Many authors write about Enlightenment science and Enlightenment politics, but there was also Enlightenment ethics, the focus of this book.
Through the writings of great thinkers, Wootton (History/Univ. of York; The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, 2015, etc.) describes the birth of a new concept of human nature during the years 1500 to 1800. This is heavy stuff, but readers expecting a turgid, scholarly tome need not worry. According to the author, for most of history, what mattered most was not whether you succeeded but what sort of person you were. Great men suppressed their passions and exercised reason. Then, beginning in the Renaissance, philosophers made a U-turn, replacing Aristotelian ethics and Christian morality with a new type of decision-making that resembles cost-benefit analysis. Machiavelli became a symbol of deceit when he merely described the new rules of the game. His ideal prince served his interests (keeping his job) by making it impossible for subjects to challenge him or by benefiting them so generously that they opposed any change. Thinkers from Hobbes to Locke to Voltaire assumed that humans act from purely selfish motives. We feel pity when an innocent person suffers because that could happen to us; we don’t pity a criminal being punished because we don’t feel threatened. That humans are selfish is not necessarily a terrible thing. Adam Smith taught that humans working solely for their own profit benefit everyone. The Founding Fathers followed David Hume, who wrote, “in contriving any System of Government, and fixing the several Checks and Controuls of the Constitution, every Man ought to be suppos’d a Knave, and to have no other End, in all his Actions, than private interest.” Throughout the narrative, Wootton demonstrates a consistent ability to make complex intellectual ideas approachable.
Histories of ideas can be a snooze, but this is a surprisingly lucid examination of a dramatic revolution in human thought.