Tuesday 16 April 2013

The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters by Anthony Pagden - Book Review

Title: The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters
Author: Anthony Pagden
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: April 2013
Pages: 528
Format: E-Book - EPUB
Genre: Non-Fiction / History
Source: ARC via NetGalley

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Liberty and equality. Human rights. Freedom of thought and expression. Belief in reason and progress. The value of scientific inquiry. These are just some of the ideas that were conceived and developed during the Enlightenment, and which changed forever the intellectual landscape of the Western world. Spanning hundreds of years of history, Anthony Pagden traces the origins of this seminal movement, showing how Enlightenment concepts directly influenced modern culture, making possible a secular, tolerant, and, above all, cosmopolitan world.

Everyone can agree on its impact. But in the end, just what was Enlightenment? A cohesive philosophical project? A discrete time period in the life of the mind when the superstitions of the past were overthrown and reason and equality came to the fore? Or an open-ended intellectual process, a way of looking at the world and the human condition, that continued long after the eighteenth century ended? To address these questions, Pagden introduces us to some of the unforgettable characters who defined the Enlightenment, including David Hume, the Scottish skeptic who advanced the idea of a universal “science of man”; Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, the acerbic novelist and social critic who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church; and Immanuel Kant, the reclusive German philosopher for whom the triumph of a cosmopolitan world represented the final stage in mankind’s evolution. Comprehensive in his analysis of this heterogeneous group of scholars and their lasting impact on the world, Pagden argues that Enlightenment ideas go beyond the “empire of reason” to involve the full recognition of the emotional ties that bind all human beings together. The “human science” developed by these eminent thinkers led to a universalizing vision of humanity, a bid to dissolve the barriers past generations had attempted to erect between the different cultures of the world.
(Goodreads Synopsis)

I was looking forward to this book, but unfortunately, my hopes were not rewarded.

I've read a few really engaging non-fiction history books lately and I hoped this would be of the same ilk, especially since the Enlightenment is a period that does interest me.

However, for the most part, this book was dry - really dry. There'd be passages that were interesting and which would pull my attention back, but the rest was very heavy going and felt like a lecture.

I would not recommend this book for the casual reader, but if you are researching the period in a more serious way, I believe this would be a useful resource as it was packed with facts and excellent references.

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