Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

6

LIBRARIES AND ENLIGHTENMENT

i. The 'Universal Library'

Libraries, especially large libraries, esteemed for rare books and manuscripts, may be described as the workshop of the early Enlightenment both moderate and radical. It was assuredly in Europe's libraries—princely, academic, aristocratic, and private— that the opening up of fresh horizons and many revolutionary new insights of the period originated. Furthermore, while the Radical Enlightenment, when propagating ideas and distributing forbidden books, remained a clandestine, forbidden movement, in the refined ambience of Europe's great libraries it could unmask bibliographically, gaining an allotted work-space and a fortified base. But this was a base which evolved only after the middle of the seventeenth century with the advent of the newly burgeoning collections on philosophy and science. For such a development required a totally new perception of books and libraries. Only after the Thirty Years' War, and the onset of the intellectual crisis, did a changed and dramatically widened culture of reading, publishing, and bibliophilia develop, which then, in turn, helped drive the revolution in ideas.

Until the mid-seventeenth century, marking the end, broadly speaking, of Europe's confessional era, European libraries and librarianship were shaped by the two great cultural impulses of the sixteenth century—the Renaissance and the Reformation. It sufficed for any prince, patrician, ecclesiastic, or nobleman eager to impress contemporaries with his magnificence, status, or love of learning, to display some of the Greek and Roman classics in fine bindings, a few humanistic works, and a selection of theological and pious texts expounding whichever confession he professed. Court, civic, university, and aristocratic, as well as ecclesiastical libraries were invariably small and usually doctrinally narrow. To have amassed large quantities of literature describing different faiths and contrary theological traditions, or heresies of one's own Church, or philosophies other than those taught in the colleges, would have seemed superfluous if not positively suspect. Furthermore, accounts of distant parts of the world and non-European peoples and cultures were scarce and seldom sought after. Science and philosophy beyond what was in the classics were found mainly in the personal libraries of university professors, who, however, acquired little that was not in Latin and narrowly academic. Even the grandest libraries of the confessional era, such

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