The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick18 October 2007
I may actually make a post that isn’t a review one of these days, but at the moment I doubt that anyone wants to read my ramblings about the Liberal Democrats’ leadership race. So I’ll set that aside for now in favour of something a little less topical.
The Portable Enlightenment Reader, edited by Isaac Kramnick
The Age of Enlightenment is a name commonly given to the philosophical and intellectual movements in Europe and in the American colonies during the eighteenth (and early seventeenth) century. A list of contributors to the ‘Enlightenment’ would have to include a remarkably diverse group of thinkers and writers who debated any number of philosophical, political, and social topics, many of whom disagreed vehemently with the writings of others. Whether it’s the pamphlets of Thomas Paine or the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, Mary Wollstonecraft denouncing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opinions on the education of women or Edmund Burke ‘reflecting’ on the French Revolution, Immanuel Kant’s critique of pure reason or the sheer prolific fury of just about anything written by Voltaire, the Enlightenment writers put their emphasis on reason, rational thought, scientific analysis, and the study of natural law in relation to the individual and society. The idea was to move away from irrationality and superstition (which some of these writers, though by no means all of them, attributed in part to the tyranny of organised religions) and towards a more unified framework for how the world operated. This intellectual framework helped form the basis for classical liberalism, democracy, and capitalistic thought — and by extension, formed the philosophical underpinnings of the American and French Revolutions.
The Portable Enlightenment Reader is a set of texts taken from the writings of the Enlightenment’s most notable philosophers, grouped by subject and topic and pulled together into a single volume. The texts chosen for this portable edition are, I’d have to say, a fairly good selection. All of the big names of the time period are there — Locke and Rousseau and Hume take up a decent amount of space, and the selections are usually long enough to provide a taste of the topic without taking up too much room. The idea in a book like this is to give the casual reader a sense of how each of these writers wrote and what they wrote about. For example, if you’ve ever wondered whether Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is worth reading, then the selection provided in the Portable Enlightenment Reader may give you a sense of whether you think you’d like to try to tackle his prose.
Not all of the selections are weighty philosophical treatises or explorations of history. There’s a downright smutty snippet from John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, a work of erotic fiction billed as the memoirs of a ‘woman of pleasure’ — indicative of the interest that the Enlightenment writers took in the definition, understanding, and pursuit of pleasure. There are some noteworthy perspectives on the early women’s rights movement, including a short passage written by Thomas Paine that reflects on the unfortunate state of women as he saw it. The tail end of the Enlightenment saw some consideration on the nature of the slave trade and the position of the ‘Negro race’ (as many writers called it) with respect to white Europeans. The book as a whole is meant for dabbling — a means of tempting the appetite, as it were. Now that I know where to start from, the Portable Enlightenment Reader has given me a solid basis for continuing my reading of the works of writers who helped shape Western thought at a crucial moment in Western history.