Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
AND “ENLIGHTENED“ HISTORY

WE have reached the eve of the modern epoch. It is obvious that some exciting things happened to history during the so-called Enlightenment, that reputed seedbed of the modern mind. This great era had an apparent historical dimension. Pierre Bayle, who almost began it, wrote a Historical and Critical Dictionary. The eighteenth century began with a quarrel between ancients and moderns which raised the whole question of progress, and they never stopped arguing about it. Montesquieu's great Spirit of the Laws combined history with sociology to begin the quest for a true science of human society. Voltaire, this century's giant, wrote much history, and has been ranked as one of the founders of modern historical methods. David Hume, too, was a historian; his investigations mark a significant break with the tradition by which philosophers would have nothing to do with anything so imprecise as history. And the Neapolitan philosopher and savant Giambattista Vico appears as a pioneer of really modern historical thought. The “enlightened” ones, under the influence of Newton and Locke, tended to react against the abstract rationalism of the Cartesians in the direction of an empirical, experimental approach to reality much more suited to historical work. Edward Gibbon is only the most illustrious of many eighteenth-century historians; a list of all their names would fill a large catalog.

The wars of religion well behind them, the philosophes were thoroughly secular-minded, thoroughly critical, thoroughly “modern.” Still interested in physical and natural science, they were much more interested in humanity, and they brought into existence all the social sciences. At the same time, their delightful style and talent for organization make them far more readable than the ponderous polymaths of the previous century, those érudits who made a heap of all they found. In the time of Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon, history became genuinely popular as well as scholarly and “philosophical.“ It also achieved a surer definition

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