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Richard Whatmore

Author of What is intellectual history?

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Richard Whatmore is professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews. His books include Against War and Empire and Republicanism and the French Revolution.

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A lengthy examination of the unsuccessful attempt to establish a settlement at New Geneva near Passage East, co. Waterford, by a group of democrats from Geneva defeated in a struggle to democratise Geneva. A surprising venture. Almost half the book is devoted to the history of the democratic movement in Geneva, a subject on which I was ignorant apart from the name of Rousseau. Very detailed. When it comes to Ireland one suspects in a couple of places that the author is not totally at home in Irish history, but nevertheless he is very informative about the different strands of Irish politics and their English supporters. It is not the easiest book to understand as the author reels off names of people involved and, having mentioned them once, expects one to remember just which faction they belonged to. The Conclusion reveals the author's oddly antediluvian views: he is critical of the Enlightenment and of democracy, and seems to view the French Revolution and the United Irishmen as impractical dreamers who were doomed to failure: he ignores the way in which modern society has accepted their basic principles. But while this may have biassed his story it is still competently told.… (more)
jgoodwll | Feb 15, 2024 |
What was the Enlightenment? Damned if I know. There have been so many books devoted to that question in recent years that it would be churlish to venture a definitive answer. Anyone who has dared to keep up with the literature in this field will have read about radical Enlightenments and moderate Enlightenments; contested, clandestine and cosmopolitan Enlightenments. The era of Enlightenment has been claimed by some as a beacon of tolerance, democracy and secularism; it has been denounced by others as a cesspit of persecution, authoritarianism and imperialism. As concepts go, Enlightenment has proved singularly flexible. If one were to judge by book titles alone (sometimes more satisfying than wading through the latest thousand-page tome, and certainly quicker) all one would know for certain is that the Enlightenment somehow made the modern world, though one would be forgiven for not knowing precisely how that was supposed to have happened.

The great danger of assuming the Enlightenment made the modern world is that it tends to receive the credit for all that is good about modernity as well as the blame for all that is bad. And yet, as Richard Whatmore reminds us in his powerful and meticulously argued new book, ‘sometimes the present prevents us from understanding the past’. We risk thinking that the philosophers of the 18th century were answering our questions instead of their own, when in fact it is the fundamental weirdness of their ideas that makes them so interesting. It is also this inherent strangeness that, as Whatmore demonstrates beyond all doubt, makes their recovery so vital for present times.

Whatmore’s book, which is a substantially revised and expanded version of his Carlyle Lectures delivered at Oxford in 2018, approaches the Enlightenment on its own terms. When Hume and his contemporaries challenged religious superstition, zeal and bigotry, their aim was not the cultivation of individual flourishing so much as providing a framework for advancing and maintaining civil peace. For more than 200 years, Europe and its nations had been ravaged by international and internecine wars of religion. Conflict was fuelled by fanaticism, and fanaticism by superstition. Moderation, toleration and democracy were therefore part of the Enlightenment toolkit for abolishing war and empire in perpetuity. So too were industry, commerce and free trade.

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Joseph Hone’s latest book The Book Forger: The True Story of a Literary Crime that Fooled the World will be published by Chatto & Windus in March 2024.
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HistoryToday | Dec 19, 2023 |

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