The best books on the Enlightenment

Why am I passionate about this?

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...

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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Ritchie Robertson Why did I love 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.

By James Buchan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Capital of the Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the early 18th century, Edinburgh was a filthy backwater town synonymous with poverty and disease. Yet by century's end, it had become the marvel of modern Europe, home to the finest minds of the day and their breathtaking innovations in architecture, politics, science, the arts, and economies - all of which continues to echo loudly today. Adam Smith penned "The Wealth of Nations". James Boswell produced "The Life of Samuel Johnson". Alongside them, pioneers such as David Hume, Robert Burns, James Hutton, and Sir Walter Scott transformed the way we understand our perceptions and feelings, sickness and health, relations…


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

Ritchie Robertson Why did I love 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.

By Roy Porter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Enlightenment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is almost impossible to encapsulate briefly the range and variety contained in Roy Porter's major new book. For generations the focus for those wishing to understand the roots of the modern world has been France on the eve of the Revolution. Porter certainly acknowledges France's importance, but makes an overwhelming, fascinating case for considering Britain the "true" home of modernity - a country driven by an exuberance, diversity and power of invention comparable only to 20th-century America. Porter immerses the reader in a society which, recovering from the horrors of the Civil War and decisively reinvigorated by the revolution…


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

Ritchie Robertson Why did I love 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.

By T.J. Reed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Light in Germany as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Germany's political and cultural past, from ancient times through World War II, has dimmed the legacy of its Enlightenment, which these days is far outshone by those of France and Scotland. In this book, T. J. Reed clears the dust away from eighteenth-century Germany, bringing the likes of Kant, Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Gotthold Lessing into a coherent and focused beam that shines within European intellectual history and reasserts the important role of Germany's Enlightenment. Reed looks closely at the arguments, achievements, conflicts, and controversies of these major thinkers and how their development of a lucid and active liberal thinking…


Book cover of Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Ritchie Robertson Why did I love 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.

By Karen O’Brien,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the long eighteenth century, ideas of society and of social progress were first fully investigated. These investigations took place in the contexts of economic, theological, historical and literary writings which paid unprecedented attention to the place of women. Combining intellectual history with literary criticism, Karen O'Brien examines the central importance to the British Enlightenment both of women writers and of women as a subject of enquiry. She examines the work of a range of writers, including John Locke, Mary Astell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, T. R. Malthus, the Bluestockings, Catharine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft and the first female…


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

Ritchie Robertson Why did I love 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.

By David Wootton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Power, Pleasure, and Profit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A provocative history of the changing values that have given rise to our present discontents.

We pursue power, pleasure, and profit. We want as much as we can get, and we deploy instrumental reasoning-cost-benefit analysis-to get it. We judge ourselves and others by how well we succeed. It is a way of life and thought that seems natural, inevitable, and inescapable. As David Wootton shows, it is anything but. In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, he traces an intellectual and cultural revolution that replaced the older systems of Aristotelian ethics and Christian morality with the iron cage of instrumental reasoning that…


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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


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