Let There Be Enlightenment

Most people think that the Enlightenment was the “age of reason,” characterized by the emergence of rational approaches to socio-political problems, the rise of religious toleration, and the decline of devout fanaticism. In describing the learned culture of the eighteenth century to students, it would be hard not to conjure up Voltaire’s attack against superstition and religious intolerance, encapsulated by his famous signature: “écrasez l’infâme!” (“crush the infamous thing!”) David Hume’s critique of not only all revelation but also of natural religion might also come to mind, as might the irreverent salon of the atheist baron d’Holbach, and the de-Christianization policies of the French Revolutionaries. Indeed, the Manichean struggle between the parti philosophique and the parti dévot continues to be central to almost all accounts of the Enlightenment. The story of a contest between conservative theologians and radical philosophers offers a simple explanation about secularization and the emergence of modernity. Depending on which side one takes in this contest, the bifurcation also allows for an oversimplified narrative about either the progress of human reason or the decline of traditional morality.

Recent scholarship has complicated these neat narratives of secularization. Throughout the early modern period, natural reason and supernatural faith were not always at odds with one another, and they did not constantly clash even in the century of the philosophes. Indeed, the creative tension between these two faculties shaped much of the Enlightenment’s learned culture. After all, the very notion of intellectual enlightenment is built upon a religious metaphor and filled with biblical symbolism. The essays in Let There Be Enlightenment examine the mutually constitutive relationship between theology and philosophy in the Enlightenment. Some of the recent research on the topic has explored how rational trends of eighteenth-century thought shaped religious beliefs and practices. Many of the essays look at the flip side of this relationship and examine the ways in which religious beliefs and motivations informed philosophical perspectives. Highlighting figures and questions often overlooked in standard genealogies of the Enlightenment, this collection emphasizes the prominent role of religious discourses in major aspects of Enlightenment thought.

Our book provides a chronologically and geographically broad examination of the productive tensions between faith and reason in the Enlightenment. Rather than revisiting the celebrated breaks between the eighteenth century and the period the preceded it, we highlight the unacknowledged continuities that connect the Enlightenment to its various antecedents. The metaphor of light, the progressive narrative of the gradual enlightenment of humankind, and the emphasis on the independent use of one’s reason all had theological origins and ultimately emerged from the intense disputes of the Reformation.

Thus, many of the essays look back to the seventeenth century, exploring figures such as the Bohemian reformer Jon Amos Comenius, who, according to Howard Hotson, sought to create an educational curriculum to bring about universal enlightenment. Such unexpected religious influences are addressed in Jo Van Cauter’s essay on the Quaker and Collegiant sources of Baruch Spinoza’s controversial theology, Philippe Buc’s exploration of the medieval theological origins of Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy, and Charly Coleman’s contribution on Denis Diderot’s religiously inspired, anti-individualist conception of personhood. Traditional intellectual authorities such as Aristotle also persisted in playing an important role during the eighteenth century, as Dan Edelstein and Matthew T. Gaetano show in their respective examinations of French and Italian sources.

Many of the essays pay particular attention to the actors’ own categories and language, exploring their repeated insistence on living in an enlightened age. The metaphor of light-as-knowledge, which originally appeared in a theological context, was central to many texts of this period. Thus, Céline Spector and Anton M. Matytsin focus on the changing meanings of the light metaphor in the French Enlightenment, while Jeffrey D. Burson highlights how various movements (including the Jesuits, Freemasons, anti-philosophes, and materialists) used competing metaphors of light to construct alternate genealogies of enlightenment. These examinations of the light metaphor are coupled with Darrin M. McMahon’s account of physical illumination in eighteenth-century Paris. Although France is a major focus for this collection, a number of essays look to other parts of Europe, including Bohemia, Britain, the Dutch Republic, Germany, and Italy. Thus, while William J. Bulman explores the phenomenon of secular sacerdotalism and in the Anglican Enlightenment, James Schmidt examines the emergence of counter-Enlightenment in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German texts.

Together, the essays in Let There Be Enlightenment complicate any easy explanation about the emergence of secular modernity, and they shed new light on the intellectual culture of the eighteenth century. We present a different genealogy of the Enlightenment that ultimately provides a richer and more nuanced account of the dramatic changes that occurred in this period. At a time when tensions between reason and religion are on the rise, it is a particularly opportune moment to explore their entangled histories, and, in the Enlightenment, their enormous synergy.

Anton M. Matytsin is an assistant professor of history at Kenyon College. He is the author of The Specter of Skepticism in the Age of Enlightenment. Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and a professor of history (by courtesy) at Stanford University. He is the author of The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution and The Enlightenment: A Genealogy. Together, they are the editors of Let There Be Enlightenment: The Religious and Mystical Sources of Rationality.