The Enlightenment: A Comparative social history 1721-1794. . – Reviews

The Enlightenment: A Comparative social history 1721-1794. . – Reviews – book review

Jack Censer

The Enlightenment: A Comparative Social History 1721-1794. By Thomas Munck (London: Oxford University Press, 2000. xii plus 249 pp. $65.00/cloth $25.95/paperback).

When Roger Chartier provocatively declared that the French revolutionaries had invented the Enlightenment, he also suggested that the eighteenth century was still a period of change that could be seen in cultural practices from religion to reading. (1) Whatever the cause of these alterations, he denied the agency of the great ideas of the philosophes. Interestingly, even though Thomas Munck focuses on the Enlightenment, he has much in common with Chartier. Munck too omits the major writings of the Enlightenment in favor of concentrating on practices. Yet he does differ with Chartier whose focus is clearly on cultural practices which have implications for basic assumptions. Munck also examines practices but on topics related more to ideology. The most important difference, however, between Munck’s book and that of Chartier is that the former still links these new behaviors to the Enlightenment. Semantically, these two scholars are polar opposites even though they share an interest in certain topics.

Munck, in fact, examines various areas that he sees as progressive and therefore Enlightened to determine what occurred. In particular, in regard to the topics of religion, literacy, and the expansion of books, reading, and periodicals, he studies the changes throughout society. His final three chapters more closely resemble the coverage of most traditional studies of the Enlightenment. Here the author investigates the development of social policies, economic development and a move toward capitalism as well as the evolution of the notion of citizenship. Potentially, this might be a place for Munck to examine Enlightenment discourses, but instead he mainly focuses on practices.

Interestingly, the basic contradiction between Chartier and Munck over the label “Enlightened” points to an interesting problem for the latter. If practices are to be a primary focus, how can he necessarily link them to the philosophes? For example, consider the expansion of literacy that he documents. Did this happen because of the Enlightenment? Some scholars might see this as the result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation simply expanding their effect, as in fact occurred well into the eighteenth century. Munck is, indeed, working within a tradition that views the Enlightenment less as a body of beliefs and more as an advanced system of communication. Indeed, any number of social and cultural historians have in one way or another sought to transform the examination of the Enlightenment away from its roots as a topic in intellectual history. Munck’s work, however, may move furthest from examining the philosophes’ thought. Though mentioned, these figures seldom rate substantial discussion. From my per spective, the author’s goal of making his subject more than a study of writings and ideas has much to recommend it; the problem may be then that it becomes difficult to define exactly what is Enlightenment practice. And, in this book, there are several cases in which novel effects might easily be connected to non-philosophe developments.

Scholars may want to consider carefully the framework of this book; they definitely ought to read it. The research behind this work makes it a treasure, as the author consulted the most recent literature in a number of languages. Indeed, in my areas of specialty, I can affirm that he produces an excellent synthesis from conflicting studies of incredible complexity. Even more important, Munck depicts an Enlightenment that is a truly international affair. While most surveys start in England and end in France, Munck pushes well beyond these borders, especially into Germany and the Scandinavian countries. The authors geography of the Enlightenment, which from the French perspective leaves out all but a few luminaries, is novel. Indeed, Munck’s comparison produces no systematic leaders and followers but instead a more pulsating continent of lumieres.

The argument offered in this book, based as it is on so many varied and competing sources, is indeed complex. Munck is careful to avoid crude whiggishness that would posit clear progress as Europeans moved from the darkness to enlightenment. At times the book struggles to show any change; but for the most part, with all reservations enunciated, Munck argues that the Enlightenment effected a shift. More surprisingly, for our profession with its studied neutrality, the author concludes that such changes constituted progress.

As an example of how this work develops, consider his least optimistic scenario but an interesting one as well–the discussion of the relationship between the state and its individuals. Under the Old Regime, the government acted patriarchally. Owing good treatment to all, the state acted responsibly; but there was no accountability. During the eighteenth century, this changed at least in theory. In the most advanced case, the French revolutionaries cast the relationship so that equal citizens could require governmental responsiveness. This eclipsed the British system in which the ability of the English to control and curtail government had become mired in special privileges and factionalism. Yet after 1792 the French approach also lost its way as an insistence on social uniformity made the government more an oppressor than a protector. In this chapter, as elsewhere, Munck believes that the reforming instinct of the Enlightenment became caught in a web of half measures and dead ends. While Munck is most cautio us here in rendering a positive conclusion, the gradualist approach still receives approval. Finally, Munck’s use of Condorcet, who awaiting execution still spoke of human perfectibility, seems to cast French dreams in a somewhat positive light.

Yet in other areas, and even overall, Munck’s assertions emerge more strongly from the complexity he describes, Indeed he concludes:

But everyone (workers as well as the wealthy, women as well as men) could look in astonishment at the growth in book, pamphlet, and newspaper reading across a broad band of urban society; they could point to novels as well as to popular scientific works, to prints and to irreverent political cartoons; they could go to the theatre or a debating society, or buy a pamphlet, for not much more than a few pints of beer; free of charge, they could listen to the soap-box orators in the Palais Royal, or rub shoulders with the elite in the annual exhibition of paintings in the Louvre; and, by the end of our period, in London they could sign a mass anti-slavery petition, in Paris they could add their voice to the political discussion of their sectional meeting, or perhaps cast their vote in a local election. By Kant’s standard of an open-ended process of discovery and emancipation from authority, some teal ground had been won (p. 223).

This rather long quote sums up Munck’s argument and his evaluation of the Enlightenment all at the same time. It also reveals the breadth of his view of Enlightenment, a definition that, as noted above, seems controversial.

This is a very careful, meticulous work based on extraordinary effort; it is also a very adventurous work that seeks to redefine and characterize the Enlightenment. It goes where few works have attempted, and it should be taken very seriously.


(1.) Roger Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991).

COPYRIGHT 2001 Carnegie Mellon University Press

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