Lhitage des Lumies: The Enlightenment as an unfinished and morally demanding project

Charlotta Wolff


The French Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789 have commonly been seen as forerunners of modern Western European democracies and democratic values such as inalienable human rights, freedom from oppression, equality, religious tolerance, social security and happiness, inherited partly from the Anglo-American revolutions and partly from the radical French philosophes of the last third of the eighteenth century. Historians interested in the culture of the age of Enlightenment have long been looking for the movement in itself, studying the forms of participation and the places where Enlightenment ideals, described and impersonated by men like Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, were propagated. As much as ‘the Enlightenment’ itself is not a homogeneous philosophical trend, recent historical research has shown that the social and cultural practices of eighteenth-century philosophic-al circles were far from corresponding to the ideals of equality and liberty commonly associated with the Enlightenment. A second bias in our interpretations of the Enlightenment is the central place given to values commonly associated with it in the legitimisation of modern democracies, while in the meantime, other phenomena of the age of Enlightenment, such as cosmopolitanism, are misunderstood or rejected because of, for example, the idea of national primacy.

This article is concerned with how the strengthening of the focus in cultural history on social practices has changed our picture of the Enlightenment as a movement, but also with the difficulties experienced by historians who are intellectually and morally indebted to the Enlightenment in constructing a credible picture of this movement in a time when its legacy is subject to political debate.


Enlightenment; Democracy; Cosmopolitanism; Philosophy; Politics and religion; Nationalism

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