The false prophets of war and turmoil

All eight of Whatmore’s subjects would have been astounded by the stability of the British state through the 19th century

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Richard Whatmore’s intriguing new book is a study of eight late 18th century figures one would not expect to be brought together. All, with the exception of the unfortunate Jacques-Pierre Brissot, guillotined in October 1793, were British, and all were convinced, according to Whatmore, that the Enlightenment was at an end.

Much of late has been written about the Enlightenment and what it stood for — the numerous volumes produced over the last two decades by Jonathan Israel immediately spring to mind — and Whatmore is only too ready to accept that there have existed a “plurality of Enlightenments”. However, his Enlightenment is not one, in Peter Gay’s phrase, of “modern pagans” and the recovery of intellectual nerve.

Its principal achievement was the bringing to an end of the fanaticism that had fuelled a century or more of religious warfare and its replacement by the prospect of a society grounded upon civil peace and toleration. It was this aspiration, according to Whatmore, that had fallen to pieces by the end of the 18th century, when Europe again found itself faced with the divisions and destruction that had characterised the religious antagonisms of the previous centuries.

The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis, Richard Whatmore (Allen Lane, £30)

To introduce this theme Whatmore begins with the greatest of Scottish philosophers, David Hume. As Hume neared death, his optimism that religious zeal had waned was replaced by the worry that new forms of superstition were forging fanaticisms of previously unparalleled power. Moreover, these superstitions were not religious in origin but were the product of secular belief. Hume feared, according to Whatmore, “the consequences of ministers and merchants promoting a form of mercantile empire fuelled by spiralling national debts that funded war”.

As was the case during the Reformation, individuals would pursue extreme ends but now this would be in the name of liberty, commerce, profit and empire. This, Hume believed, was made possible not only by the wealth created through trade but also by the crucially important innovation of revenue generation through public credit. States were now able to raise huge sums of money and defer repayment. The likely outcome was states waging ceaseless, ever larger wars intent on securing commercial domination over their neighbours.

From Hume’s perspective, there lurked another danger: ever greater levels of debt risked causing national bankruptcy. With this would come civil war and, more probably than not, international conflict. The consequences for Britain in particular, Hume believed, were likely to be deadly, especially if another war with France was to occur. Moreover, Hume saw no way out of this downward debt-induced spiral. The future prospects for Britain and the world looked grim indeed.

Central to Whatmore’s argument is the claim that Hume’s prophecy of perpetual global turmoil was shared by many of his contemporaries. So too was Hume’s conviction that mounting fanaticism presaged an end to enlightenment. However, unlike Hume, many believed, initially at least, that there were strategies to preserve the achievements of enlightenment.

What Whatmore seeks to show is that these hardy souls ultimately came to share Hume’s belief that the Enlightenment was indeed at an end and that only war and civil turmoil awaited. Were they right?

Whatmore’s list of central characters is nothing if not a motley crew. Usefully, Whatmore splits them up into two groups. Catherine Macaulay, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine were “convinced at first that liberty, revolution and republicanism might be sufficient to restore enlightenment”. The second group, consisting of the Earl of Shelburne, Edward Gibbon, and Edmund Burke, provided the alternative argument that, if Britain turned away from empire, war and commercial excess, it “might become a beacon of moderation and toleration”.

Brissot’s attachment to the Enlightenment progressively morphed into an advocacy of all-out war

All were to be disappointed and were to witness the fanatical intolerance and bloodshed of the French Revolution — a considerable shock for those of the eight who had initially been only too eager to endorse it.

Nor is it always easy to feel much sympathy for the endless complaints about a world in decline or for the various recommendations made to attain “true enlightenment”. According to Whatmore, Brissot’s attachment to the Enlightenment progressively morphed into an advocacy of all-out war against its enemies.

Paine, having predicted the emigration of Dissenters from a corrupt Britain, was proud of his idea that Britain should be invaded by French gunboats. Wollstonecraft’s vision of enlightenment rested upon a vision of a moral revolution requiring “the manners and amusements of the people” to be completely changed.

Shelburne and his friends took a different line. They feared that under George III a royal despotism was being created in Britain and North America. Gibbon saw his beloved Switzerland threatened by the emergence of a new republican empire in France. The French, he wrote, had “exchanged Liberty for Despotism”. He much regretted his earlier criticisms of Christianity.

Burke presents a more complex picture. Most of his readers, Whatmore argues, have failed to examine his final works. Were they to do so, they would see that he came to fear that Britain, exhausted by war and near to bankruptcy, would soon be conquered. Only a government and country committed to victory over a revolutionary France might save Britain and European liberty.

One thing united all of the eight: whilst Britain’s mercantile system remained intact and war and bankruptcy were possibilities, the country looked to be facing imminent collapse. To that extent, Whatmore concludes, all with hindsight would have been shocked at its survival. As he comments, the “established jeremiad literature continued to predict that the British Carthage was about to succumb to the French Rome”.

All would have been astounded by the stability of the British state through the 19th century and by its capacity “to defeat all-comers at war, expand as an empire, generate more revenue from commerce than any other society, and yet not take any of the recommended steps to dismantle the mercantile system”. Yet this is precisely what Britain did — and against all the jeremiad predictions, mercantile systems were able to maintain themselves. Whatmore writes: “That they did this is the key fact of modern global history.”

Richard Whatmore has provided a lucid and erudite commentary on an important and little understood moment in British intellectual history. That his key protagonists were so profoundly mistaken in what they thought only adds to the enjoyment.

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