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Enlightenment Resources

We do not know the name of the artist who painted this piece -- we do know, however, that it was called Une soirée chez madame Geoffrin, and that it was completed in 1755. The painting tells us a great deal about the philosophes of the 18th century Enlightenment. For here we have Diderot, Turgot, d'Alembert, Condillac and others, gathered together to discuss the ideas of the day in the company of both men and women, philosophe and dilettante at one and the same time. Voltaire would have been there but he had found it prudent to leave France -- instead, his bust peers at the group from a distance. And then there is Madame Geoffrin herself, surrounded by men and women, some thoroughly entranced with the affairs of the human mind, others not so taken with the enlightened mind. 

In 1932, the historian Carl Becker published his book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven: Yale University Press). It was a book that treated the Age of Reason not as a City of Man divorced from the past -- a past fashioned by the medieval matrix. Instead, Becker argued that the 18th century philosophes demolished Augustine's City of God, but only to replace it with a new world created from the wreckage of the old. Following the passage is a list of resources.

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If we examine the foundations of their faith, we find that at every turn the Philosophes betray their debt to medieval thought without being aware of it. They denounced Christian philosophy, but rather too much, after the manner of those who are but half emancipated from the 'superstitions' they scorn. They had put off the fear of God, but maintained a respectful attitude toward the Deity. The ridiculed the idea that the universe had been created in six days, but still believed it to be a beautifully articulated machine designed by the Supreme Being according to a rational plan as an abiding place for mankind. The Garden of Eden was for them a myth, no doubt, but they looked enviously back to the golden age of Roman virtue, or across the waters to the unspoiled innocence of an Arcadian civilization that flourished in Pennsylvania. They renounced the authority of church and Bible, but exhibited a naive faith in the authority of nature and reason. They scorned metaphysics, but were proud to be called philosophers. They dismantled heaven, somewhat prematurely it seems, since they retained their faith in the immortality of the soul. They courageously discussed atheism, but not before the servants. They defended toleration valiantly, but could with difficulty tolerate priests. They denied that miracles ever happened, but believed in the perfectibility of the human race. We feel that these Philosophers were at once too credulous and too skeptical. They were the victims of common sense. In spite of their rationalism and their human sympathies, in spite of their aversion to hocus-pocus and enthusiasm and dim perspectives, in spite of their eager skepticism, their engaging cynicism, their brave youthful blasphemies and talk of hanging the last king in the entrails of the last priest - in spite of all of it, there is more of Christian philosophy in the writings of the Philosophes than has yet been dreamt of in our histories. (pp.31-32)

Resources
The 18th Century
(Voice of the Shuttle)
Chateau Cirey - Residence of Voltaire (Jane Birkenstock)
Eighteenth-Century Resources -- History
(Rutgers)
The Enlightenment
(Paul Halsall)
The European Enlightenment: Internet Resources (Richard Hooker)

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copyright © 2001 Steven Kreis
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