Pagden (Political Science and History/UCLA; Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West, 2008, etc.) demonstrates the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his impeccable research of the period we refer to as the Enlightenment.
Lest readers are daunted in trying to follow the deep thoughts of the great writers of the 18th century, the author gently explains each outlook, theory and proposal. This was the century of philosophy, but it was also the century when the science of man—i.e., social sciences—came into being. It was Gottfried Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds.” Seeking to define men and their relationships with nature, and especially with each other, led to this scientific revolution; it was an intellectual process, a philosophical project and a social movement. The figures of the period were a combination of skeptics, epicureans and stoics seeking to build a cosmopolitan world of diverse people with common interests. Pagden impressively illustrates the significant discussions that took place as these scientists, historians and other intellectuals tried to fathom man’s nature and subject dogma to reason. Many readers will wonder at what they would give to be present at Baron d’Holbach’s Paris dinner table with Hume, Diderot, Rousseau, D’Alembert and even Ben Franklin as they discussed religion and a nature-centered universe. These storied men of letters dutifully studied the ages of man in his journey from the beginnings of agriculture to the right of property and division of lands. Pagden serves as a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide through this “particular intellectual and cultural movement.”
A book that should be on every thinking person’s shelf—the perfect primer for anyone interested in the development of Western civilization.