At the moment of writing, liberal ideas are under threat,” declares Oxford’s Ritchie Robertson in The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness, 1680–1790. The Enlightenment has recently become a touchstone for culture-war debates about tolerance and open-mindedness, and Robertson has written a rich new study of a fascinating period. Critics of the era typically pick and choose among many strands of Enlightenment thinking to create a hybrid “Enlightenment project” composed of everything they dislike. “[T]he Enlightenment project,” writes Robertson, “is a phrase beloved of philosophers but regarded skeptically by historians…. In lambasting the Enlightenment, its critics are seizing on a scapegoat which is much easier to name than the vast, inchoate tangle of forces that are actually responsible” for current social and political ills. The time is ripe for what he calls a “fine-grained presentation” of the period to clear up misconceptions and provide historical nuance.

A professor of German language and literature, Robertson knows that writing good history means clearing away easy preconceptions. His work implies that to understand the Enlightenment, or perhaps any period, it is less useful to distill a set of theses than to identify a group of questions that people agreed were important, even if they furnished very different answers. Thus

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