War in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1789

War in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1789

War in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1789

War in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1789

Excerpt

In recent years, when colleagues have asked me about my research interests, I have replied that I have been considering the relationship between the Enlightenment and warfare. The response has frequently been: “I shouldn't have thought there was one.” That says a lot about the perception of the Enlightenment shared by many academics who are nonspecialists in the period. Most of us at some time learn that the Enlightenment was a good thing. It was about peace, humanity, toleration, and freedom. Surely, war was antithetical to all of these positive goals. But was it? War is not a goal for most of us, but it is a means by which freedom or humanity may be protected. Eighteenth-century intellectuals understood this. They deplored, as do we, the horrors of war, but they recognized that there were times when it was necessary. Their attitudes toward war reflect a central tension in the Enlightenment, one that cannot be ignored if we are to fully understand the Enlightenment's contribution to the development of the modern world.

Political and military historians have frequently discussed the relationship between the Enlightenment and war. They have focused on two aspects: (1) the Enlightenment's contribution to the development of strategic thought (most recently discussed in the excellent work of Azar Gat) and (2) its contribution to the cause of humanity in war (perhaps best represented in the work of Geoffrey Best). It was the issue of humanity in war that inspired my interest in this study. A number of surveys of early modern warfare concluded that the conduct of war in the period 1700–1789 was more humane than during the preceding wars of religion or the succeeding revolutionary period. Often the Enlightenment was cited as a con-

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