#ReadWithMe: Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness

sympathy enlightenment reason emotion pursuit of happiness history of thought

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks
For Robertson, the Enlightenment is characterized by that now famous phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” alongside a recognition and expansion of our notion of human sociality. In his view, human sociality is a vital characteristic to understanding any enlightenment project. 
This is part 1 of a 7-part #ReadWithMe series on Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment. You can also enjoy Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7

Part 1: What Was the Enlightenment, Really?

“...why, more than three hundred years after it began, is the Enlightenment so profoundly misunderstood as the expression of soulless calculation?” (from the jacket)

That is the question Ritchie Robertson, a professor of German language and literature, sets out to answer in this magisterial volume, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790. Naturally, that is a question that also appeals to Adam Smith devotees and those with a sympathy-centric worldview. The “characters” include John Locke, Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), Isaac Newton, Edward Gibbon, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Denis Diderot, David Hume, and of course, Adam Smith. With such characters, you can be assured that it’s a big and interesting story. 
In seeking a more accurate understanding of the Enlightenment, Robertson does not shy away from disciplines outside his expertise. His analysis includes religion, social sciences, humanities, government, literature, and philosophy. Robertson ultimately suggests that  Enlightenment values, while different  from those we hold today, do contain the seeds of the future’s dominant ideas. 
Join me as I make my way through this tome. There is an impressive amount of detail, which I hope you will be inspired to explore. I will sketch out the broad themes and suggest questions for thought and hopefully conversation along the way.
For Robertson, the Enlightenment is characterized by that now famous phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” alongside a recognition and expansion of our notion of human sociality. In his view, human sociality is a vital characteristic to understanding any enlightenment project. 
He begins with another book we’ve explored at AdamSmithWorks, Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert’s 17 volume,twenty-million-word Encyclopedie (ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers) which appeared over a 15 year period between 1751 and 1765.The Encyclopedie, a fundamentally social endeavor, in its construction and in its efforts to democratize knowledge. The increasing acknowledgement of human flourishing—with its spiritual, material, and intellectual components—is for Robertson “a tectonic shift in outlook” (3) that marks the beginning of the Enlightenment.
Much of the confusion over what the Enlightenment was really about involves the concept of reason, according to Robertson. Reason is a fundamentally social concept. Reason relies on debate; it is exercised in dialogue with others. Freedom to engage in dialogue is also a critical component. Reason was the tool used to critique popular belief and religious and political authority during the Enlightenment, a common theme of the typical Enlightenment tale. Robertson described rationalism giving way to empiricism, and the emergence of a popular “philosophical spirit.” But what is frequently left out of the story, Robertson argues, is that Enlightenment reason and empiricism did not claim to be able to solve every problem or provide complete understanding of human life. Rather, the ends of Enlightenment reason were surprisingly modest. Reason was also a tool available to all of humanity, a distinct departure from earlier conceptions that required elites to interpret for others.  
But reason, despite what Robertson sees as a common misconception, is not, cannot, and should not be divorced from emotion. Neither is reason a strictly material or analytical notion. Reason’s role is to manage the passions. According to Robertson, reason helps formulate the goals toward which our passions push us.(Shaftesbury and Hume play starring roles in this section, introducing the role of sympathy and sensibility, to which I’ll return in future posts. To see reason as not influenced by feelings is inadequate and even dangerous. Indeed, we must actively educate the emotions as well as reason. That, however, will have to wait for a future post. 

To recap, reason:
  • Social concept; relies of debate (which relies on freedom of speech and association)
  • Tool to critique authority and various beliefs (including religious beliefs)
  • Ends are modest (can’t tell us everything)
  • Is and should be connected with emotion
  • Is influenced by the passions
  • Should learn to manage the passions

Next up, I'll consider the Scientific Enlightenment, but first I’ll leave you with some general questions to consider on the nature of the Enlightenment project:

  1. What does the “pursuit of happiness” entail for you? Is the concept of happiness a more social or individual one? 
  2. How would you define “reason?” What about the contemporary concept of “public reason?” Is the latter the natural evolution of the reason Robertson describes, or another sort of concept altogether?  
  3. Which takes precedence in your life- reason or passions? Which should, and why?
  4. Robertson says, “An age of enlightenment is one in which people are free to think as their intellect guides them.” (31) To what extent are we still living in an age of enlightenment today? 

More to Explore: 
John Crippen

Hi! Late to the table here, but looking forward to catching up with the chapter-by-chapter review. To Amy's fourth question, about whether or not we are still living in an age of Enlightenment, it seems to me that in America we have given up many of the important gains of the Enlightenment, particularly in the area of letting Others and Institutions do our thinking for us. Sigh. One reason I'm reading this book, interacting with y'all, and thinking about the the Enlightenment is to learn more about how and why the philosophes were successful, with an eye to seeing how I can shape my life to be more like a philosophe.

I appreciate Robertson's early flagging of the fact that the Enlightenment was the interaction between "a deliberate undertaking and [ ] the continuation of a shift in mentality". (38) For me, it will be important to remember the function of that interaction.