Editor Isaac Kramnick describes the Enlightenment as "an age when intellectuals eagerly wrote for the wider audience of new readers, not yet having become alienated from the philistine public in a posture of romantic weariness." This book offers many of the most influential Enlightenment texts. It is a pleasure to read the earnest, excited, hopeful and well-intended thoughts the Enlightenment directly from their original source. The book has substantial drawbacks, but it is well worth reading.
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.