The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism

ISBN: 0393313026
ISBN 13: 9780393313024
By: Peter Gay

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In the twentieth century, however, the Enlightenment has often been judged harshly for its apparently simplistic optimism. Now a master historian goes back to the sources to give a fully rounded account of its true accomplishments.

Reader's Thoughts


Always love reading Peter Gay. He writes with such grace and erudition that few current historians have retained, with the rare exception of perhaps Peter Brown.

Brett Williams

Great ZOT, this man can write!At age 90 - and still with us - we hope Peter Gay remains another sixty to seventy years so we might garner another half dozen books from him. While "The Enlightenment" was written in 1966, the ancients of 2300 years ago haven't changed much, nor have those Enlightenment philosophers of 300 years past that brought them back to life. In other words, the subjects of Gay's analysis and his stunning synthesis in this book remain relevant in any time, and what a book it is. So impressed is this reader I intend to read all of Gay's twenty-some odd productions, including those half-dozen on Freud (despite my dismissal of Freud). This interest in psychology - as slippery as it is - is apparent in Gay's "Enlightenment" revealing nuance after nuance with a sagacity and precision those in the field must wish they could approximate. Gay's treatment of the philosophes virtually rebuilds them whole with their biases, friendships, venom, insights, vulnerabilities, courage and persistence that freed the rest of us in the here-and-now. Note taking from this book may exceed its length due to the rareness of blank space left on a page after marginalia and highlights, and not infrequently for the joy of Gay's writing skills (noted simply so I can combine words the way he did). Metaphors and similes make this read like a novel. "The dozen-odd captains of the movement," writes Gay, "whose names must bulk large in any history of the European mind, were abetted by a host of lieutenants." When referring to Augustine's "Confessions", Gay adds it is "the exclamation of a tormented soul weary of mere thought, weary of autonomy, yearning for the sheltering security found in dependence on higher powers." And on Voltaire's lessons from ancient philosophy, Gay writes, "Men are thrown into the world to suffer and to dominate their suffering. Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats; life is a desert, but we can transform our corner into a garden." How a human could encompass so much knowledge (and at the time he was 43) then spit it out like Bach would compose a symphony is the rarest of things and Gay does that. (Ah... It's nice to be back.)

Lee Butterfield

A masterpiece of scholarship.


Current events have been bumming me out lately so I decided to read something old... I found this really ratty copy of The Enlightenment (1964) on my shelves – it had been snoozing there for years - I probably picked it up for 50 cents at a library sale. I did vaguely remember hearing very good things about Peter Gay and now I know why. I'm a decent amateur historian of the past two centuries, but remain unschooled regarding the details of the classics, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Gay is a magnificent scholar and in The Enlightenment, he weaves a stunning tapestry, linking the philosophes of the enlightenment back to the classics and the humanists of the Renaissance, who laid the groundwork for the mighty thinkers of the 1700s. I read this book slowly, as I tend to do with very good books. I suppose I like to savor them - and put off coming to the end. Peter Gay summarizes thusly, “While the variations among the philosophes are far from negligible, they only orchestrate a single passion that bound the little flock together, the passion to cure the spiritual malady that is religion, the germ of ignorance, barbarity, hypocrisy, filth and the basest self-hatred.” As stated by Voltaire, “God, God! …once that name had been pronounced, men begin hate each other, and to cut one another’s throats.” Ah Voltaire, the humorless and devastating critic. The philosophers of the 18th century were by no means the original freethinkers. Gay weaves the background of the philosophes of the 1700s to their roots in classical Rome and Greece and acknowledges the preparation of the intellectual ground by the scholars of the Middle Ages. The reader learns the generally powerless nature of the church of the 18th century, caused by the corruption of Catholics and the in-fighting of the Protestants. [The self-same sources of powerlessness in the 21st century churches, plus of course the generalized paganization of western societies.] And I learned a definition of philosophy both simple and deeply satisfying, “Philosophy is criticism.” The philosophers despised Magical Thinking, a position I relate to closely. Here is one example where magical thinking can take you, when coupled with the brilliantly evolved human brain capacity for rationalization: In the now-infamous 47-percent video that destroyed any hope Mitt Romney had of being president, candidate Romney tells his sympathetic audience of millionaires about visiting a Chinese sweat-shop, recently purchased by his company, Bain Capital. He acknowledged the abominable working and living conditions, but then went on to explain that the guards and barbed wire fence were not to keep the [slave] laborers inside, but to keep the trouble-makers outside from breaking in. His audience undoubtedly nodded in their herd-like understanding. And if Mitt Romney could believe this, how did he come to be in such a state of credulity? Here’s how… if you believe your scriptures were delivered by God thru an angle on gold tables in New York State in the 19th century, then you can believe anything. If you believe the Kingdom of God will be fulfilled in Missouri, you can believe anything. This is Magical Thinking. This is the world the philosophers called to do battle. Magical Thinking can lead you to ignore the science and believe vaccinations cause autism. Magical Thinking can make you ignore the science and believe genetically modified foods are killing us. Magical Thinking makes us believe tens of thousands of evolutionary biologists are simply agents of the devil…. and Magical Thinking will lead you to believe that 99% of the earth’s climate scientists are colluding in a world-wide conspiracy, the largest in the history of the world. Magical Thinking allows you to believe the unbelievable. Religion compels you to believe the unbelievable. The Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century were the first to go to open warfare with Magical Thinking. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and James Madison were part of that army. The founders of the United States were men of the Enlightenment – nowhere in the US Constitution will you find the words God or Jesus. They knew their history and they’d learned their lessons. They had seen Christian religious wars devastate Europe for a thousand years and they weren't about to repeat those mistakes here. Peter Gay makes learning fun. “The Enlightenment” is a marvelous book and a must-read for anyone desiring to be educated. Gay’s encyclopedic knowledge is in evidence in the entire work. His bibliographical essay alone runs to more than 120 pages.


Everything you needed to know about the Enlightenment, much of it in biographical form.


Maybe the most important book I own. Read and re-read. Keep next to your bed.

John E. Branch Jr.

This and its companion volume are together a good deal longer than Ernst Cassirer's study (The Philosophy of the Enlightenment) but are just as valuable. Having read these at some distance in time, I won't attempt now to say anything more about them.


This a great read, confirmed my appreciation for the influence of greek culture on the development of the proper critical philosophic mentality.


A good review should be short and user friendly. To do this book justice I cannot do either, so I'll sacrifice doing it justice and keep my remarks brief.This is a very detailed exploration into the philosphers of the Enlightenment. It's not a new book, and in certain circles considered something of a standard text on the subject. I would call it a must-read for anyone with an abiding interest in men like Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Gibbon, Kant, or Holbach. You will learn much about their relationships and intellectual influences, and about the literary environment they shared. Not all of it is positive-the analysis is pretty even handed-so you get to look at their work from several different angles.However, if you are a relative novice on the subject I'm inclined to suspect that the weight of detall might sink your boat of enjoyment. It's rather a lot of detail.


Volume 1 of 2. This is the standard work on the conventional view of the Enlightenment--significantly, published in the late 60s, before the linguistic turn took hold. Gay is refreshingly clear.Gay represents the Enlightenment, at its core, to be a rejection of traditional, orthodox Christianity. The constructive aspect to the Enlightenment project was to fill the void.

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