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Seeking to explain vast complexities: "Newton" (1795) by William Blake 

So why does the Enlightenment still matter? Anthony Pagden thinks that he has a very good answer. Imagine inter alia that the Protestant Reformation had never occurred, that the theories of Copernicus and Descartes had proved too much for the Church to tolerate, that David Hume had failed to revolutionise philosophy, that Bougainville had never left France to travel to the Pacific, and that Kant, lecturing only to listless students, had achieved renown not for his three great Critiques but for his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Imagine too that European society had become increasingly theocratic and incapable of scientific and social innovation. In 1789 the Ottoman armies march into Paris and a few years later the Koran is being taught at Oxford University. The Ottoman Empire stretches from the Himalayas to Scotland and survives into the 20th century, and, believing itself to be the end of history, might still survive to this day. As Pagden points out, something not entirely dissimilar did in fact befall the Islamic world. Not implausibly, Europe without the Enlightenment could have followed just such a trajectory.

Pagden's claims on behalf of the Enlightenment therefore are not modest ones. In essence, he believes that it aspired to demonstrate the unassailable truth of two very important, but still controversial, ideas: that the human species had nothing in common with divinity and therefore that a science of man had to be resolutely secular; and, secondly, that there existed a universal "human nature", which could be understood wherever it was found. From this it followed that "all human beings shared a common disposition for a shared, and universal, social and political life in what would ultimately be called the ‘city of the world'."

Pagden's account of the systematic destruction of theology as the master science and its replacement by the new human sciences is richly fascinating and told with great concision. So too is his narrative of how, from the late 15th century onwards, Europeans looked beyond their own continent for the evidence with which they could construct a history of humankind. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the discovery of Tahiti, Pierre Bayle's reflections on the possibility of a society composed only of atheists, and the unsuccessful attempts of the Jesuits to reconcile Confucianism with Christianity, all find their place in this tale. There is also a succinct description of how Enlightenment writers were able to broaden and modify Thomas Hobbes's description of humans as driven solely by self-interest to include the all-important qualities of "sentiment" and "sympathy". Pagden also sees that, for the most part, these same writers took the emergence of a commercial society to be the final stage of a civilising process that would not only contribute to the ease of modern life but also increase our mutual dependence across the globe.

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