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.”

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