Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Book Reviews

A Happier Enlightenment

A Sea Change in Sensibility.

Richard Hughes Gibson

A representation of Felicity from “The Mythology of Youth” by Pierre Blanchard, 1803; Stefano Bianchetti/Bridgeman Images.

What is happiness? Every era has entertained this question. Yet as Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of German Language and Literature at Oxford University, argues here, the riddle of happiness took center stage among European intellectuals in the long eighteenth century. As “enlighteners” (Robertson’s preferred sobriquet) began to question the traditional theological account of the world and humankind’s place in it, the pursuit of happiness on this side of the grave took on a new urgency. Happiness is thus a theme that comes up again and again in the era’s major documents, eliciting a range of definitions and suggestions. The entry on bonheur in the great French Encyclopédie, for example, explains that it is “a state or situation which we would like to see continue forever unchanged.” In the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant defines Glückseligkeit as “the state of a rational being in the world the whole of whose existence everything goes according to his wish and will.” In The Life of Johnson, the sage (responding to Boswell’s misquotation of David Hume’s views) remarks that happiness “consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness.” (He continues, debatably, “A peasant has not capacity for having equal happiness with a philosopher.”)

All of the major figures—including Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, Diderot, Rousseau, Baron d’Holbach, Adam Smith—had something significant to say about happiness. In France alone, no less than fifty substantial treatises were written on the subject across the period. Rightly, Robertson argues that happiness was so central to the Enlightenment that we can’t properly define the era without making reference to happiness, as the author does in proposing that the Enlightenment was a “coherent intellectual movement” whose participants shared “a commitment to understanding, and hence to advancing, the causes and conditions of human betterment in this world,” this-worldly “betterment” being treated throughout the book as a rough synonym for “happiness.”

Admittedly, the importance of happiness to the Enlightenment project isn’t a fresh discovery. In 2016, the historian Caroline Winterer published a book with a subtitle strikingly similar to that of Robertson’s work: American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason. Numerous books and articles in several languages have been written on the role of happiness in the thought of particular Enlightenment-era figures. And this has been going on for decades. Robert Mauzi’s much-cited The Idea of Happiness in French Literature and Thought in the Eighteenth Century, for instance, was first published in France in 1960. Yet as Mauzi and Winterer’s titles indicate, previous examinations of the Enlightenment’s notions of happiness have, at their grandest, been national studies. Robertson’s achievement, then, is not the advancement of a novel thesis; it’s the scope of his argument on behalf of Enlightened happiness. Across eight hundred pages, he covers a wide topical range, touching on aesthetics, government, historiography, science, anthropology, sex, and travel, among many other subjects. Geographically, he takes readers across Europe and—with Enlightened travelers—beyond. His purpose in all this is to show patterns of thought and feeling and to relate the various proposals made by enlighteners for human betterment. In this way, he seeks to renew our sense of the Enlightenment as a vast international network of intellectuals who, while disagreeing about much, made common cause in seeking to improve the human condition.

Robertson’s decision to make happiness the center of gravity of his history—rather than, say, reason, science, or politics—has two major benefits. The first is that he is able to demonstrate how the Enlightenment played out not only in the speculations and proposals of Voltaire and other prominent Enlightenment writers but also in the local, hands-on efforts of government officials, medical doctors, agriculturalists, and schoolmasters. As Robertson notes, earlier histories of the Enlightenment, including classics like Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), generally neglected such ground-level efforts, portraying the Enlightenment chiefly (if not exclusively) as an intellectual revolution. Robertson’s history makes a convincing case that our understanding of the movement must also take into account the “Practical Enlightenment” embodied in tax, land, and curricular reforms and in the establishment of numerous schools and hospitals in the period under “Enlightened” rules. Moreover, this down-to-earth vision of the Enlightenment more convincingly accounts for a project like Encyclopédie, which lavishes attention on the “mechanical” arts, explaining in elaborate technical detail, for example, how to found cannon, assemble musical instruments, and run a print shop. The enlighteners, Robertson emphasizes, wanted to be useful.

The second benefit of Robertson’s focus on happiness relates to feeling. In his preface, he takes issue with the familiar characterization of the Enlightenment as the “Age of Reason,” which, as he correctly observes, obscures its relation to—if not puts it at odds with—the “Age of Sensibility” that historians and literary critics also locate in the eighteenth century. Robertson’s argument is that there is in fact no tension here. The feelings, sympathy, sensibility: These were mainstays of the major Enlightenment figures’ writings, particularly their understandings of what holds society together: “Enlighteners argued that fellow feeling, mutual sympathy, was at the heart of human nature and of people’s existence in society. Society was not an aggregation of isolated individuals, but a body of people interconnected by the exchange of emotions.”

Robertson goes still further, arguing that the Enlightenment didn’t just have a lot to say about feelings—it actually changed them. He describes the Enlightenment as a “sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings and more concerned for what we would call humane or humanitarian values.” To support this claim, he ventures beyond the familiar canon of philosophical writings to examine the best-selling novels of the period—the rise of sentimental fiction itself being a headline of this history—such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Such works far outsold those we normally think of as the core books of the Enlightenment, and even occasionally show up in them, as in Adam Smith’s endorsement of Richardson’s fiction in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. A happy “enlightened” life, on Robertson’s telling, didn’t consist of solitary philosophizing. It was a sociable life, one in which cultured people mingled their thoughts and feelings with those of others; in promoting deep feeling and sympathy, literature proved no idle entertainment.

The trouble with happiness, though, is that it’s difficult to measure in the abstract. Some doughty enlighteners tried to prove otherwise, crafting mathematical formulas to compute personal and public happiness. Adam Smith’s teacher Francis Hutcheson, for one, created an equation in which the “Moment of Good” is determined by variously combining, multiplying, and dividing B (Benevolence), A (Ability), S (Self-love), and I (Interest). Unsurprisingly, Hutcheson’s happiness calculator failed to catch on, as did François-Jean de Chastellux’s formula for measuring the preconditions of public happiness. (Chastellux didn’t think personal happiness could be computed.) Lacking such a reliable formula, people did then just as we do now: glance over at neighbors’ lots to see how theirs compared. Notably, Montesquieu, who wrote publicly of virtue and duty as the roads to happiness, confided to his notebook that “if we only wanted to be happy, that would soon be done. But we want to be happier than others, and this is almost always difficult because we believe others to be happier than they are.”

Enlighteners couldn’t help but take such “neighborly glances” at other periods in order to gauge the relative happiness of their own. We are prone now to think of the enlighteners as confident believers in Progress, yet Robertson shows how backward glances at the past, particularly at the heyday of the Roman Empire, and sidelong glances at the great empires of Asia, led several thinkers to ask whether they might be living after peak happiness had been achieved. And, of course, their encounters with the world immediately before them—one in which the majority of the population was still engaged in agriculture—made plain that the possibility of the higher-minded sorts of intellectual and ethical happiness they experienced (or at least imagined experiencing) was limited to a minute portion of society. (Johnson’s judgment of the relative happiness of peasants and philosophers was widely shared.) Others worried that the considerable material gains of the recent past had done little to improve Europeans’ moral well-being. “History, properly speaking,” Pierre Bayle wrote, “is nothing but a list of crimes and misfortunes of the human race.” Unsurprisingly, these conditions led quite a few enlighteners to believe that the future would have to be better—happier—than their own times.

Robertson states straightforwardly at the front and back ends of the book that one of his goals is to redeem the Enlightenment from the “defamation” it has suffered from numerous sources of late. His emphasis on happiness plays an important part in that ambition, as he seeks to show readers that the enlighteners were, for all of their flaws, genuinely out for good, and that some of their core values—free inquiry, toleration, sympathy—remain good. I believe that Robertson is successful in this; the book gave me new respect for many of the enlighteners, even while strengthening my reservations about some of their central claims. Yet as I concluded the book, I was haunted by the enlighteners’ hopes that happier times would be brought about by economic, educational, medical, technological, and political advances. Given that we’ve achieved so much of what the enlighteners were dreaming, I wondered, why aren’t we happier?