In Anthony Pagden’s sweeping new study, the Enlightenment constitutes a collective intellectual journey away from God toward a new understanding of man. His account of this journey is bookended by brief examinations of the objections posed by the Enlightenment’s detractors, from the Romantics to modern religious conservatives, but ultimately the title, “Why It Still Matters,” seems more of a publisher’s push for relevance than a driving force of the book. The Enlightenment’s legacy, after all, is hiding in plain sight. If you are a member of a liberal democracy, believe in the separation of church and state, approve of the existence of the United Nations, and consider science, education and critical thinking to be broadly beneficial to individuals and society, you are by Pagden’s account a child of the Enlightenment — but if you reject these things, you most likely consider yourself an enemy of the West, secularism,liberalism or modernity rather than the Enlightenment. How such notions grew out of 18th-century philosophies is an implicit concern of the book, but its central purpose is to trace a genealogy of Enlightenment ideas.

As a historian and theorist of empire, Pagden is a specialist in big ideas and what happens when they come into conflict: His last book, “Worlds at War,” concerned (as the subtitle put it) “the 2,500-year struggle between East and West.” He is therefore an appropriate authority on a continent-wide, century-spanning project that voraciously absorbed new fields of scientific and humanistic inquiry. Prior knowledge of such important preconditions as the decline of religious authority in Europe, classical philosophy as an unshakeable foundation of thought, and the impact of New World exploration is useful but not necessary for the reader who is willing to submit to an erudite, witty and skeptical guide (and is undaunted by densely packed and elliptical sentences).

The basic story that unfolds is rooted in history, from the Reformation to the French Revolution, but not wholly explained by it. The Reformation shook to its core the central authority of the church and subjected its sacred texts to the skeptical analysis of geography, history, biology and common sense. The resulting fights and schisms caused decades of bloodshed — especially in France, where Michel de Montaigne, from the sanctity of his study, indicted Europeans’ claims to be more civilized than cannibals, even as the Europeans were driven by doctrinal disputes to slaughter their own countrymen. Skepticism, Montaigne’s (and Descartes’s) guiding principle, was limited only by a writer’s boldness. What if instead of something in the heavens, there was nothing? Without God, what might man become?

Furthermore, for more than a century, Europeans had known that the limits of the world as the Greeks and Romans knew them were no more fixed than the walls of a bubble. Men and women in the Americas, Africa and Asia existed under wholly different laws and a wide variety of gods, giving the lie to the totalizing unity of monotheism. In his 1651 book, “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes had represented man as a creature motivated purely by a competitive survival instinct, and as scientific knowledge advanced, man’s unique place in the universe seemed poised to disappear, along with the threadbare remnants of his immortal soul.

Yet even those who embraced the advance of reason were reluctant to consider man a beast like all the rest. He was different: capable not only of intellectual reason but also of love, sympathy, friendship and moral choice. The goal of the Enlightenment, Pagden argues, was to wrest from the theologians the effort to “understand what it meant to be human,” and thereby to prove two controversial claims: first, that human beings are unique, but not by virtue of any resemblance to a divinity; and second, that they share a common human nature, of which the strongest impulse is towards social life, or what came to be known as cosmopolitanism.

’The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters’ by Anthony Pagden (Random House/RANDOM HOUSE)

The accounts of these early stirrings of Enlightenment thought, amid the ruins of classical and Christian certainties, are the strongest parts of the book, depicting a world on the brink of discovery and peopled with gleeful iconoclasts like Voltaire and the independent-minded David Hume, “the single most influential proponent of a secular ethics based upon a ‘science of man’ the Enlightenment ever produced.” Pagden introduces his more obscure characters with a nod to their importance, noting for the reader those whom “we shall meet again,” which feels like being guided through a vast ballroom of rotating strangers by a confiding insider.

It is a diverse group: The Enlightenment’s major thinkers were French, English, German, Scottish, Italian and Spanish; they were poets, scientists, historians, adventurers, philosophers, novelists or some combination of them all; they were atheists, agnostics and members of religious orders; they were aristocrats as well as educated professionals; they were men and (very occasionally) women. Although “no group so heterogeneous could ever be expected to agree upon everything, to speak with the same voice, or even to share a common intellectual stance,” Pagden shows clearly how these thinkers nonetheless developed, shared, and — most crucial — criticized each other’s ideas, in order to drive forward the basic project of understanding themselves.

To pursue the drama of ideas, Pagden necessarily excludes much of the larger cultural scene — the art, literature and music that explored, popularized and poked fun at Enlightenment theories. Glancing references to Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Mozart and the extreme women’s fashions of the mid-18th century offer no more than a glimpse of this wider world. Yet the Enlightenment’s enduring significance surely lies in the ways that its ideas were communicated and adopted by wider communities, and came to be accepted, at least in the West, for better or worse, as the foundation of the modern world. Quite how this happened, however, is a story for another book.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at New York University.


And Why It Still Matters

By Anthony Pagden

Random House. 501 pp. $32