ERHFKT Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede - portrait of the French philosopher and jurist, 19 January 1689

The Enlightenment as reading project

This book is not a history of ideas, nor book history, nor cultural history, but something much more


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s 1784 answer to the question, that the Enlightenment “dares to know”, is famous and paradoxical. Enlightenment, he maintains, requires freedom of the press, but only an authoritarian regime can allow unchecked debate: thus the Prussia of Frederick the Great is the only state where people can “dare to know”.

The Books that Made the European Enlightenment: A History in 12 Case Studies, Gary Kates (Bloomsbury, £75; pb £24.99)

Above all, the freedom that matters to Kant is the freedom to question religious authorities on matters of faith. Kant’s Enlightenment thus strengthens secular authority in order to create the space required for a critique of religious authority. Enlightenment is inseparable from despotism.

Gary Kates’s important book offers a new answer to Kant’s question by interrogating a dozen 18th century bestsellers, from Fenelon to Smith. The importance of the book can best be conveyed by comparing it to the work of two scholars who made their reputations in the 1970s: Robert Darnton and Quentin Skinner. Darnton mined the records of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) to understand the trade in illegal books from the inside. Out of this he wrote a fine book, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of pre-Revolutionary France (1995).

Darnton’s study was based on one (admittedly important) publisher in the period 1769–1789, however. STN handled only 34 copies of Mme de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman (1747), which went through 95 editions, partly because after 1751 the book was legal in France, and they specialised in banned books. Kates thus extends his range beyond Darnton’s forbidden bestsellers: his authors are British as well as French (but not Italian, Dutch or German — Beccaria would seem the most obvious omission), and not all his books ran into trouble, even with the French authorities.

Kates isn’t interested in getting Rousseau on the phone

Darnton approached the history of the book through the publishing trade. Kates, by contrast, is a Trinitarian not a Unitarian. His history depends on giving almost equal weight to authors, publishers and readers. His books are written, printed and read: each element has to be given proper recognition.

This brings us to his second important innovation. What is often called the Cambridge school of intellectual history, represented above all by Quentin Skinner, treats books as attempted acts of communication: the author says something which he intends the reader to understand. Obviously, if readers misunderstand, the natural thing for an author to do is set them straight.

I remember, many years ago, sitting mystified through a seminar where the leading lights of English philosophy gathered in Oxford to discuss John Rawls’s newly published Theory of Justice. There was radical disagreement as to what Rawls meant to say. The answer seemed to me (a young Skinnerian) obvious: why not phone him up and ask him?

Kates isn’t interested in getting Rousseau on the phone. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of this book is to bring out how readings of these bestsellers differed between radicals and conservatives, Christians and pagans, shifting over time. Some of these books were obviously written to be open to divergent interpretations (Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, for example), but in the case of Letters of a Peruvian Woman publishers happily published revised texts giving the story the ending that readers wanted.

The result of Kates’s trinitarian approach is that his book is not a history of ideas, nor book history, nor cultural history, nor a study in reception. It is, in parts, all of these, but much more than the sum of its parts. After all, authors and publishers are also readers; and readers, as they write letters and compile commonplace books, are also authors, not to mention the source of publishers’ profits. Only a Trinitarian approach can grasp the complexity of the book as written, printed and read. I hope no future historian of ideas will write about a book printed before the Industrial Revolution without asking how many copies were printed, how much they cost and who actually owned them.

I think Kates’s fundamental perception, that the Enlightenment can be thought of as a programme of reading a set of books that writers and readers had in common, is sound. The figure who emerges as the most important representative of the Enlightenment on this approach is Montesquieu: his Persian Letters are presented as the model for Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, Richardson’s Pamela and Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman, whilst The Spirit of the Laws is taken to lie at the origin of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Rousseau’s Emile and Raynal’s History of the Two Indies. This is not Kant’s Enlightenment: none of these authors favour despotism.

Nevertheless an obvious criticism of Kates’s book is that it is skewed away from the radicals: the book effectively stops in 1780, so no Godwin or Wollstonecraft. America is present only as a place where people read books, not where they wrote them, so no Common Sense. All Kates’s books were bestsellers, partly because they did not provoke too much hostility from the authorities, so no direct attacks on Christianity, no d’Holbach, no La Mettrie. We have Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters (1734), not his Philosophical Dictionary (1764). Kant’s Enlightenment, which was above all an attack on religious doctrine, is visible here primarily in misreadings (as we might see them) — in the accusation, for example, that Montesquieu was a disciple of Spinoza.

I write in praise of Kates, but he makes unforced errors

Along with this skewing goes a failure (in common with much recent work, which stresses the collaboration between authors and censors in France) to understand the impact of French censorship. It’s not that Kates does not discuss its workings, but that he fails to appreciate its insidious effects.

He discusses, for example, lending libraries at length, but fails to notice that there were none in France. One can only assume that this was because the books people would have wanted to borrow could not be legally distributed. “Enlightenment writers,” he claims, “expected any good government to police the press” — apparently he hasn’t read the publisher Elie Luzac’s important defence of unrestricted press freedom (1749), written to justify his printing of La Mettrie’s materialist L’homme machine.

Strikingly, Kates’s approach breaks down in the chapter devoted to Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, where he has nothing to say about how readers responded to the book. He describes it as a unique example of a book successfully suppressed by the authorities, which “faded from the scene” after 1739. Yet books were being devoted to its refutation as late as the 1750s. If it was not reprinted after 1739, this is not because censorship succeeded, but because the book had no real unity beyond the praise of all things English.

The chapter on Locke was outdated by Voltaire’s letter on the soul and La Mettrie’s Natural History of the Soul; the chapters on Newton by Voltaire’s own book on Newton; the discussion of Shakespeare by Voltaire’s own Shakespearean plays; and the claim that English literature should be taken seriously ceased to be interesting after the enormous success of Pamela and the rise of anglomanie. What continued to matter, right up until the publication of the Dictionnaire philosophique in 1764, was the critique of Pascal.

I write in praise of Kates, but he makes unforced errors. The illustrations include mistaken “first editions” of the Lettres philosophiques and L’Esprit des loix. The Montesquieu is the pirated edition printed by Prault, in which the original publisher’s name, Barrillot, is misspelt. The first edition of Montesquieu’s defence of the Spirit of the Laws was not published by Barrillot in Geneva, and it was not a pamphlet of 62 pages: it was 207 pages long and printed in Paris.

The Dublin edition of the Letters Concerning the English Nation and the first English printing of the Histoire de Charles XII were not set from manuscript. Voltaire insisted that two editions of Charles XII should be printed simultaneously, but the octavo edition is not “more substantial” than the duodecimo edition; it is exactly the same size but has half as many pages.

Thus, despite being an octavo, it is a cut-price edition: which is why Jore, the printer, held it back until he had sold out of the duodecimo edition, by which time other, more attractive, editions were on sale. One can hardly blame Kates for not having held in his hands a copy of the 1731 octavo edition (there are only two copies known, one of which is on my desk as I write); but the unsold sheets were reissued as “second” and “third” editions, copies of which are easy to find.

It would be wrong to end on a critical note. Scholars will have much to learn from this book; more importantly, it now represents the best introduction to the Enlightenment. It also (quietly) provides an effective refutation of the widespread postmodern belief that the Enlightenment stands for imperialism, patriarchy and cold-blooded, scientific rationalism. It is already available as a reasonably priced paperback, the modern equivalent of a cheap duodecimo.

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