The Enlightenment: How Ideas Circulate (History)

The Enlightenment: How Ideas Circulate (History)

The lights show enough that they have constituted a European phenomenon. Global even, because the ideas, carried by books, men and moving images, have gone through revolutionary. Whether they served to fuel scholarly debates, organize struggles, supply businesses or build reputations, circulation was the watchword of the Enlightenment.


How are new ideas born? Even more, how do they impose themselves in people's minds, sometimes to the point of turning an era upside down? The Enlightenment revolution is a laboratory of this. And, because it paved the way for political revolutions, this historic break continues to amaze us. The France of "philosophers" and of the Encyclopedia claims to be its cradle and maintains the cult of those who, by opening the reign of reason, ended up bringing down the Bastilles.

However strong the impact of the great texts of the century, however virtuous the flow of new ideas may be through libraries, academies or learned societies, this heroic vision would make us forget two things:
firstly, this revolution played with borders. It was deployed in a space which, from the Netherlands to the Caribbean, from Lausanne to Philadelphia, was the matrix of Western modernity. Jonathan Israel wanted a few years ago to recognize in Spinoza the father of this radical thought which was going to upset the spirits. More solidly perhaps, Scotland, which in 1707 was anchored to England, was a fertile and cosmopolitan breeding ground.

It does not matter, moreover: the Republic of Letters is far from coinciding with a national space. Hume spent several years in France. Kant pre-exists in Germany, Rousseau is first of all a citizen of Geneva, and very clever who will grant a homeland to Voltaire, French especially by the genius of the language. Happy times when an American (Thomas Paine) could be elected to the Assembly in Paris.

Second, the history of the Enlightenment is not limited to that of the publication of great books and their dealings with censorship. For over thirty years historians (of all kinds) have scrutinized correspondence, the press, loose sheets, speeches, more recently still the theater, also without borders, which sometimes unknowingly disseminates new ways of thinking. - and to behave (“parterre democracy”, writes Marmontel).
Even more fascinating is the landscape of book production and consumption in the second half of the seventeenth century. Fifty years after his pioneering study of the Encyclopedia, the indefatigable Robert Darnton plunged into the archive treasure of the STN (Société typographique de Neuchâtel) and this time brought out a whole small world of publishers, who, to win money, stop at nothing: looting, espionage, counterfeiting, illicit agreements ... everything is good for these pirates to circulate books, sometimes made at a discount, to circumvent the prohibitions but also to beat the pawn to the Parisian booksellers " with privilege ”. The books which circulate are far from being all masterpieces and the list of those which are then called "philosophical", and which it would be better to say "seditious", holds many surprises.

Far from minimizing the big bang, all this research helps us to understand what a cultural revolution is: not a simple corpus of new ideas, but an appropriation, new practices and behaviors, where exaltation can rub shoulders. the vilest interests, and genius flirtatiously with triviality. By plunging into this teeming world - where Voltaire circulated better than anyone - jubilation seizes us. Because that's also how the Enlightenment is great.

The Enlightenment: how ideas circulate. Monthly L'Histoire, January 2018. On newsstands and by subscription.


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