The End of Enlightenment by Richard Whatmore review – a warning from 18th-century Britain | History books

The End of Enlightenment by Richard Whatmore review – a warning from 18th-century Britain | History books

Britain, thought Thomas Paine, needed to be destroyed. Its monarchy must be toppled, its empire broken up and the mercantile system that propped up this debt-ridden, monstrous pariah state abolished. Only then could a better version – call it Britain 2.0 – arise.

But how? In the 1790s, the revolutionary thinker and author of the bestselling Rights of Man was a member of the National Convention in Paris and advised republicans to invade. Later, Paine presented a plan to president Thomas Jefferson to send gunboats to make Britain a republic.

Sadly for egalitarians, anti-imperialists, anti-monarchists and those who regard the rapacious East India Company and the transatlantic slave trade as Britain’s leading contributions to the oxymoron that is western civilisation, neither happened. Had either been successful, Britain’s history might have been very different and such recent exposés of our imperial disgrace as William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy and David Olusoga’s Black and British might not have made such harrowing reading.

Paine’s nemesis, the conservative thinker Edmund Burke, thought the Thetford-born firebrand was a traitor to his homeland, but, like every intellectual worth their salt in the late 18th century, Burke conceded that Britain was a basket case. Contemporary intellectuals as varied as the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, the historians Catharine Macaulay and Edward Gibbon, and the Scottish conservative philosopher David Hume, as well as Paine and Burke, were queasy about what Britain had become under its increasingly mentally troubled king, George III, and his corrupt advisers.

To understand what had gone wrong, they drew on Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations. There, the great Scottish economist so beloved of neoliberal bruisers from Thatcher onwards damned a corrupt nexus of bankers, politicians and merchants for working to maximise their own profit, rather than the good of society.

Plus ça change. Across the ages, Smith’s words resonate. In a sclerotically class-ridden, increasingly inegalitarian Britain run by plutocratic public schoolboys it is hard not to see the sick man of Europe in 1776 as similar to the 2023 version. “We too live in a time when political structures we inhabit are fluid and perhaps on the cusp of great and potentially dangerous changes,” writes Richard Whatmore at the outset of this nuanced history of the manifold discontents of 18th-century Britain.

True, the parallel isn’t perfect, since much of Smith’s concern was Britain’s imperial folly. Indeed, what makes Whatmore’s narrative particularly compelling is how Britain postured as a free state whose subjects enjoyed more rights and liberties than other European nations. But as the author puts it, echoing the worries of the thinkers he elegantly profiles here, “this free state amounted to a war machine that used individual liberty as a rationale for the destruction of other states and the subjugation of their peoples”.

Richard Whatmore: ‘Once again we live in a world that has suffered an end of enlightenment’.
Richard Whatmore: ‘Once again we live in a world that has suffered an end of enlightenment’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

For Smith’s close friend David Hume, near death in Edinburgh, Britain had fallen for new gods – mammon, Mars and that slippery deity, liberty. The previous century, fanatical Puritans had prosecuted civil wars in the name of religion. But for a few blissful years, Hume thought that bloodletting had ceased, replaced by an enlightened Britain with a moderate and pacific public culture. This was the notion of Enlightenment he cherished whereby religious fanaticism had been exorcised from public life.

Enlightenment today means something rather different. It signifies humanity’s stirringly unstoppable march from the cave of unreason to the sun of wisdom, and is associated with reason-venerating philosophers such as Spinoza and Kant. That Pollyanna view, though, has been challenged by later sceptical thinkers. Foucault associated the Enlightenment with the rise of the surveillance state typified by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. John Gray blamed the Enlightenment for the evils of global capitalism. And in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer reckoned the Enlightenment’s fetish for reason and calculation set humanity on the road to Auschwitz.

Whatmore thinks each of these conceptions is wrong. Enlightenment, for him and the thinkers he so engagingly profiles, had an objective, namely to overcome superstition that had soaked 17th-century Europe in blood. It ended with Britain’s project to subjugate much of the rest of the world for its own benefit, or with the revolutionary terror unleashed in Paris after 1792. Or both.

Whatmore, history professor at St Andrews University, draws the contemporary resonance: “Once again we live in a world that has suffered an end of enlightenment as strategies formulated after 1945 to prevent civil and international violence, fanaticism and chaos from breaking out have gradually failed or been abandoned.”

The book’s leading lesson is that Britain, albeit today a rain-soaked rump of a post-imperial polity, is, as in the 1790s, in thrall to graft, greed, folly and privately educated narcissists, not to mention deference to royal nonentities. If Tom Paine had managed to get foreign gunships to invade, we might not need a new Enlightenment. But we do.

The End of Enlightenment: Empire, Commerce, Crisis by Richard Whatmore is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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