A former professor (Humanistic Studies/Princeton Univ.) shows that the intellectual glow of the Enlightenment contended with the forces of religious faith, superstition and quackery.
Fleming (The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books That Shaped the Cold War, 2009, etc.) acknowledges that he comes at his new subject with an educated amateur’s credentials. However, his learned but reader-friendly text undercuts his modesty. The author deals principally with significant, illustrative figures from the period—names unfamiliar to many—beginning with Valentine Greatrakes, a man who discovered he could touch and cure those afflicted with scrofula. Fleming notes that Greatrakes refused to take payment or otherwise profit from his successes—and there were many. Next, the author turns to the Convulsionists, those who experienced convulsions and were healed by novenas spoken at the Saint-Médard cemetery. He follows with long sections about the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, carefully charting their history while pausing occasionally to point out contemporary analogies. Then, he turns his attention to the “occult arts”—magic, sorcery and alchemy—and spends some time describing the equipment alchemists used and explaining the aims of their practices. He ends with critical biographies of two remarkable individuals, Alessandro Cagliostro, who rose quickly as a healer, then fell when he was associated with the scandal involving a priceless necklace (Marie Antoinette appears here); and Julie de Krüdener, who rose to prominence as a novelist (with the help of Madame de Staël), then turned to religion and numerology before her tumble from fame. Fleming continually steps back to point out the survival of some of these ideas in modern life—President Ronald Reagan, for example, was a chiliast, or one who held a “historical or theological view based on an interpretation of the Apocalypse, and by extension any attempt to apply Bible prophecy to an interpretation of secular history.”
Learned, sophisticated and amusing at times—and invariably enlightening.