How to Date Europe’s Early Enlightenment

The Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683).

Quintessentially the Early Enlightenment? An excellent candidate is Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-1683). Portrait c1673 by John Greenhill. (Public domain.)

Historians sometimes speak of an Early Enlightenment. If so, when did that phenomenon emerge, or begin? How did it evolve into the more familiar Enlightenment “proper”?

The question is old, but less trivial than ever, precisely because conceptions around the Enlightenment have become trivialized. Almost every historical event since then is now routinely traced back to the Enlightenment. I do long for a more rigorous fencing in. To put dates on important social processes is never outdated.

But the main issue explored here is a period preceding – & qualitatively different from – the Enlightenment as such. The Early Enlightenment. A label like Baroque won’t do for shortcut. Somewhere around 1650 (give or take a few decades, but hardly much more), a shift to some strikingly modern ideas took place. Partly via the Scientific Revolution, partly in literature & the arts – but where I truly find the shift impossible to miss, is in political thinking. The freedom of the Dutch republic, where many key intellectuals would take residence & where troublesome books would be published; the emergence of Hobbes, then Locke & Montesquieu; the rise of an office-holding bourgeoisie however ineffectual & insecure (except for patrician republics like Geneva or the Netherlands); the earliest French salons; satirical freedom for the likes of Swift & Defoe; the fading of raw aristocratic power – all these were modern phenomena already. Yet historians rightly hesitate to allot this early process to the proper, or “High” Enlightenment. Hence talk of an Early Enlightenment.

But if so, from which event(s) may we date this series of further events?

How about 1680 or so?
Some, most memorably the pioneering intellectual historian Paul Hazard (reference below), have put forward c1680 as an important starting date. This is to a large extent right on the mark. For instance Locke – clearly an essential hinge figure – published his 2 great political works in the 1680s. But could this date still be too early? Or, more interesting: a little too late? Or again, it may even be about right. We shouldn’t get too anachronistic, too wise after the fact. Early Enlightenment is a questionable designation already.

Nonetheless, while most would hesitate to date Early Enlightenment from Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) or Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode (1637) (& yet, & yet…), much of what happened in France, Britain, & the Netherlands after 1651 (the year of Hobbes’s Leviathan), already had the right revolutionary flavour. Racine was no longer Corneille, & Pascal’s influential Pensées (posthumous publication 1670) have almost a Rousseauan intellectual mercilessness to them. In England, the process of self-definition up to & after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, mainly perhaps the gradual emergence of the Whig party, was perhaps as important a while before 1688, ie with Shaftesbury & co, as after.

But again, the centre of gravity seems to lie in the Netherlands. Perhaps not with any single work or event, but through a relative intellectual freedom here – not least that well used opportunity for controversial foreigners, resident or not, to have their works freely printed in Rotterdam or Hague. This did begin as early as a Descartes, not as late as Pierre Bayle…

This sounds suspiciously close to Jonathan Israel’s thesis in a recent landmark work, Radical Enlightenment (reference below). But a) I got to it by other channels. b) I also insist on some irreducible, qualitative difference between early & mature Enlightenment (Rousseau is after all not Pascal; Turgot & Adam Smith, with the many leaders & citizens they swayed, are no 17th century mercantilists). c) I don’t share Jonathan Israel’s disproportionate fixation on Spinoza.

Are historical periods like on/off switches ?
Now this is exactly the issue where I’m eager to go on a limb. I say yes! Or at least in the current case. Within the 3 core countries of the Early Enlightenment – England, France, the Netherlands – events & ideas were quite closely timed & assorted with each other. As far as political ideas or notions went, the coordination was almost like in a ballet. With on/off switches to the lighting.

Of course, despite remarkable common ground, Early Enlightenment did play out most differently in England from in France: a move to omnipotent absolute monarchy (the Sun King Louis XIV) in France. Organic evolution of constitutional monarchy in England. But by the late 18th Century the French autocracy was famously getting in trouble, & intellectual, if ultimately not political, convergence between the 2 great powers gained new strength.

Early or not, Enlightenment can & will remain many things to many people. But this is the historian’s perpetual dilemma: broad, overbold synthesis or detailed analysis? I believe there’s room for both, & strongly mistrust syntheses that marginalize important details, indeed any details. But if we surrender all attempts at giving chronological shape to history, it will become vacuous, difficult to read, & again trivialized. The Enlightenment turns into the blank, anachronistic box for everything even vaguely “progress” that I fear it’s already become.

Early Enlightenment: A legitimate question
Early Enlightenment remains of course a nascence. Whole, majoritarian classes of society were unaffected, or marginally so. It did not touch everyone English, French, or even Dutch. Yet these 3 countries did contain some form of cluster, where things were happening in their most concentrated & potent form. In my country Denmark, or even Sweden, this wasn’t yet the case. Descartes driven to death by Queen Christina’s painfully early morning philosophy classes, plus a few less anecdotal developments, won’t do if they’re too isolated.  Or to stay with political thought: we may rightly ignore one rogue philosopher, satirist, or pamphleteer, but it’s hard to dismiss an entire cluster of them, geographically concentrated, knowing each other’s work, acting in concert (not agreement), & – finally – swaying from beyond their grave the philosophes of the later, High Enlightenment. Voltaire, magnificently versed in post-1650 political thinking, is by no means the lone example.

Although elitist by the force of many things, the Early Enlightenment wasn’t kept to a glass jar. In France, this was the age of the earliest modern salons: those of Mme d’Aiguillon, Mme de Rambouillet, or Mme de Sablé. While the leading salons certainly were in Paris, they were gradually making their influence known in the province. In England, a great regional leveler was the Lower House of Parliament. Some minor town far from the capital might feel like the end of the world, but its MP, often a local squire, could be well-informed of recent ideas & act for or against, both locally & nationally.

As for the Dutch republic, I’ll risk a direct shot at the elitism argument & assert that by the 2nd half of the 17th Century, almost every inhabitant, low to high, was in some way implicated by the emerging developments. Much has already been made of the free printing press. But leaving aside its more political aspect, there is the vastness of social & economic ripples from such a booming, unregulated, high-tech information industry.

So, Early Enlightenment from the 1680s, or 1637, or (as I tend) 1651? Ultimately I don’t think any specific such answer is worth fighting about. What is worth fighting for is the historical legitimacy of framing the question.


Listed here are 2 modern scholarly syntheses mentioned above. For original works by many founding figures of Enlightenment & Early Enlightenment, see my annotated Short Library of the Long Enlightenment at LibraryThing.

Hazard, Paul. La crise de la conscience européenne. Paris: Livre de Poche, 1994 (1935). ISBN  978-2253904236. In print at time of writing. (Translated by J Lewis May as The European Mind: The Critical Years 1680-1715. New Haven: Yale UP, 1953. ISBN 978-0823212743. Out of print.)

Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy & the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002 (2001). ISBN 978-0199254569.

(Webfront illustration caption & credit here.)

Categories: Enlightenment & Industrial Revolution, History Unplugged

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