#ReadWithMe: Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment Part 7: Doing Cosmopolitan History

american revolution #readwithme enlightenment french revolution reason liberty despotism

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

Has happiness been caught? Amy Willis' last entry in her #ReadWithMe on Ritchie Robertson's The Enlightenment talks about benevolent despots, the inevitability of (some) violence in revolutions, the central role of the preservation of liberty, and who gets to claim the mantle of reason. 
What should we have learned from Ritchie Robertson's The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790? It’s a fitting question to end this series and the theme of the last few chapters.

After his grand tour of history and the social sciences in the previous chapters, Robertson turns to forms of government. Understandably, he pays a good deal of attention to Montesquieu (Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu). To me, the most fascinating part of this section is not the relative merits of monarchies versus republics, but what I took to be Robertson’s enthusiasm for “Enlightened Absolutism” and the potential for benevolent despots. Says Robertson,
Suppose there were a virtuous ruler, endowed with supreme power, and determined to use it for his subjects’ benefit. Such a ruler could be justified in overriding constitutional restraints, ignoring intermediary powers, and introducing sweeping reforms. (661) 
Robertson offers four examples:  

While none of these match all Robertson’s criteria for Enlightened Absolutism, that there are characteristics suggests he believes someone might embody the requisite characteristics. The candidate he puts forth is Joseph’s younger brother and successor, Leopold II. “Leopold was an exemplary enlightened ruler…His enlightenment was practical.” (675) Leopold’s enlightened actions included proposing a new constitution to limit his own powers. That Leopold died too early to know whether he would have become an enlightened despot is not exactly comforting for this classical liberal.

And speaking of things uncomfortable, Robertson moves from despotism to revolution. Much ink has been spilled comparing the American and French Revolutions, and Robertson adds his. To me, this was one of the most exceptional parts of the book. Robertson undertakes an examination of which of the characteristics of the Enlightenment dominated which actors. Again, and not uniquely, Robertson suggests the French revolutionaries followed Rousseau and rejected the philosophes, while the Americans took an Anglo-Lockean course instead.

More interesting to me was Robertson’s claim that the American Revolution wasn’t a revolution- at least in the same sense as the French. That is, while the colonists indeed aimed to throw the yoke of an oppressive government, they were not attempting to remodel society whole cloth. Theirs was a more conservative (in the traditional sense) endeavor. (Thomas Jefferson would disagree but perhaps other founders would not.) 

Robertson also takes on the perennial question of why there was no American equivalent to the Terror, and he offers a great deal of exposition. To him (and to me) the more interesting question was how far the Terror, not the French Revolution as a whole, can be considered a legacy of the Enlightenment. I leave it to you to explore and decide your own answer to that question.

Robertson’s sobering discussion of revolution leads into a fascinating inquiry  into the fundamental legacies of the Enlightenment, among which he counts liberalism, patriotism, and nationalism. He contrasts classical with modern liberalism, and seems to be more in sympathy with classical liberalism as opposed to the modern focus on welfare and support for personal fulfillment. As he reminds us, 
Mainstream Enlighteners did not see representative government as an end in itself, but as a means of preserving liberty (747) 
and that all stripes of liberals (during the Enlightenment) were looking to reduce the size of government and barriers to internal commerce and international trade. Given what I had perceived as a slightly negative attitude toward commerce in earlier chapters, this was pleasantly surprising to me. 

He also catalogs the transition from patriotism to nationalism, especially as evidenced by the French revolutionaries’ ambitions beyond their borders. Prior to the revolutionary period,. Robertson believes, “A patriot could see beyond selfish, short-term interest and envisage his country’s good in the long term.” (750-1) During the course of the revolutions however, patriotism came to be more oppositional, someone who stands outside of and opposed to the governing hierarchy.

Robertson concludes his project with what he calls the Battle Over the Enlightenment- attacks from the modern left and right. He writes,
The ‘Enlightenment project’ has led to both the liberal individualism in which- at its most extreme- all aspects of life are regulated by the laws of the market, and to Communism, in which the individual is subordinated to the state and all aspects of life are, or should be, controlled by state planning. (769)
Neither is ideal and neither can claim reason as its guiding principle:

Enlightenment reason is not calculation but argument; it is pursued not by solitary thinkers armed with slide-rules, but by groups whose members often differ in their views and who meet in the settings of Enlightenment sociability. (770)

Perhaps the problem is not Enlightenment, but modernity. Again, I leave any conclusion on that score to you.

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