Many people today think of the 18th-century Enlightenment as an exciting season of reason, a black-swan moment when new energies flowed, when the early modern world began to be turned upside down, thanks to the fearless critics of power, pride and prejudice, who suddenly thought differently, imagined a bold new future and called on their fellow citizens to press hard to make it a reality.
The interpretation is unfortunately too simple. Truth is that the intellectual upheaval that came belatedly to be called the Enlightenment (the phrase was largely a 19th-century neologism, typically circulated by its enemies) was in fact a much messier affair. Historians, philosophers and political thinkers have taught us to see this 18th-century upheaval in less Whiggish, less sanguine ways. Grandiloquent treatments of ‘the Enlightenment’ – Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (2013) springs to mind, as does AC Grayling’s recent gushing defences of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke and other early luminaries in The Age of Genius (2016) – are quite out of fashion, and for solid reasons.
Most analysts of the so-called Enlightenment today prefer to view it as multiple enlightenments, as various intellectual and literary tendencies centred on many different themes, with positive and negative effects. Let’s take some examples. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault long ago challenged us to see that the 18th-century fetish of ‘reason’, its will to know everything and to measure and master the world, fed the spirit of bureaucratic ‘unreason’, incarceration and totalitarian rule. Isaiah Berlin reminded us that the opponents of Enlightenment, dubbed the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, included thinkers, poets, painters and writers who plausibly championed pluralism, doubted talk of ‘nature’ and attacked the blind belief in scientific progress, in effect because they viewed the world as shaped not by the laws of nature, but by the contingencies of history. Then there’s the erudite set of influential books by Jonathan Israel, who has shown that what until now has been called the Enlightenment in fact contained multiple and conflicting strands. According to him, the true champions of ‘enlightenment’, those who favoured the extension of civil rights, social justice and democratic representation, were actually just a minority, an important but beleaguered fraction of a much larger and more self-contradictory movement that had no essential unity of principle or purpose.
Enlightenment radicals were sharply aware of the misfortune, deprivation and unhappiness suffered by people ground down by institutions not of their own choosing
Israel’s point is well-taken, and should be further developed to grasp a striking breakthrough in the work of the Enlightenment radicals: their sharp awareness of the misfortune, deprivation and unhappiness suffered by people ground down by institutions not of their own choosing. The rebels despised misery. They decried the pessimism of the miserabilists in their midst. Misery was their intellectual and political target. They took aim, initially by rescuing the old French word miserie (it was originally drawn from Latin miseria, from miser, ‘wretched’, and miserari, to pity) so as to build for their contemporaries a new language in which to understand misery differently. Thanks to them, we could say, misery was finally given its proper name. Starvation, indignity and unhappiness were denounced as unnecessary blights on the face of the world. Misery was no longer regarded as God-given, or as part of the natural order of things. It was seen to be contingent, remediable, for instance through generous changes of heart and mind, backed by tough social, legal and political reforms, even by means of a revolution, if necessary.