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Panorama of Enlightenment
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 05 - 2006

The future of the European Enlightenment is the subject of a rewarding exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, both for Europe and beyond, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Modest in scale and pleasantly laid out, Lumières, un héritage pour demain (The Enlightenment: Tomorrow's Heritage), an exhibition currently at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, aims to present 18th-century European science, philosophy and culture to an audience that, if the exhibition's curators are to be believed, is badly in need of it. While all of us can learn from what the show's main curator, the Bulgarian-born historian and literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, describes as the "spirit of the Enlightenment" -- notably its emphases on individual autonomy, human improvement and universality or cosmopolitanism -- Europeans in particular can also look to the 18th century in search of answers to nagging present questions.
"What is the identity," Todorov asks in his catalogue essay, "of this Europe in which we live? Is it just an arbitrarily delimited commercial space, within which customs barriers have been lowered, or does it carry with it a conception of man and society that it wants to hold up before the world?" Todorov and his team of curators, all of whom are French, go for the latter option, claiming that a conception of this sort can be traced back to the 18th century. Indeed, "when one looks at Europe from afar and asks what its main contribution has been to the history of civilization, the answer that comes most readily to mind is the Enlightenment."
The aim of the exhibition is to pass 18th-century ideas under review and to connect them where possible with present ones, while also asking the visitor to consider these ideas' future prospects. An innovative feature here is a gesture made towards the end of the show, which looks at anticipations, parallels and developments of Enlightenment ideas outside Europe and includes contributions from the Arab world, India, China, sub-Saharan Africa and North America. Long, essay-like texts from this section of the exhibition are also included in the catalogue.
Divided into half a dozen main parts, among them 18th-century attitudes towards religion, science and education, the individual, public space and political order, the exhibition opens with a consideration of the "Europe of the Enlightenment," followed by an examination of Enlightenment attitudes towards religion, chiefly Christianity. Many of the pieces in these first sections, as elsewhere in the exhibition, have been lent by the Bibliothèque nationale itself, giving the show a textual character, and since almost all of them are from French collections this underlines the exhibition's pleasingly, sometimes almost absurdly, gallocentric emphasis.
In this first section, for example, while the texts accompanying the exhibition make the point that the Enlightenment was a Europe-wide phenomenon, essential to the argument that it was during the 18th century that Europe became fully conscious of itself and of its inheritance from the classical Greek and Roman worlds, English, Scottish or German visitors may be surprised to find Locke and Hume playing second fiddle to Voltaire and even Kant decked out in French dress, his works often being exhibited in French translation.
However, presumably this is part of the exhibition's design, rather than a reflection of the materials available to its curators. France was, after all, if not the originator of characteristic Enlightenment ideas, Voltaire for one giving the English the credit for that, then at least the home of its most effective propagandists in the shape of the city's well-known philosophes. These brilliant men of letters and journalists made 18th-century Paris la ville lumière, the city of light, themselves gaining the title of lumières, or bearers of enlightenment, in so doing. It is naturally in large part to them that this exhibition turns in constructing its account of the Enlightenment.
As the first section of the exhibition makes clear, characteristic 18th-century attitudes towards religion were bound up with attitudes towards what then appeared to be a largely barbarous European past, from which Enlightenment thinkers believed they were slowly emancipating themselves, as well as with attitudes towards the natural world and social and political life. If the prevailing scepticism of 18th-century thought had made the straight-forward acceptance of biblical materials difficult, tending to demand rational accounting for religious views and accepting only the authority of reason, an alternative was found in deism, one of the most widespread forms of 18th-century religious belief. This saw God's handiwork everywhere in nature and therefore held, with Leibniz, that this was "the best of all possible worlds," a view later famously examined by Voltaire in his novel Candide.
Yet, though God was everywhere present in nature, Enlightenment thinkers held that the direct role of religion in political and social life should be reduced, this ideally now being run in order to deliver, as one characteristic Enlightenment formula put it, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." Obstacles to human happiness, including a good many of the beliefs and practices of the past, could be eased away, if possible peacefully, but failing that by revolutionary means, the aim being to construct a new society run along rational lines and for the common good. Religion would retain its importance in the private sphere, now rigorously protected from political depredation, but neutrality towards religious beliefs, a variety of later secularism, together with toleration would be the rule in public life.
Locke is the obvious reference here, but this exhibition also includes writings on religion by Hume, as well as a copy of Lessing's 1779 play Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise), which stages mutual tolerance between members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
"Man," wrote Rousseau at the beginning of his Du contrat social of 1762 (The Social Contract), "was born free, but he is everywhere in chains," and improved education was important for Enlightenment thinkers, if only to help enhance freedom of thought by removing mental or psychological chains. A kind of model, or story, of the ideal society, and based on the idea, popular among 18th-century writers, of society as a contract to which its members freely agree, Du contrat social implies an enhanced role for education, the subject of the second part of Lumières.
Editions of Rousseau's works are on display, and it is in this section that the role of the philosophes as the brilliant propagandists for the new ideas is perhaps most in evidence, their churning out popular accounts of difficult ideas, such as Voltaire's version of Newton's Principia, exhibited here ( Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton mis à la portée de tout le monde, a kind of bluffer's guide), while orchestrating ambitious public- information projects, such as the famous Encyclopédie, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert. This was designed to be a repository of the current state of knowledge. Books, however, were only part of the intellectual production of the age, which also saw the growth of journalism and periodicals of every kind, supported by a growing urban middle-class that apparently relished the free exchange of ideas.
Some of this journalism was of a standard rarely found today, readers of the Berlinischen Monatsschrift, a German monthly, being treated in its edition of December 1784 to a forbidding-looking article by Kant, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklaerung? (An answer to the question of what Enlightenment is). Enlightenment, this article says, "is the human being's emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one's own understanding without direction from another.... Have courage to make use of your own understanding is thus the motto of enlightenment."
In further sections of the exhibition attempts are made to reconstruct the mental life of the European middle-class in the 18th century, particularly by reference to literature, as well as to illustrate developing conceptions of public space, notably in Europe's growing cities, and of political order. The great literary invention of the time was the novel, which, originating in England in the works of Richardson and Fielding, soon took the continent by storm, largely because it could be used to present the kind of individual experience dear to the growing middle classes, while exploring every shade of changing sentiment.
Outside the private rooms of novel-readers, public space was being redesigned to take in new forms of sociability and exchange, illustrated by the Galerie et jardins du Palais-Royal in Paris, while the century's political thinkers were putting the European political order on new and better foundations, in their writings at least. The exhibition includes part of the manuscript of Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois, as well as copies of works by Rousseau, Condorcet and others. Correspondence between Frederick II, King of Prussia, and Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and Voltaire makes the point that the reputation of the philosophes extended across the continent. More sinisterly, the exhibition also includes the file kept on Voltaire by the French police.
However, aside from the fascinating panorama of 18th-century European culture that this exhibition provides, it also attempts to see the continent from without and to test the continuing relevance of Enlightenment ideas. In his contribution to the catalogue Todorov thus runs through some of the textbook criticisms of the European Enlightenment -- its excessive optimism regarding human affairs, its sometimes brittle faith in reason, its potential uncoupling of rational procedures from human communities and interests, its construction of an allegedly uncomplicated story of human progress -- before settling on what for him is the more interesting question of how such material might be viewed today and from outside Europe's borders.
A section of the exhibition deals with Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, and not only where Europe is concerned, seeing a characteristic drive towards universalism in the intellectual production and moral sentiments of the age. All men are born free, writes Rousseau, who goes on to design a form of contract to which all men, if guided by reason, can agree; all societies, despite their differences, can be understood as following a common form of progress, writes Condorcet in his Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humaine, which, written in hiding as its author vainly tried to escape the Terror, attempts a "sketch for an historical picture of the progress of the human mind."
In addition to works of this sort, the Enlightenment also excelled in the exploration of human differences, with reports on Cook's voyages to the Pacific, then almost completely unexplored, finding fascinated audiences in Europe. Moreover, other authors, such as Montesquieu in his Lettres persanes (1721), practiced what the catalogue calls a "decentering of the gaze," imagining how Europe might look to two Persian visitors, rather as Swift imagined how the customs of his society might look when seen from the perspective of Lilliput and Brobdingnag in Gulliver's Travels.
But the exhibition also includes voices from beyond Europe's shores, and thus the Tunisian academic Abdelwahab Meddeb considers the Arab world in a section entitled "Enlightenment in the world," with other prominent figures taking on parallels and developments of Enlightenment ideas, for example in India and sub-Saharan Africa. In his piece, Meddeb looks at "the astonishing liberty of thought" during the early Islamic period, describing the work of figures such as Ibn al-Muqaffa (720 -- 756 CE) and al-Warraq (d. 861), before moving on to what may be more familiar ground with an account of what the late Albert Hourani called "Arabic thought in the liberal age," and notably of figures such as Mohamed Abdu, Ali Abdel-Razeq and Taha Hussein.
For his part, Charles Malamoud looks at Indian history in a manner recalling that of Amartya Sen in his recent book The Argumentative Indian, while Elikia M'Bokolo passes the history of sub- Saharan Africa under review, producing fascinating material that may well be unfamiliar to European and other visitors. On the afternoon I visited French school parties were much in evidence, giving this part of the exhibition a studious air.
This exhibition has an agenda, and few people will leave it without asking questions of their own. There is little mention of those who have criticised Enlightenment ideas, for example, and some will have wanted to see a greater emphasis on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a boom industry in the 18th century as far as western Europe was concerned and one that made possible its colonies in the new world.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to see this material laid out for inspection, especially as it is now sadly little read. Poor Olympe de Gouges, a feminist but represented here by her anti-slavery piece L'Esclavage des negrès, gets a rather cruel write- up: "a committed writer and feminist, having more convictions than talent, Olympe de Gouges wrote in 1791 in La Déclaration de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of Woman and Citizen) that, 'if a woman has the right to mount the scaffold she should also have the right to mount the tribune'. Robespierre sent her to the guillotine in 1793."
Lumières, un héritage pour demain at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, until 28 May.


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