Robinson has two goals in writing The Enlightenment: to explain the multifarious breadth of the Enlightenment as a historical phenomenon and to defend it as a political and philosophical project. He fails utterly at the latter. Aside from a few mentions of the Frankfurt School critics Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno toward the end, the book barely engages with modern thinkers critical of Enlightenment philosophy. Examples of those critics abound and reside all over the political spectrum. The conservative metaphysician D.C. Schindler argues that Locke, by separating freedom from an articulation of the good, turns it into a substitute for the good. The French political theorist Pierre Manent contends that the Enlightenment notion of a “blank slate” and its political corollary, the state of nature, strips humanity of “all complexity or inner fullness.” And the Italian publisher and writer Roberto Calasso has spent his career picking apart the anti-metaphysics of the philosophes, particularly Bentham, showing that they didn’t so much abandon metaphysical commitments as hide them. These are just a few examples of some of the more trenchant “conservative” critiques of the Enlightenment ignored by Robinson, to say nothing of the vast anti-Enlightenment tradition of the Left.
That said, The Enlightenment is a total success as a history of the period. He delightfully conveys the spirit of a complex age without resorting to abstruse terminology or dry academic language. He’s the rare historian who inhabits his subject from the inside and brings a little bit of its life back for us to enjoy. As such, The Enlightenment is not some marketing gimmick meant to confirm our assumptions but a serious work of history that glows, as Ezra Pound said of good poetry, “like a ball of light in the hand.”
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor