Social Sciences: Enlightenment | May 1, 2013

Library Journal Reviews starred review Fleming, John V. The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason. Norton. Jul. 2013. 352p. illus. index. ISBN 9780393079463. $27.95. HIST

Even today, most historians are more at ease with the study of empiricism than with that of the esoteric, but of no age is this truer than the hyper-skeptical Enlightenment. Thus the importance of this study by Fleming (humanistic studies, retired, Princeton; The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War), which directs attention away from the standard skeptics of that age to its occult side. The mainstream thought of the Enlightenment, he argues, was not materialist as much as sacramental: “The material world paralleled another that was immaterial and invisible.” The activities of the time that he discusses often looked like science, but they weren’t; occultists, alchemists, and members of secret societies appropriated the form and language of the sciences to reach radically different conclusions. In interlocking chapters, Fleming discusses an English “stroker” who healed by touch; Cagliostro, an alchemist, magus, and charlatan; Rosicrucians and Freemasons; and the career of sentimental novelist Julie de Krudener, who ended her life a mystic. VERDICT Written with a verve not usual in scholarly works—and all the better for it—this exceptional book will attract all who love history, and not just its scholars.—David ­Keymer, Modesto, CA

Padgen, Anthony. The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters. Random. 2013. 512p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781400060689. $32. HIST

This is a defense by Pagden (political science & history, Univ. of California, Los Angeles; Worlds at War) of Enlightenment thought. Although John V. Fleming’s The Dark Side of the Enlightenment is the more exploratory, Pagden’s is the more conservative, but both books are based on their authors’ long familiarity with the age. Against the age’s critics, who argue that the philosophes’ hyper-skepticism and materialism undermined authority and destroyed social cohesiveness, Pagden argues that the Enlightenment was not so much a revolutionary movement as a reformist one. Enlightenment thinkers preached a broader vision of humankind, opening the possibility for talk of universal human rights, and of such a modern-day extra-national community as the European Union. VERDICT This is top-down intellectual history—Greats talk to Greats—and the cast of characters is predictable, from Hobbes and Grotius to Montesquieu, Hume, and Kant. But Pagden knows what he’s talking about and his argument is worth reading in our contentious age. Heavy going at times, this solid book is not for those seeking easy popular history. It will probably appeal most to serious lay readers of the subject.—David ­Keymer, Modesto, CA


Featuring YD Feedwordpress Content Filter Plugin