The best books on the Enlightenment

Ritchie Robertson Author Of The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790
By Ritchie Robertson

Who am I?

In 2021 I retired as Schwarz-Taylor Professor of German at Oxford. For many years I had been interested not only in German literature but in European literature and culture more broadly, particularly in the eighteenth century. Oxford is a centre of Enlightenment research, being the site of the Voltaire Foundation, where a team of scholars has just finished editing the complete works of Voltaire. When in 2013 I was asked to write a book on the Enlightenment, I realized that I had ideal resources to hand – though I also benefited from a year’s leave spent at Göttingen, the best place in Germany to study the eighteenth century. 


I wrote...

The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790

By Ritchie Robertson,

Book cover of The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680-1790

What is my book about?

The Enlightenment is still often thought of as ‘the age of reason’. But it also placed a new value on emotion, sensibility, sympathy. It was held together by the belief that happiness could be attained, not or not only in heaven, but on this earth, and that the conditions of human life could be improved and people could be freed from unnecessary fears. 

These endeavours did not concern only white men in wigs. As the reading public was growing rapidly, Enlightened thought spread widely. It was not confined to philosophers. My book draws heavily on literature to document a change in sensibility and a new readiness to imagine the experiences of others. Sympathy led to the liberation of serfs in Europe and slaves outside Europe, and to denunciations of European colonialism. 

The books I picked & why

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Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World

By James Buchan,

Book cover of Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World

Why this book?

Edinburgh, the principal centre of the Scottish Enlightenment (though flanked by Glasgow and Aberdeen), saw an extraordinary concentration of creative intellectuals who met to debate the principles of society, history, economics, and philosophy. They included David Hume, who made epoch-making contributions to all these subjects, and Adam Smith, who after giving up his chair at Glasgow lived nearby at Kirkcaldy writing The Wealth of Nations. Buchan not only recreates the intellectual atmosphere but shows how the failure of the 1745 Rebellion prompted Scotland to become a rapidly modernizing society.


Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World

By Roy Porter,

Book cover of Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World

Why this book?

The late Roy Porter wanted to show that England did not lag behind Scotland in promoting Enlightenment, and assembled a huge quantity of material to show not just the theoretical but also the practical effects of Enlightenment. Ranging widely, he dwells on practical projects like the building of roads and canals, on the beginnings of industry (e.g. Wedgwood’s pottery factory at Etruria), and on reform of the criminal law. A distinguished historian of science, he says much about medical experiments, scientific research, and the increasingly humane treatment of mental disorders.


Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment

By T.J. Reed,

Book cover of Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment

Why this book?

For centuries German historians underplayed the Enlightenment, treating it as an unwelcome foreign import. Writing with the zeal almost of a missionary, Reed shows that Germany participated fully in the Enlightenment, and that the great luminaries of the German classical age, Goethe and Schiller, continued its endeavours in individual and sometimes idiosyncratic ways. He also offers a unique introduction to the philosophy of Kant, showing how it developed in the specific milieu of Prussia under the Enlightened despot Frederick the Great, and drawing attention also to his pioneering work as a theoretical scientist: Kant was the first person to suggest that the nebulae visible beyond the Milky Way might be separate galaxies.


Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain

By Karen O’Brien,

Book cover of Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Why this book?

O’Brien looks at the place of women in the British Enlightenment in two ways. Historians, especially in Scotland, offered progressive narratives of the history of civilization, in which women had the task of softening the manners of history’s male protagonists. Women writers, on the other hand, could not be reduced to such a subordinate role, but were independent-minded and often radical. We have all heard of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, but she had many predecessors, notably the politically radical historian Catharine Macaulay, whose voices are presented here.


Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison

By David Wootton,

Book cover of Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison

Why this book?

This is an original view of the Enlightenment by one of the most exciting of its current historians. The Enlightenment urged people to think for themselves; intellectual authority resided ultimately within the individual. It valued the emotions as highly as reason; emotions included what philosophers called ‘the passions’, not just sympathy with others, but individual desires and appetites. The Enlightenment was also a period of increasing material prosperity, in which some thinkers still praised the virtue of frugality, while others pointed out that luxury and self-indulgence were necessary to drive the modern economy. These arguments, displayed here with energy and clarity, are with us still.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Age of Enlightenment, Edinburgh Scotland, and life satisfaction?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The History of Edinburgh. by Hugo Arnot, The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation, and Minerva's French Sisters: Women of Science in Enlightenment France if you like this list.