Friday, January 13, 2012

Nine of the best books on The Enlightenment

Sophie Gee is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Princeton's English department.

In 2007 she published her first novel, The Scandal of the Season, a comedy of manners set in eighteenth-century London, and a retelling of "The Rape of the Lock." The novel was named one of the Best Books of 2007 by the Washington Post and the Economist and is published in 13 countries.

From Gee's 2009 discussion with Roland Chambers at The Browser about some notable books on The Enlightenment:
Towards the end of the 18th century a German clergyman, the Reverend Johann Friedrich Zollner, asked ‘what is the Enlightenment?’, provoking the third book on your list….

Yes, Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? by Emmanuel Kant. Kant’s responding to a lot of same questions as Newton and Locke, but a century later. Each of those three thinkers have come up with the idea that human beings are going through and must go through a fundamental transformation, and the fundamental transformation that each thinker is committed to is from humans being controlled by a higher authority to human beings being capable of autonomous individual decision making and thought. We’ve already talked about what that means for Newton and Locke. Kant, I think, sees the Enlightenment as a way of thinking which liberates individuals from what he calls immaturity. He’s interested in mature decision making, independent social and political decision making springing from individual Enlightenment. And in order to encapsulate the essence of what he means by this he uses a phrase coined by Horace: ‘Sapere aude!’ – dare to know, dare to be wise!

It makes me think of the cardinal in Italy who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope. You chose optics for your first book, Locke’s treatise on human understanding or the formulation of ideas for your second, and Kant’s notion of intellectual daring for your third…

Absolutely. The looking through the telescope is a symbol for all this. But none of these thinkers were suggesting that the universe was fundamentally different or radically altered from the universe that people had thought they were living in. They weren’t heretics in that way. What they were saying was that if we look properly at things, if we examine things rigorously, we will see things that were previously invisible, a series of truths that were previously hidden. And this is why the classic symbol of the Enlightenment is simply light – truth emerging from darkness. But another symbol of it is the telescope or the microscope, instruments that revealed things that had been their all along but hitherto had been invisible. So the idea is of a world that might be infinitely dense, infinitely complicated, made infinitely visible actually by looking more and more carefully at familiar objects. And by looking carefully both making them strange and yet also more completely known.
Read about a more recent book on Gee's list.

Visit Sophie Gee's website.

The Page 99 Test: Sophie Gee's The Scandal of the Season.

Writers Read: Sophie Gee (June 2009).

--Marshal Zeringue