What is Enlightenment?

Peter Knox-Shaw has drawn my attention to Jane Austen and ‘Modern Europe’, an article he has published in this month’s Notes & Queries (55:1, March 2008), suggesting that ‘this recent piece might help convince you!’ Now what I am to be convinced of is the topic of this article but first I have to explain what Peter is driving at.

In an introductory section of In Search of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen and The Enlightenment, I discuss Peter’s book Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. The thesis of Peter Knox-Shaw’s book is that Austen was ‘a writer of centrist views who derives in large measure from the Enlightenment’ (p. 5). Whether I agree with this statement depends entirely on what is meant by the Enlightenment. I suspect that Peter and I would agree that Austen would see herself in these terms—I didn’t realise this until Peter sent me his article—so far he has succeeded.

However, Jane Austen’s idea of what it means to be an Enlightenment writer would be quite different from, as many would have us believe today, of signing up to David Hume’s project of subverting the ‘vulgar philosophies’ to make for a new post-Christian, rationalist philosophical order. I don’t think Austen or her family would agree with this at all and Peter Knox-Shaw’s recent Jane Austen and ‘Modern Europe’ article provides evidence for this assertion.

Peter Knox-Shaw makes a strong case that a reference to ‘Modern Europe’ in an 1813 Austen letter (Austen (1995), no. 89, 23-24 Sept.), previously assumed to refer to one book, was in fact referring to quite a different book. This is relevant for it would mean that the book Austen was reading with her niece was the one that James Austen had hailed in The Loiterer in 1789 as ‘the author of one of the best histories that this age has produced’: The History of Modern Europe (1779) by William Russell (1741-93). That this book was a firm favourite for the Austens is significant for Peter Knox-Shaw’s thesis because it finishes with a tribute to Enlightenment writers, Hume prominent among them, and Hume is admired not just for his History, but for his speculative inquiries. Peter Knox-Shaw quotes from the 1784 edition of Modern Europe:

It was not till near the middle of the present century, that philosophy began to turn its views immediately towards the interests or the embellishments of society: and Hume and Montesquieu, Helvetius and Raynal, are no less distinguished by the boldness of their speculative opinions, than by the utility of their practical inquiries. They have been followed, or accompanied, in what regards human life at least, by Smith, Ferguson, Lord Kames, and other eminent writers, who do honour to the reign of George III.

So we have good evidence to believe that the Austen clan promoted and studied throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic period of 1789-1913 (at least), a book that paid handsome tribute to the speculative endeavours of Hume and the other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment. QED.

However it is worth looking at just why Russell approved of Hume’s speculations. In the 1802 edition he said ‘this great man, who has carried human reasoning to the utmost point of perfection, has endeavoured, by sceptical doubts, to destroy the certainty of all reasoning, and to undermine both the foundation of both natural and revealed religion’ (p. 450). Russell then explains how this lead to a healthy re-evaluation, the net effect being renewal: ‘these rude attacks have only served more firmly to establish true religion’ (p. 452).

We could learn much from Russell’s enlightened relationship to the speculative endeavours of the great men of the Enlightenment, an outlook quite in tune with Austen’s endeavours to renew and fuse the old Christian, classical order with the new.

4 responses to “What is Enlightenment?

  1. Peter Knox Shaw

    Dear Chris,

    Many thanks for that valuable commentary. Yes, ‘enlightened’ in the eighteenth century seldom if ever implied ‘irreligious’, even when used of the ‘enlightenment’ as we know it today. Atheist thinkers in the movement were few and far between, vastly outnumbered by deists and by orthodox Christians ranging from Calvinist to Roman Catholic. Whether Hume himself was atheist or deist is still a matter of debate, and though there is a strong anti-clerical strain in his writing, he nevertheless took pains to reoncile his work with faith when he laid down a basis for ‘true religion’ in Part XII of the Dialogues, and gave as last word to his spokesman Philo: ‘To be a philosophical sceptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian’. For all his notoriety Hume was on the very best terms with the ‘Moderates’ in Scotland, and an important presence later for the Evangelicals who found a justification for fideism in his understanding that life depends on belief. He seems, above all, to have contributed (as is clear from the passage from Modern Europe that you cite) to a tolerant, broad-church Anglicanism that was securely in place towards the close of the eighteenth century. Many recent interpretations of the Dialogues have been theistic in tendency, a return to the sort of reading common in Jane Austen’s time.

    JA’s appreciation of works by enlightenment historians is in fact quite well documented. Apart from the ‘Biographical Notice’ which describes her knowledge of history as ‘very extensive’, or the Memoir which mentions in this connection her reading of Robertson and Hume, there is the sustained conversation on history in Northanger Abbey where Hume and Robertson are praised by both Eleanor and Henry Tilney and recommended to the mature reader as ‘our most distinguished historians’. Jane’s copy of Hume’s History survives (without annotation sadly for she seems to have given up the practice in her early teens), but we know from her letters that she also read Robert Henry’s History of Great Britain, a liberal work published by Strahan largely owing to the intervention of Hume and aptly dedicated to William Earl of Mansfield, famous for his judgement outlawing slavery in Britain. The addition, then, to the list of JA’s reading of William Russell, another Scot of the same school, is hardly surprising.

    From internal evidence, on the other hand, it is clear that Jane Austen knew many of Hume’s Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (described by William Russell in Modern Europe as ‘perfect models of philosophical investigation’) as well as some of his more analytical work. No doubt she felt sufficiently confident in her own outlook to grapple with a recent thinker whose discoveries had, in William Russell’s words, a specially ‘intimate relation to human affairs’ and were ‘of universal application in science, and closely connected with the leading principles of the arts’.

    With best wishes, Peter

  2. Dear Peter,

    Thank you very much for your generous and interesting reply. I find your approach to the Enlightenment interesting and not a little productive. I don’t think we differ at all on Austen’s relationship to it—as you understand it.

    I think what you are saying is historically valid, that people living in the (extended) eighteenth century saw themselves as living in an intellectually fertile time, an enlightened time, which is quite distinct from the notion that humanity had achieved for the first time an awakening where people started thinking for themselves, as Kant seemed to be suggesting in his essay. Unfortunately Kant’s narrative has stuck and that is the way most intellectuals see themselves today. So the reality of the Enlightenment today—merely because that is the way people relate to it rather than any of its innate qualities—is that humanity came of age and started thinking for itself for the first time.

    This is of course complete rot, and a massive, collective exercise in hubris—indeed I would say a great unenlightenment.

    One of the things that happened in the 18th century—very much promoted by Hume, at least in the Treatise—was that our rational faculties should be directed out onto the world and not turned on the self—reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them—and this idea caught on in a big way. In retrospect I think it is inevitable that this would happen. After the scientific revolution gave us mastery of physical causation there was bound to be a movement of intellectuals that would justify projecting all of our problems onto the environment and looking for their solution there. Hume and Kant said in their prefaces that they were trying to extract the secret sauce from the scientific revolution and inject it into the humanities and you can see it in Rousseau too in his noble savage needing need the right republic to attain perfection. This is our modern enlightened philosophy.

    And, like Mrs Norris’s nieces, it is also ‘entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity and humility’. In turning away from the pursuit of self-knowledge, enslaving the intellect to the passions, Hume was leading a full-frontal attack on the central aim of all religion—theistic or not. Kant may have come up with a more subtle ethical scheme but it still leaves no place for self-knowledge.

    Austen understood that the whole enterprise was doomed: the critical faculties must be sharply tuned to what the self is about if there is going to be any realistic chance of behaving justly and skilfully—the passions cannot be just left to their own devices. Austen skilfully replicated the ethical dilemmas of the protagonists into the reading of the novel and I suspect the only way to come to any judgements that will withstand analysis is to read the novel with critical faculties on full alert, carefully scrutinising all judgements to defeat the author’s insidious design—the reading of the novel dramatically re-enacts the dilemmas taking place in side it, and the critical history of Austen’s novels reflects this very process (see my chapter on Emma, or Misreading Emma, Religion and Politics).

    Now this clearly goes against your take on Hume as a constructive regenerator of classical/Christian ethics. However, I am taking the Treatise as representing Hume’s thought because many contemporary thinkers tend to see it as his best and definitive work, but he seems to have wished to disown it later, and I could well believe that contemporary philosophers may have their own reasons for preferring the Treatise. If you can show that he turned away from this programme, that an early Hume and a later Hume must be distinguished—and I think it is entirely possible—then that would be interesting. However his last testaments seem to indicate that he was an atheist at the end. That said, he was a natural conservative so he may have wished to preserve the wisdom of the ages in the Christian ethics while rejecting its theistic/mystical aspects.




  3. Dear Mr. Dornan,

    I just serendipitously discovered your blog, and have read the above thread with great interest. As for why I found it so interesting, please take a quick look at my dormant blog, which gives a brief overview of my own Jane Austen “quest”.

    I have just written the following paraphrase of the passage from Russell’s history that you quoted, to illustrate at least one important reason why I believe Russell’s history would have resonated strongly with JA’s own didactic goals as a novelist:

    “This great woman, who has carried human reasoning to the utmost point of perfection, has endeavoured, by sceptical doubts, generated by means of embedding shadow versions of each of her novels in the texts of those novels, to destroy the certainty of all reasoning, and to undermine both the foundation of naive and passive readings of those novels, and by extension, of the interpersonal experiences of her readers. ”

    I think Austen wishes to renew the novelistic tradition, and to extend it in a radical new direction, which would teach her readers to read novels, and life, better.

    I would be curious to hear what you (and, if he is still monitoring this thread, Mr. Know-Shaw, as well) think about the above.


    Arnie Perlstein

  4. Arnie, I am still getting the blog together, but one of the things I need to explain better is that the articles are really an evolving collection of essays. The conversations have hardly started so I welcome and encourage folks to dive in and comment on anything that is here–and I am monitoring all the comments and will respond to all those I can. When I next email Peter (soon I hope) I will point out this thread.

    By the way I partially agree with your point about her borrowing of Scott, that she was really writing for those of sharp faculty. Her genius is that she can write for both those of dull faculty and of sharp faculties (in some ways I have bits of both). But I am quibbling; your point (I think) is that James’s idea of a homely songbird is truly hilarious. Everybody who has tried to pull a patronising number on her has eventually been shown to be thoroughly foolish and diminished by the attempt. I find some of the profound thinkers, in some respects, remarkably crude by comparison.

    I quite agree with you that she was engaged in a battle of wits with her readers and engaging in very subtle philosophy–to read literature and life better as you say.

    As for what you say between the quotes–that is going to require some thought and some further reading–starting with you blog. I will respond to your question after I have had a chance to do this and think about it a bit. Thanks.

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