Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.