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Voltaire's claim that he ""always preferred freedom to everything else"" can be taken as the motto of eighteenth century thought in general and of the philosophes in particular. Of course as Gay points out in the concluding volume of his masterful study of the Enlightenment, the ideas of Diderot and Lessing, of Hume and Rousseau, the cults of Reason and of Natural Man, English. empiricism and French skepticism ranged over a wide and often contradictory spectrum, partly hostile, partly friendly. Still, freedom was the touchstone, both in the sense of emancipation from the dead weight of Christian: orthodoxy, the theme of The Rise of Modern Paganism; Gay's earlier volume, and in the sense meant here, where it is the political environment, the socioeconomic struggles which are the tings to be wrestled with and shaped. In the long run Enlightenment planning tended to be more personal than dispassionate and the use of a critical method, at once putatively objective: and radical, the traditional legacy of the era, brilliantly evaluated by Gay, set the stage for most of the utopic dreams, pedagogical and literary debates which fathered the ideological squabbles and catchall romanticism of the succeeding century. Gay handles this dialectical interplay with the utmost sophistication; indeed there ac. few who can equal his fusion of panoramic portraiture and analytic commentary. No doubt he is too enthusiastic, too secular-minded about the achievements of the philosophes: Voltaire appears far removed from the petty eminence grise others have taken him to be, and Rousseau seems unwontedly heroic. But this is massive scholarship, suffused with a sense of intimacy and intellectual readiness rarely present in such undertakings.

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 1969
Publisher: Knopf