Tuesday, 25 December 2007

BB2: The Enlightenment as a Populist Movement: Margaret Jacob

[This is talk 2, session 1 of 2, on the first day of The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

The second speaker on the opening day of the Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 conference is another historian (the first was Darrin McMahon), Margaret Jacob, a professor at UCLA and an authority on the scientific roots of the Enlightenment with books including "Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe" and "The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents". Her topic is not to look at Enlightenment 2.0 but to examine the roots of the original Enlightenment.

Jacobs notes the standard conception of the Enlightenment as that captured by the 24 or 25 "philosophs" of the 17th century but wants to add to this by arguing it is also or more better conceived of, as starting as a populist movement starting in the 1680s. There were three key components to this.

In France the anti-protestant bias meant protestants either had to convert, go to prison or - illegally - emigrate - often leaving family and loved ones behind. There were at that time over 250,000 protestants who were dislocated and moved to protestant Europe. This not surprisingly gave these protestant immigrants an anti-catholic and anti-monarchical disposition. England, having gone through its own "revolution" -it's civil wars, starting with a revolt against a Catholic King, and the republican "commonwealth" experiment - from 1640-1660, had returned to a monarchy but one considerably more limited than those of catholic Europe, with the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy, democracy and economic and scientific stimulus. After the The Revolt of the Netherlands (1568–1648) which ended with the Dutch Republic, this nely independent country quickly expanded through merchant shipping and with similar, sometimes faster, economic and scientific growths to England.

Finally, Holland, at that time published 50% of all books in Europe and they had no censorship laws for non-dutch language books. Ex-French and other Protestants found this a fertile ground to publish their anti-monarchy and anti-catholic texts and to praise their admiration for the Dutch and English examples of what is possible. New literary genres developed such as pornography - usually set in Monasteries, convents or royal courts... Examining trade and commerce and new scientific ideas such as Newton's physics, including misunderstandings such as every object contains its on causes of motion, led to the birth of materialism as well as tracts on many non-Catholic themes, such as pantheism, deism as well as atheism. The infamous "The Treatise on the Three Imposters" - the imposters being Jesus, Moses and Mohamed, first published in 1718, was, however, one step too far and the Dutch authorities banned it and it was burned. The fact that it was published at all is indicative of the climate at the time. All these books found a ready audience around Europe and authors were able to make a living publishing these books.

Jacob seeks to situate the roots of the Enlightenment or, as it was sometimes then known as "the movement towards light" in this period and emphasize its populist appeal, acknowledging it was driven by anti-catholic and anti-monarchy sentiment. I mostly agree with this, as the focus on the 24 or 25 "philosophs" and their industries based on specific authors such as Voltaire and Rousseau, divert us from these other factors and make it appear elitist today. England and Holland were more fertile grounds for Enlightenment ideas to develop and, importantly, that as partly due to having some of the key values of the Enlightenment already in place such as a free press and, at least, some de-centralization such as urban elites (as opposed to top down aristocracies and church control). She also argues that these movements were, what we would call now, of the political left, except they were not anti-commerce, indeed commerce was one of the liberating forces that enabled these Enlightenment ideas to develop and to fund writers, publishers and the press, all of whom no longer needed to patronage of king or church, only their readers. With respect to the point about the Left, I am not sure if this is correct, given, as I am, to wondering whether the Left and Right are classifications that should be retired - still they are certainly still very popular as simplistic characterizations of opponents but much of the vocal Left today appears to have very little relation to some those late 1600 and early 1700 ideas, especially with regard to commerce or, as they would put it now, "capitalism". Noticing this change is a good historical question to pursue in its own right.

To end, I have wanted to emphasize the organizations, structures and institutions that both enable and apply Enlightenment ideas and Jacob's approach seems to confirm this as being the case right from the beginning of the Enlightenment. A parting comment is if the Enlightenment then was populist movement, it has in recent times been presented or appears as somewhat elitist one, one fighting the tide of the return of classical worldviews and as such has triggered the need for this conference. It is a pity that Jacob, having made her point about the populist origins of the Enlightenment, did not explore why today this does not appear to the case. This is an important question for Enlightenment 2.0, why is it not any more a populist movement, if that is the case, and if so, what can be done about it?