The best books on the Enlightenment

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

The Books I Picked & Why

Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World

By James Buchan

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.


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Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World

By Roy Porter

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.


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Light in Germany: Scenes from an Unknown Enlightenment

By T. J. Reed

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.


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Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain

By Karen O’Brien

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.


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

By David Wootton

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.


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