Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe

By Margaret C. Jacob | Go to book overview

Conclusion
The Enlightenment Redefined

Historians once understood the Enlightenment as the work of about twenty men, the great philosophes and their followers. The study of Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Franklin, and the rest remains a thriving industry, particularly in English-language scholarship. It may be described as analogous to the historiographic emphasis that was once placed upon the great magisterial leaders and theologians of the sixteenthcentury Protestant Reformation, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and so on. But in contemporary scholarship, the Reformation is now seen as a vast cultural upheaval, a social and popular movement, textured and rich because of its diversity. So too we must now begin to understand the Enlightenment. 1

The call for a textured social and political history of the Enlightenment was first made many years ago by Franco Venturi speaking at the Trevelyan Lectures. 2 Historians working in the French Enlightenment, and especially in the Dutch, and occasionally in the Scottish Enlightenment, have gone part of the way toward answering his call (as has Venturi himself) and have done so by arriving at a more social and cultural understanding of the historical era where modern thought begins. 3 We now know a great deal about the new enclaves of enlightened sociability, about the reading societies, salons, scientific academies, and philosophical societies; so too do we know a great deal more about the disseminators and even the buyers of books which they, and we, would classify as enlightened.

Yet even more knowledge is required before Venturi's call can be satisfactorily answered. To date, and quite recently, historians of political culture in England, The Netherlands, and Germany display the greatest vitality in the project of texturing the Enlightenment. This has required innovation in both theory and research. 4We have now begun to see eighteenth-century political culture, despite its ancien régime qualities, as being capable of revealing the sources of modernity. We have focused upon nonparliamentary, ostensibly civic forms of behavior, and discerned in them a

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