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The Portable Enlightenment Reader (Portable Library) Formato Kindle
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This reader is an excellent book for novices and experienced readers alike. It is an excellent 600+ page book filled with short, pithy excerpts from the key thinkers of the period. Actually the writings go back as far as 1620 with an excerpt from Francis Bacon where he puts down the Greek philosophers and introduces what is to become the scientific method. Beccaria comes up with novel thinking on crime and punishment. Does the death penalty deter crime? How about the punishment fitting the crime instead of being meted out at the whim of some aristocrat?
Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and Paine weigh in with their political philosophy. The skeptics speak up with their religious criticisms. Manners, morals, art, war, and gender and race issues are all discussed by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, David Hume, Reynolds, Pope, and Bentham.
Bite sized as these entries are, they give the flavor of Enlightenment thought. And, importantly for the general reader, they are all mentally digestible. You don't have to read every paragraph six times in order to get a glimmer of the authors' meanings. The represented authors are not just from France either. The best thinkers from France, Italy, Germany, the United States and Great Britain are represented.
Well now I'm 62, and it's time for me to admit that I'm almost certainly never going to read "The Social Contract." This volume is for me and others like me, who are suffering from the "So Many Books, So Little Time" syndrome. The book contains a broad selection of writings from the major thinkers of the Enlightenment, which the editor defines roughly from the 1680's to the 1790's.
What a marvelous time it must have been to be an intellectual! The barriers erected by the authority of the kings, priests, and classical writers were being shattered. The ability to ask new questions and propose new answers produced an almost intoxicating sense of infinite possibilities for the improvement - even the perfection - of human society.
Some of the pieces in this book will seem hopelessly naive to our modern cynical minds; on the other hand, some of the points being made so excitedly and even belligerently are now taken for granted - and we are likely to read them and say, "What's the big deal? Everyone knows that." And then there are the debates about the most fundamental questions - such as the source of knowledge - that have yet to be resolved, and probably never will be.
If you read this, you will almost certainly get caught up in the excitement of the exploration of the ideas. You will almost certainly have your own thoughts stimulated, and your own opinions challenged.
And you can smugly pretend that you have read Roussseau, Locke, Hume, Kant, and Voltaire - and no one (except real scholars) will be the wiser.
First a look at the positive. Most of the writings selected in this book are important, and editor Isaac Kramnick's introduction is insightful, albeit with a narrow focus (more on that below). The selections are grouped non-chronologically by theme and include on average four-page citations from the more influential writings of a given author, allowing the reader to get some feeling for the author without having to read the entirety of the original sources. Kramnick starts each selection with two sentences about its origin, date and significance. The original texts are probably all available free on the internet, but then the reader would have to find the juicy bits by him or herself, so it would be much more work to get an overview.
The selections of materials offer much to learn. The reader comes directly to the text where John Locke calls for the separation of Church and State or where Adam Smith invokes the invisible hand. It is fascinating to read seminal texts, such as Kant's reasoning leading to his categorical imperative. I particularly liked a selected poem from Alexander Pope (p255) that conveys both the thinking and the excitement of the times, including hero worship of Newton, and a poem from Bernard Mandeville, "The Fable of the Bees", on the economic benefits of self-interest. Also fascinating is an anonymous selection from 1792 which describes French revolutionaries propagating their doctrinal morals (e.g., "reason guides us and enlightens us"), using symbols such as fasces, and replacing the Christian icons in the sanctuary of Notre Dame Cathedral with a statue of the "Goddess of Reason". The ceremony ended when "All took the oath to live in freedom or to die." Kramnick shows how the principles of economic laissez-faire, free trade and governmental non-intervention in the marketplace were proposed by Quesnay and Turgot, many years before Adam Smith did. The reader also sees the hard limits of how enlightening the Age of Enlightenment was, such as when Hume, Jefferson, Kant and Rousseau (among others) rationalise misogynist and/or racist attitudes.
The selections and Kramnick's comments also show the direct intellectual influence of European Enlightenment thinkers on the founding of the USA. The Declaration of Independence (one of the selected texts) and the American Constitution are products of the Enlightenment. Kramnick points out that the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence paraphrase Locke.
And now some criticisms. The book claims to "bring together the era's classic works ... from a broad range of sources...". The introduction mentions in one sentence that the Enlightenment involved many countries. These beginnings are misleading. The narrow focus of this anthology is misrepresentative of the breadth and depth of the Enlightenment. Only a small number of relevant countries and their Enlightenment figures are included. What about the others? Of the 116 individual writings supposedly representative of the Enlightenment, more than 95% are British, French or American. If one includes the few selections from four Germanic writers (Kant, Leibnitz, Mozart, Frederick the Great), then the figure exceeds 98%. There are just two selections from Italians (Vico, Beccaria). It is as if nothing significant was written outside these countries. Some of the selections are not particularly significant and could have been replaced with more significant writings outside of this narrow focus.
Kramnick confines the span of the Age of Enlightenment from the 1680s to the 1790s. He bases this starting time solely on English and French milestones, such as the English constitutional monarchy, Newton's Principia and the writings of Locke, Bayle and Fontonelle (all of whom had made substantial contributions before the 1680s). Earlier Enlightenment milestones go unmentioned in the introduction. There was no exact moment that the Enlightenment started, but Kramnick's starting point is like saying that the average person's day begins at noon. In the first half of the book are the two excerpts written before Kramnick's starting point: from Bacon's Novum Organum of 1620 and from Descartes's Discourse on Method of 1637. These were revolutionary and seminal. The Enlightenment, as a new movement of questioning everything in the new light of reason and empiricism, was already under way by 1648, the year when the Thirty Year's War ended and a time when many Europeans were sickened by violence in the name of religion. By the 1680s the networks of the Republic of Letters (1664), the coffee-houses (1650), and substantial smuggling of Enlightenment books from Holland (for example) were old hat. By the time Newton published his works, a vast path had been cleared for him by the heroes who were forced to push through the darkness at the dawn of the Enlightenment, inevitably making errors on the way. Newton was aware of and grateful for their gigantic work. Voltaire points out how Newton had the advantage of living after scholasticism had been largely banished.
Kramnick writes that the end of the Enlightenment is "best linked" to the realisation of Enlightenment ideals "in the revolutionary fervor that swept through America, France and even England". All of these milestones focus on only three countries. What of the many others countries? Benjamin Franklin, who lived in the latter part of the Enlightenment, is featured as the sole character on the cover of a book pretending to cover key Enlightenment readings. What about those who enabled and triggered the Enlightenment, or those who battled first and at great risk to make its ideas accepted?
Granted the importance of the Enlightenment and the fabulous richness of its writers, why such a narrow selection almost exclusively of writings from three countries? For example, the anthology includes David Hume's criticism of the belief in miracles, written in 1768 when such criticism was not at all original, but completely ignores the innumerable writers who confronted such beliefs more than a century beforehand. Was Kramnick following the herd of his time and delivering the goods to satisfy limited expectations? Were limited language skills a factor? Was the motivation to focus on three imperial countries to make an uncomplicated narrative understandable and pleasing to a simple audience?
This misrepresentation is misleading for students and denies other Enlightenment figures their due. For those seeking to understand and appreciate the real depth and breadth of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel's three volume series gives an excellent view of the reality (especially "Radical Enlightenment", which has changed the historical perception of the Enlightenment).
Like other editions of the venerable Viking Portable Libary series, this book offers much reading at an affordable price. Viking Portables were often aimed at enthusiasts. (The first of the over 100 editions was published in 1943 to give American troops a literary anthology.) Although this particular book gives no indication of its target audience, it will certainly be more satisfying for casual enthusiasts than for scholars. Neither this book nor the other two Viking Portable Libary books that I read have an index or footnotes to the main texts. Granted how easy it is to generate an index, this is unhelpful. The introduction gives no word about how, when or by whom the original sources were edited or translated. The texts are mostly converted to modern English, with somewhat random exceptions where older English is used. The translations from French are often incorrect because they translate idioms word for word, thereby losing their meaning.
As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only such collection of Enlightenment readings available. Again, despite drawbacks, this book is a good read.
It has all the big enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Leibniz, Paine, Addison, Pope, Montesqieu, Franklin and many more. It gives a great run down of the wit, the result of the evolution of thought, politics, society and reason as seen in the words of these great minds.
The only thing that I didn't like about this is that there is no Hobbes, which is only a minor quibble. I just thought that since there is Descates, who is not of the eighteenth century enlightenment (17th century and dryer than dust), but a major influence (like Hobbes was included, Hobbes, who was a major link from Descartes to Locke should be included and the provacative and ENLIGHTENING words from The Leviathan should grace the pages of this indispensible book and yet another superb volume from the Viking Portable Library.
The anthology is divided into topical sections and the selections are important because the selected content provides readers with even the very flawed thinking of some of these great minds, particularly on matters of race and women's rights -- issues that later generations would have to tackle.
The introduction is well written too. The Enlightenment Era's optimism was based upon assumptions that have not always proven too true and though the editor is certainly devoted to this great era in philosophy and political progress he is not an iconodule unwilling to present criticism of this era or honestly discuss the shortcomings of the Enlightenment Era.
It is impossible to present a comprehensive understanding of anything when compiling an anthology, but this selection is a good starting point. Readers would do well, and I suspect it is the desire of the editor, to select writers of this era to enjoy in the unabridged editions of their individual works.
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