The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–1790

Harper. Feb. 2021. 1,008p. ISBN 9780062410658. $45. HIST
Distinguished German scholar Robertson (Medieval and Modern Languages, Oxford Univ.; Goethe: A Very Short Introduction) has produced a monumental work on a monumental topic. The Enlightenment is often credited with the formation of modern Western society, with its emphasis on reason, scientific inquiry, religious tolerance, and democratic developments. Robertson shows that some of these assumptions are actually misconstrued; for instance, as opposed to being disimpassioned, Enlightened philosophers, scholars, and scientists were often quite passionate and emotionally involved in their beliefs and callings. The work spans the long 18th century (1680–1790), discussing the scientific discoveries, religious toleration advances, and revolutions in politics and economics spawned by this era. In addition to citing the great names of the Enlightenment, including Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin, Robertson also includes the thoughts and opinions of poets such as Goethe and novelists such as Defoe, providing a view of the Enlightenment from artists. Robertson does not talk down to his audience, and this information-rich volume, with its giant cast of characters and intensive philosophical discussions, is no introductory work.
VERDICT A giant tome that will be indispensable for advanced students and readers of history, especially those wishing to learn more about this pivotal era.
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