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Publisher's Summary

A magisterial history that recasts the Enlightenment as a period not solely consumed with rationale and reason, but rather as a pursuit of practical means to achieve greater human happiness.

One of the formative periods of European and world history, the Enlightenment is the fountainhead of modern secular Western values: religious tolerance; freedom of thought, speech, and the press; of rationality and evidence-based argument. Yet why, over 300 years after it began, is the Enlightenment so profoundly misunderstood as controversial, the expression of soulless calculation? The answer may be that, to an extraordinary extent, we have accepted the account of the Enlightenment given by its conservative enemies: that enlightenment necessarily implied hostility to religion or support for an unfettered free market, or that this was “the best of all possible worlds”. Ritchie Robertson goes back into the “long 18th century”, from approximately 1680 to 1790, to reveal what this much-debated period was really about.

Robertson returns to the era’s original texts to show that above all, the Enlightenment was really about increasing human happiness - in this world rather than the next - by promoting scientific inquiry and reasoned argument. In so doing Robertson chronicles the campaigns mounted by some Enlightened figures against evils like capital punishment, judicial torture, serfdom, and witchcraft trials, featuring the experiences of major figures like Voltaire and Diderot alongside ordinary people who lived through this extraordinary moment.

In answering the question "What is Enlightenment?" in 1784, Kant famously urged men and women above all to “have the courage to use your own intellect”. Robertson shows how the thinkers of the Enlightenment did just that, seeking a well-rounded understanding of humanity in which reason was balanced with emotion and sensibility. Drawing on philosophy, theology, historiography, and literature across the major western European languages, The Enlightenment is a master-class in big picture history about the foundational epoch of modern times. 

©2020 Ritchie Robertson (P)2020 HarperAudio

What listeners say about The Enlightenment

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The quickest 40 hour audio book I’ve listen to

Fantastically written book! I almost didn’t get it because of the sheer size of it, but the way the author masterfully organized and laid out the information was done so well it constantly kept me interested. One of the best history books I’ve ever read.

18 people found this helpful

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An Expertly Organized and Presented Topic

Destroys the notion that academics can't compose engaging prose.

The Enlightenment comes to life with little details about titans and ordinary folks of the period. A complex subject that the writer presents in a engaging manner. Highly recommended.

4 people found this helpful

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Fascinating review of the arguments that shaped capitalism and modern America

The ideas are presented clearly. Only for about three hours did I wonder where this was going. Afterward, my mind wandered only from fatigue.

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It's a lot, as it should be

Excellent, detailed, well researched. It's a good book, but one I'm glad I listened to instead of trying to read. It's dense and occasionally plodding but all for the better understanding of the subject. Vital for understanding the modern world.

1 person found this helpful

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detailed and nuanced

This is exactly what I was looking for. A detailed, nuanced description of what may be the most important period of human history.

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incredible tomb of knowledge

it was insanely long, but oh so worth it. I ha e no problem going back and re

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An amazing book; a great read

I have read many books and articles about the development of the Enlightenment. This one, however, is one of the very few which approaches the problem not from the backward looking perspective of the ideas we now have and how we came to have them but rather mostly from the forward looking perspective of the millions of ideas being put forward in that time of intellectual turmoil and how they struggled with one another, pushing some to the fore, ignoring or throwing others away, mashing some togther creating results not anticipated, until out of the fabric of that human comedy of ideas something was ultimately stitched together making the world of thought which we call today. Delightful and awe inspiring in its breadth of knowledge.

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The reader does not speak foreign languages

It is not only absurd but ridiculous for he has to read excerpts in French, German Italian and even Spanish. The book has too much data, a paper copy offers a better overview of what is being said. Otherwise it is very well written and informative.

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One of the best books I’ve read

You will come out of this understanding the time period like you lived there, this was an absolute tour de force

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Excellent. Enlightening.

Learned a great deal. A super overview of the movement and survey of Enlightment thinkers.