Philip Hensher

The British Empire’s latest crime – to have ended the Enlightenment

Richard Whatmore sees trade and colonisation in the 19th century as the great threat to Enlightenment ideals, and British imperialism as an unremitting force of darkness

Queen Victoria, depicted in an English cartoon of 1858 on the transfer of Indian rule from the East India Company to the British crown in the wake of the Sepoy Rebellion. [Alamy]

What is the Enlightenment, and when did it come to an end? Neither are easy questions to answer. The Enlightenment, as a historical phenomenon or a phenomenon of ideas, coalesced into an attempt to rid humanity of rigid superstitions and fanaticism and liberate it from tyranny of every sort. Its first movements were discernible in Europe in the 17th century, and it became a continent-wide experiment of thought in the following one. But when did it end – as the title of Richard Whatmore’s book takes for granted?

There’s a good case for stating that it never came to an end. Once tyranny and religious certainty were dismissed as universal conditions of existence by the thinkers and writers who followed Voltaire, they could never be reinstated. From the 18th century onwards, with occasional backslidings, we would, until very recently, have been confident in stating that the freedoms of expression, thought and belief which began under the Enlightenment were destined to remain in place. The movement certainly did not end at the beginning of the 19th century, but continued to expand to give those freedoms to groups of people the 18th century hardly dreamt of – women, non-whites and sexual minorities. The ideas which the Enlightenment initiated, such as the liberation of slaves with the Mansfield judgment of 1772, would spread over the coming centuries. The Enlightenment didn’t end: it’s the air we breathe.

For my money, Edmund Burke was the most consistently accurate diagnostician of the direction of society

There is an ingenious case that suggests that the Enlightenment thinkers we value most were in fact precursors of the committers of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. A.N. Wilson, writing in this magazine a week ago, praised C.S. Lewis for pointing out that Hitler and Stalin were, after all, Enlightenment thinkers, determined to shed religious belief.

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