which new ideas could be spread; this makes literacy an important historical yardstick for changes in the accessibility of new ideas to the working class. Unfortunately, literacy’s many definitions make it a slippery statistic. The ability to sign one’s name was the traditional test of literacy but is not always synonymous with the ability to read a book.12 It was common for women to be able to read but not sign their name and for men to have the inverse skill set.13 Nonetheless, this statistic, when taken alongside book and pamphlet sales, gives insight into reading trends of the time. The statistics available show a significant increase in literacy and book sales over the course of the eighteenth century.14 Male literacy in France increased from 29% in 1690 to 47% in 1790 while women’s literacy rose from 14% to 27% in the same time frame.15 Similar statistics of growing literacy were found in England, the United Provinces and Prussia.16 Such figures demonstrate an appreciation amongst the masses for the utility of literacy, if only to avoid fraud.17 Alongside literacy – or as a result of it – came huge increases in the production and sale of printed media. The Vox Stellarum, a popular British almanac, increased its sales from 107,000 in 1768 to 220,000 in 1789.18 In north-eastern France, semi-literate peasants enjoyed the bibliothèque bleu, a predominantly religious series of paperbacks that also covered farming methods, condensed novels, and cooking recipes.19 Similar series were read in provincial England.20 Later in the century, theological books became less popular – falling from 40% of the Prussian market in 1740 to 14% in 1800 – as readers tended towards the natural sciences, agriculture and most significantly, the novel.21 The close of the century also saw the rise of underground scandalous literature; what Darnton refers to as ‘grub street’.22 Such trends show that the majority of readers in 18th century France and Germany were not engrossed in the high enlightenment ideas previously described. Nonetheless they did still undergo significant cultural change, or enlightenment, in their sudden increase in literacy and subsequent changes in reading habits. In this sense, the low enlightenment was a cultural change distinct from, yet comparable in significance to the high enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was a cosmopolitan cultural shift whose scope was comparable to nothing since the Renaissance. Despite its widespread impact, it was by no means a blanket covering all of Europe; rather, its appearance would have been closer to that of a moth-eaten quilt. That is, the Enlightenment was a patchwork of national enlightenments, none of which were total. Rather than simply cataloging the numerous differences between nations’ enlightenments, the reasons behind such differences should be understood. As previously mentioned, two commonalities of high enlightenment thought were independent thinking and the pursuit of practical ideas to help advance man and society. It should not be surprising then that enlightened thinkers, thinking independently, sought to solve the problems of society affecting them most and best understood by them: their own. While it is true that cosmopolitanism was valued and practiced by many of the philosophes, their travels were often to learn about the workings of other societies in order to understand more clearly how to help their own. This helps to explain the hostile outlook towards the state held by French intellectuals in comparison with the less frictional English.23 The very reforms called for in the works of the French philosophes – greater religious toleration, parliamentary representation, increased freedom of expression and publishing – were already present in eighteenth century England.24 National differences also affected low enlightenment reading as censorship laws ranged from the laissez-faire attitude of the United Provinces to the strict policing of the French Republic.25 Translation was not yet perfected and certain languages caused meanings to be warped while others, like those of the Scottish Highlands and areas of provincial France, spoke dialects that could not be translated and were therefore isolated from Enlightenment ideas.26 Within Prussia, those in Protestant areas had a greater low enlightenment than those of Catholic ones, as Protestantism, through its emphasis on scripture readings, was more conducive to literacy.27 France, the flagship of Enlightenment thought, still contained areas like the provincial Cher where literacy actually declined in the 18th century.28 Enlightenment was often relative to economic wellbeing as economic growth increased consumer demands for products like books and broke down social barriers through increased trade.29 This helps to explain the limited enlightenment of less prosperous central and southern Europe. The Enlightenment was thus far from homogenous or all-encompassing as national and regional differences naturally influenced thought and the transmission of ideas.

The Enlightenment was a profound intellectual change occurring in parts of both the elite and lower classes of eighteenth century Europe and should be seen as such. Such a view should not be blind, however, to the limits of its extent. The Enlightenment took on a different face in each country it affected and had little or no impact in large regions of Europe. In this sense it is possible to speak of enlightenment in Europe in the eighteenth century but not of a singular and widespread European Enlightenment.



Works Cited

Black, Jeremy. Eighteenth Century Europe, 1700 - 1789. London: Macmillan Education, 1990.

Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Melton, James Van Horn. The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Munck, Thomas. The Enlightenment: A Comparative Social History, 1721 - 1794. London: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Porter, Roy. The Enlightenment. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1990.

Scott, H. M., ed. Enlightened Absolutism : Reform and Reformers in later eighteenth-century Europe. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.



1 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York: Knopf, 1966) as cited in Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 3.

2 Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 2.

3 Roy Porter, The Enlightenment (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1990), 6.

4 Denis Diderot, Encylopédie (Paris: Hermann, 1976) as cited in Jeremy Black, Eighteenth Century Europe, 1700 - 1789 (London: Macmillan Education, 1990), 212.

5 Outram, 51.

6 ibid, 21.

7 Thomas Munck, The Enlightenment: A Comparative Social History, 1721 - 1794 (London: Oxford University Press, 2000),66, 68.

8H. M. Scott, ed., Enlightened Absolutism : Reform and Reformers in later eighteenth-century Europe (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), 282; Porter, 51.

9 Black, 210.

10 Porter, 10.

11 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge: Polity, 1989) as cited in James Van Horn Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 8; Gay as cited in Porter, 7.

12 Munck, 47.

13 Melton, 82.

14 ibid, 48-49.

15 ibid.

16 ibid.

17 Munck, 47.

18 R. A. Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture and Education 1500 - 1800 (London: Longman, 1989) as cited in Melton, 88.

19 Outram, 28; Melton, 88.

20 Munck, 90.

21 ibid, 92-93.

22 Darnton, 17.

23 Porter, 54; Munck, 8.

24 Porter, 54.

25 Munck, 85.

26 ibid, 50.

27 ibid, 51.

28 ibid, 49.

29 ibid, x.



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