The Enlightenment: An Interpretation  

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"The Enlightenment, as Peter Gay asserts, used pagan scientism to free European culture from Judeo-Christian theology. (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York, 1966). The first volume is called “The Rise of Modern Paganism.” Gay seems to use “pagan” as a synonym for what I call Apollonian, only half of my theory of paganism.)"--Sexual Personae (1990) by Camille Paglia

"In its treatment of the passions, as in its treatment of metaphysics, the Enlightenment was not an age of reason but a revolt against rationalism. This revolt was at once substantive and methodological. It opposed not merely excessive claims for man's power to control his emotions but also the arid, schematic, often unworldly classifications of earlier philosophers of the mind. But the philosophes' revolt in psychology was also - and there its delicacy lies - a revolt against antirationalism, against that devout psychology which meekly served Christian theology by denying man's capacity to find his own unaided way in life. It is no accident that the philosophes chose as their intellectual ancestors, in the study of man as elsewhere, those modern writers who had distrusted reason without exalting unreason: Montaigne, Hobbes, Spinoza - and Locke. The pious Christian, the Enlightenment conceded, had been right to explore the limits of reason and the range of passion, but he had misconceived them both. In response, the philosophes saw psychology as a dual escape - from unreasonable rationalism and superstitious antirationalism." --The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1969) by Peter Gay

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Enlightenment: An Interpretation is an influential two-volume history of the Age of Enlightenment by American scholar Peter Gay, published between 1966 and 1969. The first volume, subtitled "The Rise of Modern Paganism," won the National Book Award in 1967. The second volume, subtitled “The Science of Freedom," was published in 1969.

Gay presents the Enlightenment as the unified work of a small group of men, "the little flock," who share a critical method and knew and admired one another's work. These thinkers are dominated by French figures, including Montesquieu, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean le Rond d'Alembert, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, and the Marquis de Condorcet. Gay also refers to Britons John Locke and David Hume, the Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the German-born Immanuel Kant, and the American Benjamin Franklin. Gay emphasizes the empirical attitudes of these thinkers, and praises their liberal attitudes (while glossing over aspects of their belief that undermine his argument, including anti-semitism and a willingness to suppress religious freedoms).

The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism

The first volume, "The Rise of Modern Paganism," focuses on foundations of Enlightenment thought, covering the influence of Greek philosophers, pagan belief, and Christian theology.

The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Science of Freedom

The second volume, "The Science of Freedom," describes how this system was then applied to various spheres, particularly the social sciences, including political economy, history, and sociology.

It is the second volume of Peter Gay's study of the dawn of the modern world—the Age of Reason and completes Peter Gay's reinterpretation begun in The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism. Gay describes the philosophes' program and their views of society, the Enlightenment's critical method and its humane and libertarian vision.


The Enlightenment: An Interpretation has been praised for its breadth of scholarship and readable style, and is seen as rehabilitating the reputation of Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Scottish philosopher David Hume. Margaret Jacob, a professor of history at UCLA, described it as "canonical" and "the last great work to provide a synthetic account of the philosophes and their world."

In the early part of the 20th century, historians like Carl Becker had criticized the work of the philosophes as perpetuating the dogmatic attitude of the Middle Ages. These thinkers, wrote Becker in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, only replaced the sureties of Christian faith with their own hyper-rationalist Utopia. Writing in The New York Times, George L. Mosse describes The Enlightenment: An Interpretation as a "watershed in 18th-century historiography" which sought to undo these charges. By meeting Enlightenment thinkers "on their own ground," says Mosse, Gay presents them as a "group of intellectuals who believed that man's unfettered use of his critical mind would lead all mankind into a better future." The historian Nicholas Hudson of the University of British Columbia describes the work as "a barely disguised defense of an optimistic secular liberalism opposed both to pessimism about Western civilization and [...] rising conservatism."

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