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Review of “The End of Enlightenment” by Richard Whatmore: A Cautionary Tale from 18th-Century Britain


According to Thomas Paine, Britain needed to be dismantled. Its monarchy should be overthrown, its empire divided, and the economic system supporting this heavily indebted and immoral country eliminated. Only then could a new and improved version, known as Britain 2.0, emerge.

How did he accomplish this? During the 1790s, the progressive intellectual and writer of the popular book “Rights of Man” was a part of the National Convention in Paris and recommended that republicans invade. Later, Paine proposed to President Thomas Jefferson a strategy to use gunboats in order to establish Britain as a republic.

Unfortunately for those who believe in equality, oppose imperialism and monarchy, and see the East India Company and transatlantic slave trade as negative aspects of western civilization, neither of these events occurred. If they had, Britain’s history may have been altered significantly and recent revelations about our imperial past, such as William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy and David Olusoga’s Black and British, may not have been so distressing to read.

Edmund Burke, a conservative scholar who opposed Paine, believed that the activist was disloyal to his country. However, in the late 18th century, intellectuals like Burke recognized that Britain was in a state of decline. Other prominent thinkers of the time, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, Edward Gibbon, and David Hume, shared this concern about the state of Britain under King George III and his corrupt advisors.

In order to comprehend the issue at hand, they referred to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations from 1776. In this renowned work, the influential Scottish economist criticized a dishonest alliance between bankers, politicians, and merchants who prioritized their own monetary gain over the well-being of society.

The more things change, the more Smith’s words remain relevant. In a rigidly class-divided and increasingly unequal Britain, governed by wealthy elite who attended prestigious public schools, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between the country in 1776 and the one in 2023. Richard Whatmore introduces his detailed account of the numerous grievances in 18th-century Britain by noting that we currently live in a time of uncertain political structures that could potentially lead to dangerous changes.

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’.

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.

Today, the concept of enlightenment has taken on a new meaning. It represents humanity’s ongoing progress towards wisdom, departing from irrational thinking and embracing reason. This idea is often associated with philosophers who value reason, such as Spinoza and Kant. However, some skeptics have challenged this optimistic perspective. Foucault linked the Enlightenment to the emergence of a surveillance state exemplified by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. John Gray held the Enlightenment responsible for the negative effects of global capitalism. And in their work “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” Adorno and Horkheimer argued that humanity’s fixation on reason and calculation ultimately led to the atrocities of Auschwitz.

Whatmore believes that all of these interpretations are incorrect. According to him and the thinkers he discusses, the purpose of the Enlightenment was to eradicate the superstitious beliefs that had caused violence throughout Europe during the 17th century. However, it ultimately resulted in Britain’s attempt to dominate other nations for its own gain, as well as the violent revolution in Paris in 1792, possibly both.

Furthermore, a professor of history at St Andrews University, Whatmore points out the relevance to modern times: “We are currently living in a world where the ideals of the Enlightenment, meant to prevent civil and international violence, fanaticism, and chaos, have been neglected or abandoned, leading to their gradual failure.”

The main message of the book is that even though Britain is now a small, rainy, leftover from its imperial past, it still suffers from corruption, greed, foolishness, and self-absorbed individuals who were educated privately. Additionally, there is a tendency to show respect to insignificant members of the royal family. If Tom Paine had succeeded in convincing foreign warships to invade, there may not be a need for a new era of intellectual awakening. However, that is not the case.

Source: theguardian.com