Tyler Cowen’s guide to Enlightenment

No, that is not enlightenment about life, that is enlightenment about Enlightenment, as in the eighteenth century phenomenon.  P., a loyal MR reader, wrote to me with such a request, noting correctly that “I usually find that broad, ambitious survey books are not the answer.”

That survey would be Peter Gay, recently a bestseller in China by the way, and then Ernst Cassirer, Jonathan Israel, and Roy Porter, but let me outline an alternative program of study.  The goal here is to be practical, engaging, and vivid, not comprehensive or scholarly per se:


Geoffrey Clive’s short book The Romantic Enlightenment.

James Boswell, Journals, selected excerpts, he was an early blogger by the way, and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  I find that to be one of the wittiest of books.  Plus Hume’s Essays.

Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, and Rousseau’s Second Discourse.  Condorcet, Essay on the Progress of the Human Mind.  Voltaire I consider overrated.

Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, yes I know it is arguably “anti-Enlightenment,” better yet.  If you insist on another Irishman, Bishop Berkeley is an entertaining writer as well.

Founding documents of the United States, and Ben Franklin, Autobiography.

Kant, Perpetual Peace, “What is Enlightenment?”, and Lessing, Nathan the Wise.

Beccaria, Of Crimes and Punishments.

If you have the time to tackle longer books, start with Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Boswell’s Life of Johnson and then Casanova and Tristram Shandy (there is by the way a splendid book on the postmodern in the Enlightenment but I can no longer remember the cite).  Leave Montesquieu to the Straussians, although the returns are high if you are so inclined.

For history, read up on eighteenth century scientific societies, Robert Darnton on the rise of publishing and the book trade, Habermas on the coffeehouse debate culture and the public sphere, and Brewer and McKendrick on the rise of consumer society in England.  Try Wikipedia for Catherine the Great, Frederick the Great, and other rulers of the time.  There is also Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment, and books on 18th century Freemasonry.  The French Revolution seems to require its own blog post, as does the Industrial Revolution, slavery too, in a pinch resort to the MR search function box on this blog.  Foucault will give you a sense of the dark side of the Enlightenment, his history is unreliable but read him on Discipline and Punishment and on ideology try the rather dense The Order of Things.

That all said, I would start with music and the arts first.


Haydn, the London symphonies and late piano sonatas and string quartets Op.76.

Mozart, the major operas, including reading through the libretti while listening.  If you can only do one thing on this list…

Gluck, assorted operas, noting he is not nearly the equal of Haydn or Mozart as a composer but he did capture the spirit of Enlightenment.

C.P.E. Bach, the Prussian Sonatas.


Study French painting from Chardin through David, picture books will do if you can’t visit the original works.  Focus on Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Vigée-Le Brun, Boilly, Hubert Robert, and others, how their works tie into the history of the period and how the styles transformed over time.  Visit Paris, Huntington Gardens, and Tiepolo’s work in the Residenz in Würzburg.  Do a tour of Georgian architecture in England, in a pinch visit the derivative works at Harvard, Yale, and Alexandria, Virginia.  Study Tiepolo more generally, Goya, and also Antonio Canova.



Why not?  I’ll toss up Dangerous Liaisons (Vadim and Malkovich versions), Barry Lyndon, Casanova, Amadeus, A Royal Affair (can’t forget Denmark!), Marie Antoinette, Ridicule, and The Madness of King George.

What did I leave out that is of utmost importance?


'What did I leave out that is of utmost importance?'

The time and money to do this - 'Visit Paris, Huntington Gardens, and Tiepolo’s work in the Residenz in Würzburg. Do a tour of Georgian architecture in England, in a pinch visit the derivative works at Harvard, Yale, and Alexandria, Virginia.'

The Art of The Deal.

Not lying, sick, brain damaged Rousseau.

If you don't read Rousseau like me, it is hard to see how he could appear as anything else but a madman.

Definitely worth knowing about the Encyclopédie project, edited by Diderot. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclop%C3%A9die

The Cult of the Supreme Being might be filed under the French Revolution, but by golly what an enlightenment thing to come up with. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_the_Supreme_Being

Crowdsourced translation project: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/

You should read Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer, Tyler.

I agree. I eagerly await part 2.

Could someone give a music recommendation from this period that is less than 10 minutes in length?

This piece really got me in to Monteverdi https://youtu.be/wAPxEW16SCA

I would really like to listen to something from the musicians mentioned by Tyler that doesn't required such a long listen.


Even shorter

This from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BGkOf64pJ5s

Mozart's Adagio for Glass Armonica combines music with Enlightenment-era technology: the glass harmonica had a lot of earlier predecessors but Benjamin Franklin is credited with creating the best prototype.


Great list. I love the emphasis on music and the arts. I plainly have some reading to do.

G. C. Lichtenberg is one of my favorite Enlightenment authors. Known in his own day mainly as that hunchbacked physicist who gave entertaining lectures on electricity, he turned out to be (in his posthumously published "Wastebooks") one of the great aphorists. He's probably not "of utmost importance" to anybody but a few Germans and me... but I wish he were.

I'm admittedly not a partisan of the Enlightenment (although I do like Rousseau) but I still find it a little bit risible that the Enlightment was a era of thought set off by an earthquake.

That said Concerning Increase of Mankind would probably be a lot more informative piece to read than Franklin's autobiography which if anything if far more informative about the man on the make of the 20th century which Franklin typified avant la letter than it is the Enlightenment. If Franklin had been born in Renaissance Italy he would have written a book like Book of the Courtier. I guess in that sense it is informative- it shows an extremely bright man presenting himself as the archetype of an age.

Off-topic, I recommend these books. As for the Enlightenment, there's plenty of survey books out there, for example "The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction". Contra to TC, and the loyal reader P,, I would not read stuff "in the original" since it's too difficult to digest. Much cleaner and quicker to rely on a good derivative work.

Books to read:
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage (TC: "James Boswell, Journals, selected excerpts, he was an early blogger by the way" - Standage makes a point I think that coffeehouses were a sort of 'online forum' back in the days)

An Edible History of Humanity Paperback – April 27, 2010 by Tom Standage (Author) (not read this one yet but food for thought)

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage (self-recommending)

Economics overrated.

Alternative: Gullivera by Milo Manara. Also from Manara. The Golden Ass. If the Enlightenment was about looking back at Greeks and Romans, it's good to look at a modern adaptation of novel written in Latin.

you're thinking of the Renaissance.

You're right, never post before coffee.

I'm not an expert in the enlightenment, but I too have been trying to get my head ariund it for about 10 years now. I'd like to add the real problem with understanding it is you have to understand the period which immediately preceded it too in order to see why it was so different and so important in shaping our modern world.

I think in many ways the elite in the enlightenment were far more like us in the modern times than they were like their general population. For this reason when I study the thinkers at the time their weird thoughts and ideas strike me far more than their truly revolutionary ones, because their revolutionary ones are now quite common. It's only when I can put myself into the mind of a typical 17th century man can I grasp the importance of this intellectual movement.

The real question to ask about the Great Divergence is not why North Western England took off in the 17th century, but why NWE was already a global outlier on multiple criteria including high marriage age, lack of cousin marriage, female status in society etc., by as early as the 12th century. Several of these were clearly IQ enhancing selection pressures. See: https://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/big-summary-post-on-the-hajnal-line/

Location, location: western Europe was ideally placed to discover and exploit the Americas. Add to that some accidents of history, notably the fact that Spain flamed out early due to increasingly incompetent rulers using the fruits of the New World in a futile quest to put Protestantism back in the bottle.

From the linked article, "Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000.‘

“By 1200 Western Europe has a GDP per capita higher than most parts of the world, but (with two exceptions) by 1500 this number stops increasing. In both data sets the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the ‘West’ begins its more famous split from ‘the rest.’

“[W]e can pin point the beginning of this ‘little divergence’ with greater detail. In 1348 Holland’s GDP per capita was $876. England’s was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland’s jumps to $1,245 and England’s to 1090. The North Sea’s revolutionary divergence started at this time.”

Ok what happened in 1348?

The plague happened in many other places that didn't see such a sustained Per capita income rise.

True, but in many other parts of Europe governments did everything in their power to stop the economic consequences and transformations that the Plague induced. In the Netherlands government was mainly local, and the Duke of Burgundy (the region's feudal lord in the 1400s) favored the area's economic development rather trying to suppress it in the name of maintaining the old order. In England royal government became weak in Edward III's final senile years, and did not recover its former power during the minority of Richard II, nor under the Lancasterian usurpers. The Tudors when they came to the crown generally favored the bourgeoisie over the nobility.
Of course another area of exception was northern Italy-- it's impossible to talk about this era without noting the increased prosperity and capitalist revolution in the Renaissance cities. They had been hit hard by the plague-- and in the 1400s they found themselves all but independent, owing only lip service to a distant Emperor.

The Wallace Collection in London has a lovely load of French and English 18th-century art, and golly do you see the contrasts.

Very informative post, by the way.

"What did I leave out that is of utmost importance?"

Natural science and mathematics from Newton to Gauss!

Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind, 1680-1715.

--Best stage-setter, and a lovely style. 2013 reprint of English translation first published 1953 of the French published 1935.

Central intellectual motion of the Enlightenment, and consequently of our own time, is best described in:

Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being

--Not an easy style to read, but continuously in print since 1936 for a very good reason!

Read a good abridgement of Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Yeah. Or read any 100 pages of it at random.

Is there one in particular that you like?

There are not that many. I think they mostly abridge the same material, more or less. David Womersley -- I think it is -- has edited Gibbon recently.

Films: Bedlam (1946), Jefferson in Paris (1995), La Marseillaise (1938)

Book: The German Genius (Peter Watson)

Voltaire's Bastards, by Ralston Saul: sets some context between 17th Century ideas and how those ideas (and the application there-of) have changed down the years. The Three Musketeers: set just before the Enlightenment, provides a certain sense of the regime decay that prompted the changes that lead to the Enlightenment (The movies aren't that bad either). The Draughtsman's Contract: another entertaining period movie (Oh, Janet Suzman..). You might argue that Shelley's Frankenstein was partially a product of the Enlightenment, or perhaps at least indicative of the concerns around scientific progress at the time.

We associate the enlightenment with reason (and the scientific method, etc.), but the more practical cause for concern was the justification for supporting the monarchy: the divine right of kings. Indeed, the enlightenment had its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, as reaction to the divine cult of rulers. The divine cult continues today in America as reflected in the worship of some politicians. [Some have even suggested that it is reflected in the exalted place of celebrity economists. I've pointed out that in the Gospel of John Jesus often speaks in riddles (not parables), and when His students ask for clarification, Jesus changes the subject. When the students become exasperated, Jesus then antagonizes His students, often turning what started out as a lesson into a confrontation. Jesus isn't all that interested in communicating with His students in the Gospel of John. Imagine that.]

M. T. Anderson's recent Octavian Nothing books, an ostensibly YA (but not really) attack on the Enlightenment.

For a fictional treatment, Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle is great fun.

+1. Not just for fun... I doubt any of these other books will give you the *smell* of 18th century London.

I find that Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, which in some ways ushered in the Enlightenment, teaches very well with undergraduates. Ditto for Montesquieu's Persian Letters, which can and should be loved by Straussians and non-Straussian alike. And if you're including critics of the Enlightenment, I would certainly add Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, a reformer at heart who knew whereof he spoke.

Joel Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy is a slog but a rewarding one. For a survey that captures the spirit of the age in an irresistible style, the late Peter Gay's two-volume The Enlightenment can't be beat.

Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments is shorter, more accessible, and in some ways more thought-provoking than the (admittedly unavoidable) Wealth of Nations.

But in my experience, students' favorite Enlightenment text is still Voltaire's Candide, which packs a whole raft of agendas in less than a hundred pages, hilariously.

Agree on Candide. Even if Voltaire is overrated, this is right smack in the middle of the whole thing. And short.

Burke. On France, of course, but India, Ireland, America, Britain.

Leaving out the Marquis de Sade earns you forty whacks. A challenging author, an entertaining approach might be found in The Mystified Magistrate and Other Tales (Richard Seaver, tr.), Arcade, 2000. (Philosophy in the Boudoir might require a taste for comedy to which contemporary fare neither aspires nor is equal.) Koo Stark was in some version of Justine some decades back, Kaufman's Quills was fairly tame.

Edward, it's funny that you mention de Sade because I was coming to the comments precisely to bring him up. But I don't know if he counts as being of the utmost importance. Maybe Mary Wollstonecraft? The list in the original post is great, though I'd guess that more dealing with gender / sexuality is missing.

The Republic of Letters seems a core piece of the puzzle of the origins of the Enlightenment. (Kind of an early blogging network?) Joel Mokyr gave a fascinating talk about it in May 2015. (Search YouTube "Culture of Gowth: Origins of the Modern Economy" and yes it's misspelled. The RoL starts around minute forty, and the entire talk is ninety-three minutes.)

You've got some Wikipedia articles down there, but would you put Wikipedia itself down as being representative of the Enlightenment or a sign that we've entered another phase? My instinct is would be to say 'Yes, it is essentially still an Enlightenment encyclopaedia', and conclude that the 'Enlightening' process has yet to come to an end.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" can be read as the work of a disillusioned child of the Enlightenment.

Voltaire may be overrated (but by whom?). However, I would argue that the proper rating of Voltaire is still very high. I find it very curious to have a guide of this period without Candide.

Which makes me think you should add some reading about the Lisbon earthquake.

Rousseau is the great son who ultimately killed the Enlightenment dead. There is so much that can be read profitably but let's go with The Social Contract and the First and Second Discourses on Inequality.

If you find Rousseau to your liking--and you might, he writes wonderfully--then I'd recommend you go into his novels, opera, memoir. Emile is a wonderful treatise but looong.

My impression is that out of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes, Rousseau's writings on social contract theory are considered relatively weak among political theorists. It is still an interesting read, though. It relies on a quasi-mystical Legislateur who draws on divine inspiration to write the initial laws of society. That section will definitely surprise anyone who was expecting a theory based on carefully crafted logical arguments. I don't know about Straussians in general but Allan Bloom certainly liked Rousseau.

Outside of Goya, Enlightenment period painting and sculpture seems so frivolous. Even early period Goya shares this tendency. It's either lots of pastel colors and very white skinned aristocrats with rosy cheeks sitting on a lawn with umbrellas; or soulless historical pairings of guys with white wigs sitting at a desk somewhere.

I never understood the appeal of rococo as art. It's just pretty pictures. Like a cake with beautiful frosting that turns out to actually be on top of a cardboard box.

Are there any artists of this period that can come close to comparing to Velazquez, Rembrandt, Bernini or Caravaggio? I guess Goya, but it took a while for him to reach his period of greatness by which point his style clearly went beyond any of the artists mentioned in this post.

David without doubt.

You might find the most rewarding French painter of the period to be Chardin (you might also want to check out the ruinated landscapes by Hubert Robert and Fragonard). And yes, the seventeenth century rules -- but don't let the best be the enemy of the rest.

Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie is probably the single most important work that you miss here. Not only does it contain over 70,000 articles that encapsulate the state of the art in every imaginable contemporary field as well as on everyday life, it is itself a key Enlightenment project collaboratively authored and edited by philosophes and subject experts. And of course the first recognizably modern encyclopedia, a concept that's entirely compatible with, say, Wikipedia, but essentially unimaginable before the Enlightenment.

All 28 (massive) volumes of text and plates are freely available online in the original French and also
in partial translation in an ongoing English translation project.

Since you are interested in the Encyclopédie, you may also like to know about this recent anthology in English: https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedic-Liberty-Benjamin-Constant/dp/0865978549/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472486009&sr=1-1&keywords=encyclopedic+liberty

I posted above, but this is a more appropriate place. There's a crowd-sourced translation project through University of Michigan: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/

If we are listing 18C works we think most worthwhile, I would say the conspicuous omission is Smith's TMS (my favorite book of any century, not that I've read many). I would also include more Hume, notably the 2nd Enq (Morals), which of all his works Hume said was "incomparably the best." Also Hume's Natural History of Religion, as well as the account he published about his trouble with Rousseau ("A Concise and Genuine Account of the Dispute Between Mr. Hume and Rousseau," buy the facsimile reprint from Forgotten Books).

In his book The Case for the Enlightenment (CUP, 2005), John Robertson writes that in both Scotland and Naples the Enlightenment was "dedicated to understanding and publicizing the cause of human betterment on this earth. In both cases, the terms in which this objective was articulated were those of political economy."

How about Tocqueville's The Old Regime? It's an analysis only some 50 years later of how the elite in France thought before the Revolution.

I'd second the recommendation of The Crisis of the European Mind by Paul Hazard

This is a great list. Beccaria's "Of Crimes and Punishments" comes to mind immediately for me as well. Along with that I would recommend Bentham's "Cases Unmeet for Punishment."

T. C. W. Blanning's essay, "Frederick the Great and Enlightened Absolutism," is a good introduction to the monarch.

On race, slavery, and empire, Thomas Jefferson's "On Indians and Negroes," Gibbon's "On Empire and Savages," and Diderot's "Who are You, Then, to Make Slaves..." are three short Enlightenment era vignettes.

On sex and gender, Rousseau's "Duties of Women" and Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" are the classics.

On revolution, it's a nice exercise to contrast the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" and the American "Declaration of Independence." Plus I'd check out Johann Adam Bergk's "Does Enlightenment Cause Revolutions?"

Three more modern essays which I recommend are Adorno and Horkheimer's "The Concept of Enlightenment," which is the first chapter of their book, "Dialectic of Enlightenment." I also recommend Horkheimer's stand-alone "Reason Against Itself: Some Remarks on Enlightenment." And if you don't have time to read all of "Discipline and Punish," Foucault's essay "What is Enlightenment?" could substitute.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense.

Calvino's "The Baron in the Trees" is short, delightful and captures the spirit of the Enlightenment batter any history or critical essay. Highly recommended.

Thanks Tyler for the reading list. I appreciate its brevity.

From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun provides a good overview of a broader of a broader period. Even though it a type of survey, there are many references and observations to entice the interested reader.

I enthusiastically second "From Dawn to Decadence". Ivy is correct that it is a survey, but its value is in its breadth. Barzun juxtaposes, without prejudice, the strengths and weaknesses of Enlightenment culture with those of the Counter-Reformation and the Romantic era. He's also very good at demonstrating the parallels between the 18th century's worship of Reason and our own age's worship of Science (this is where he loses most of his readers, I think).

Agree with both of you, great book.

I will add my agreement as well. If one only has one book to read, this is it.

2 other reliable surveys - or at least it seems that way to me - are Kenneth Clark (Civilization) and Will and Ariel Durant (The Age of Rousseau). All of them make mistakes, but mostly only mistakes of emphasis. Each of the surveys includes insights that the authors may have come up with themselves or may have heard from their friends, old professors, or students - thousands of years from now no AI will have ever figured out the mix. Barzun was a fascinating person, he would have been even more interesting if he did not, unselfishly, devote much of his life to education. That is good for the students, but restricts the time interesting people have for original thoughts. Never a bad choice to do the right thing for people who you personally know, of course. And from what I have heard Barzun's students were genuinely grateful, which is nice.

Kubrick got Barry Lyndon very wrong when he used the Schubert E-Flat piano trio as a principal motif. Everyone, save Kubrick, knows that Schubert is very post-enlightenment.

It wan't a documentary.

Carl Lotus Becker's The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers

I suggest Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers. One of top ten.

If you go to the Huntington, you should also visit the Norton Simon Museum. It is a gem and only a few miles away. Exquisite Tiepolos, Watteaus, Chardins as well as various Dutch masterpieces. Speaking of the Dutch, you left out Spinoza who inspired Locke. The Dutch don't get nearly as much credit as they deserve for the Enlightenment.

What are you missing? Basil Willey's books The Seventeenth Century Background and The Eighteenth Century Background.

The relevant portions of Copleston's history of Philosophy.

Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp.

E.A.Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science.

Edward Feser's Locke

Charles Alan Kors' Birth of the Modern Mind (audio lectures)

Paul Hazard's Crisis of the European Mind

I'll second Becker's Heavenly City of 18th Century Philosophers as a good short survey.

I'll suggest you need something by or on Thomas Paine.

Re Spinoza: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Forged-Hell-Spinozas-Scandalous/dp/069116018X

He does the heavy lifting to create the idea and vocabulary of free thought in an unfree world.

"Gubhaft ist nur liebe", translated as "Love Alone is Credible", by Hans Urs von Balthasar, has interesting takes on several Enlightenment thinkers. The Amazon 5-star reviews are extraordinarily varied. The novel Clarissa Harlowe is long, but it represents most of the life's work of an author who writes like a more intense older brother of Austen or like a more realistic and empathetic version of Dickens. Alphonse de Liguori is fascinating on many subjects.

Goethe and Faust.

Beethoven. He was right at the end of the Enlightenment period, but he identified closely with it and was the greatest composer of any era.

Also, I agree with whoever said the natural sciences.

Peter Gay's two-volume study of the Enlightenment is well worth it.


The period is a tad earlier, but how about "Restoration" as a movie suggestion.

In my favorite academic field, ancient history and archaeology, the enlightenment hardly got started till the second half of the 20th century, and it is still making only slow progress against deeply entrenched counter-enlightenment forces. No I don't mean fundamentalists or other fringe groups, I mean within mainstream US and European academia most conclusions in most papers in all top journals are still based on arbitrary personal interpretation of data not on science. Even the new field of paleogenetics is infected. I would liken it to Babylonian astrology. They were quite amazing for their time in identifying the heavenly bodies and tracking their movements. But their interpretations of the stellar data were just a bunch of pseudo-scientific superstitions.

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