Inside Story

Living with loss

What brought the Age of Enlightenment to an end?

Kate Fullagar Books 28 May 2024 2218 words

The fiery Tom Paine — satirised in this 1792 cartoon — was perhaps the best-known republican of the Enlightenment era. British Cartoon Prints Collection/Library of Congress

Richard Whatmore’s compelling new book, The End of Enlightenment, opens in the summer of 1776 with the political economist Adam Smith visiting the philosopher-historian David Hume. The Scottish friends knew it would be their last meeting. Hume was fading fast. They shared a final wry exchange.

Hume died a few weeks later, causing Smith to lament the loss of his “most excellent and never to be forgotten friend.” Hume’s “philosophical opinions,” Smith thought, “men will, no doubt, judge variously.” But none would disagree, he implied, about the magnitude of Hume’s influence on his fellow thinkers. Smith’s landmark double-volume The Wealth of Nations had come out five months earlier, exemplifying just one instance of this profound impact.

There is some poignancy in Whatmore’s dedicating his book to J.G.A. Pocock, a fellow thinker and evident friend, whose mark is all over The End of Enlightenment. It was published in Britain five days before Pocock died, at the age of ninety-nine, on 12 December. Certainly Pocock was less well known to his age than Hume was to eighteenth-century intellectuals; on the whole, he influenced only those engaged in studying the early-modern European past. But in this field his impact has been enormous. Unlike Pocock, Hume had the luck to live through what he himself called “an historical age” — an age interested to hear what historians have to say. Pocock, on the other hand, lived through what Whatmore insists is an age addicted to “ahistorical disciplines” for solutions to its problems.

Pocock’s mark is evident in two main ways in Whatmore’s book — in its understanding of how the Enlightenment existed in the past and in its diagnosis of the Enlightenment’s meaning for us today.

First, Whatmore insists, like Pocock, on there being multiple enlightenments in the eighteenth century. Defying any reduction to a single philosophy of freedom, individualism, equality and progress — as some populist outfits today assert — Whatmore stresses the differences in approach among the era’s thinkers. Pocock also held to more than one enlightenment, at first suggesting there were two great strains: a conservative (he also called this protective, clerical or Whiggish) enlightenment and a radical (otherwise called dissenting, subversive or emancipatory) enlightenment. Later, Pocock found so many different flavours he preferred to eschew any “distillation” and beheld only a “plurality.”

But flavours of what? What defined the relevance of the thinkers grouped together here? The oblique answer, for both Whatmore and Pocock, was a commitment to rational thinking about the organisation of human affairs — as opposed to the theological mode of earlier intellectuals or to topics concerning only the natural world. Enlightenment was far more about approach and problem than program or value.

Whatmore begins with a caveat to his embrace of Pocock’s pluralism that points to his more exact definition of enlightenment. “I do not reject the notion of a plurality of enlightenments,” he writes, “but assert that all of the strategies advanced to maintain civil peace were seen to be failing by [all] commentators in the final decades of the eighteenth century.” Enlightenment, in other words, is not just a rational approach to human organisation but is also an effort to counter violence, war and greed. Whatmore’s eighteenth century is haunted on every page by the spectre of what went wrong in the seventeenth century — religious turmoil and superstitious xenophobia, which led to fanaticism and bloodshed.

Whatmore acknowledges that different ideas existed about how to prevent disorder in the 1700s — from Edmund Burke’s conservative constitutionalism to Thomas Paine’s radical republicanism — but he argues that each was disappointed by 1800. The Enlightenment may have been varied but the end of it was categorically uniform. Burke saw his beloved sense of constitutional stability menaced by the flames of revolution and Paine saw his precious revolutionary spirit watered down by centrist mismanagement. Ironically, Whatmore goes on to imply, both these thinkers became examples themselves of the end of enlightenment, each becoming fanatical in their hatred of the foes to their dreams for peace.

Whatmore’s insistence on situating fanaticism as the arch-opposite of enlightenment is the most distinctive aspect of his conceptualisation. Some might argue — some indeed have argued — that a fanaticism for liberty, say, or for some other ideal associated today with the radical enlightenment, cannot undercut itself; it can only become, for good or ill, a kind of super-enlightenment. Whatmore disagrees, occasionally using the words “moderation” or “toleration” as direct synonyms for enlightenment. His deployment of enlightenment is thus inspired by, but ultimately not as plural as, Pocock’s, which could in theory still contain an extreme version of rational reaction to disorder.

Pocock’s second mark on The End of Enlightenment is evident in its rejection of the common notion that the Enlightenment is the origin of a shared Western heritage. Whatmore and Pocock are and remain very closely aligned in their frustration with this belief. “The mission of defending enlightenment values against barbarians at the gates continues to inspire politicians and their followers,” writes Whatmore. In Australia this is certainly true: last year’s referendum campaign saw leaders as diverse as Pat Dodson and David Kemp appeal equally to the Enlightenment as the founding reason to support their side.

“There are continuities of course,” Whatmore acknowledges, but to trace a straight line between then and now is to miss “the crucial context” of the eighteenth century; it is to confine “historical investigation… to detecting the errors of the past alone.” In this way, he is as annoyed at the critics of enlightenment as he is with its advocates, for critics have to uphold the fundamental role of enlightenment as the “source of modernity” in order to attack it. Whatmore ranges the critics from conservatives like Michael Oakeshott who thought enlightenment thinkers over-emphasised human universality, to Marxists like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer who feared the instrumental endpoint of rationality, to poststructuralists like Jean-François Lyotard who saw only another totalising narrative.

Pocock could not have agreed more. He was continually aggrieved by those he called “Whigs and Marxists” alike, who wanted the Enlightenment to be a “straight success story” so they might celebrate or condone it as a way of celebrating or condoning their own present world. Instead, he once countered, “what went on in the eighteenth century was not a unidirectional transformation of thought… but a bitter, conscious, and ambivalent dialogue.”

Whatmore’s book is basically all about that bitter, conscious and ambivalent dialogue between enlightened thinkers. For him, the Enlightenment cannot be a kernel of anything because, crucially, it failed in as many ways as it manifested. Whatever survived of it would, just as crucially, be debated and twisted in different contexts for different purposes. The eighteenth century can offer glimpses into parallels to our current situation that may be productive for thoughts about the present, but it can never offer up the present itself in compressed seed-form. Even though Whatmore dismisses Michel Foucault as yet another critic, his anti-causal stance is in fact much like Foucault’s genealogical proposition that “at the historical beginnings of things is the not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things.”

The End of Enlightenment offers eight substantial chapters, each revolving around a key thinker. Some are the usual suspects: Burke and Paine, as noted, as well as Edward Gibbon and David Hume himself. Others are less typical: the Whig politician William Petty (Earl of Shelburne), the republican scholar Catharine Macaulay, the revolutionary journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. A few figures shadow many of the chapters though remain without a dedicated focus: Adam Smith is one, as is the radical philosopher Richard Price, the French finance minister Étienne Clavière and the British prime minister William Pitt the Elder (Earl of Chatham).

Like Pocock, Whatmore inclines towards British-centred examples, though very much unlike Pocock he includes some women among them. The British centre is not a problem in this work, which is primarily concerned with the case study of one imperial metropolis. It does, all the same, make the reader wonder how Whatmore’s thesis of failure played out in other Enlightenment locales like the German states.

The inclusion of women is a welcome relief in a field overrun with blokes (both the subjects and the historians). That said, the chapters on Macaulay and Wollstonecraft do include perhaps more commentary on their personal lives than is evident in the others. Whatmore notes, rightly, that Macaulay’s happy marriage to a much younger “humble surgeon’s mate named William Graham” was probably significant for her great philosophical productivity. This was despite the enormous scandal this instance of her “lust” caused among fellow bluestocking ladies. He is also no doubt correct to suggest that Wollstonecraft’s tortured feelings about the French Revolution were informed by her being “madly in love” with the caddish Gilbert Imlay in revolutionary Paris. But we get very little about how the men’s romances affected their writings. Edward Gibbon also fell into unrequited love yet this is not further analysed beyond a statement of fact. Hume apparently entertained for years a passion for the French Comtesse de Boufflers but she is not even mentioned in the book.

Nor are Macaulay and Wollstonecraft presented as quite as lucid or crisp as some of the men. Macaulay’s early adamant republican critique of British monarchy contained a call for a violence that “flew entirely in the face” of her equal critique of war, but when Gibbon contradicts his early anti-church position it’s because he has developed a multi-point case against the dangers of popular democracy. Wollstonecraft, in advocating for women’s rights to liberty, “admitted that she could not see how things would change precisely,” and her thinking about how education could reform individuals “remained unclear,” but when Hume appears opaque or illogical he is being “tongue-in-cheek” or enjoying some “light-hearted facetiousness.”

These later subtle jibes are likely less about Macaulay and Wollstonecraft’s gender than about their politics. Both women were radicals, initial admirers of the French Revolution, and today mostly lauded by the left. Whatmore takes some delight in puncturing the pretensions of radicals and, by extension, their followers. Fiery Paine is “the most arrogant” republican of the Enlightenment era. Girondin Brissot is a “terrorist for liberty.”

But Whatmore hardly comes across as a hero of the right in these various micro-deflations — his melancholy about the imperialism, militarism and capitalistic greed that emerged from Britain in its opposition to radicalism is palpable. His work, rather, is a lament for the peaceable Enlightenment that could neither reign in the sharper ends of rational social reassessment nor control the strength of the backlash.

Like his “most excellent and never to be forgotten friend” Pocock, Whatmore is chiefly frustrated at how sponsors of both positions today claim the cover of the Enlightenment, implying as they do that the violent defence of democracy as well as the vicious pursuit of empire are equally logical results of eighteenth-century philosophy. The End of Enlightenment maintains throughout that true enlightenment was the constant critique of both these extremities.

All the same, much like its subjects, the book itself never goes beyond critique into any detailed plan. Whatmore despairs of both terrorists for liberty and the merchants of dispossession but declines to suggest how eighteenth-century Europe might otherwise have shifted out of dire inequality, unexamined prejudices and near-despotic governance.

His best offer is the study of history itself — another poignant gesture, perhaps, given our “ahistorical” times. In place of a practice that merely mines the past for its mistakes and assumes that ideas retain their meaning across time, he implies that history allows us to identify the dissonance of the past and through this to realise that ideas only have meaning in their contexts. In doing so, historical research can make the present pop with fresh clarity by revealing traces of the past but always in ways that are remade by circumstance. What translates across time are not meanings but experiences.

The resonant experience that Whatmore notes at the close of his book is that of a set of ideas for peaceable settlement coming to an end. He presents all his eighteenth-century subjects as figures who believed that their notions for betterment had been crushed at the end of their lives — by revolutionary terror, or by anti-revolutionary war, or by the ruthless drive for wealth. He feels a resonance in what he rather briefly calls the failures of those “strategies formulated after 1945 to prevent [chaos],” each of which, notably, is dressed up as some apparently Enlightenment ideal.

At the time of writing, Whatmore presumably meant the shattering of welfare institutions in the name of individualism, the destruction of higher education in the name of fairness, or the shallowing out of democratic process in the name of the popular will. In 2024 he might well add the war on Gaza in the name of Israeli liberty or the pillaging of the Earth in the name of prosperity.

The End of Enlightenment is a provocative book about profoundly provocative thinkers who would in no way recognise our current predicament. But they would doubtless sympathise with the feeling of living through loss. •

The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis
By Richard Whatmore | Allen Lane | $65 | 496 pages