The Enlightenment

by Anthony Kenny, SPCK, 144pp, £7.99

When did the Age of Enlightenment begin? There is no Wittenberg-type moment, so Sir Anthony Kenny proposes April 16, 1746. The Battle of Culloden was “the last rally in Britain of those institutions that the Enlightenment saw as the forces of darkness” – Catholicism, that is, and absolute rule.

The Age of Enlightenment drew to a close, Kenny estimates, in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in the presence of Pius VII.

Like other books in the series of “Very Brief Histories” from SPCK, The Enlightenment comes in two parts: History and Legacy. The History section quickly evolves into a beguiling miniature parade of Enlightenment heroes: Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire, the Encyclopédistes, d’Holbach (a full-blown atheist-materialist who, in the words of Diderot, “rained bombs on the house of the Lord”), Franklin (discoverer of the Gulf Stream – I never knew), Gibbon and so on – with each holding aloft for inspection a celebrated work, such as The Spirit of the Laws; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; and Candide.

En route, there are some wonderful nuggets of information, such as Parliament voting Jeremy Bentham the huge sum of £23,000 in compensation for his work on the unrealistic “panopticon” prison scheme, or the fact that Voltaire occasionally received the sacraments at Verney, to the scandal of his philosophe friends.

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