The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy

The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy  

by Anthony Gottlieb. 244 pages.

Following his first book The Dream of Reason, which covered Western philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, this outlines the next major developmental flowering from the 1630s to the eve of the French revolution encompassing Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Liebniz and Hume.  Mostly amateurs with minimal connections to university they explored the implications of the new science, often through active involvement, and challenged traditional teachings and attitudes. They raised questions relevant to us today about the advance of science and what it means for us, our understanding of ourselves and our ideas about God.  They also raised important questions about how we should best be governed.

Although they were pushing forwards they were of their time and Gottlieb sets them in historical context so we may understand them properly. All were involved in challenging the powerful hold of religion while being constrained by their own circumstances and convictions.  How much any of them believed in God is uncertain but they could not explore very far without taking life threatening risks.  The last British execution for blasphemy was 14 years before Hume’s birth in 1711.  The likelihood of severe punishment for freethinkers was receding during his lifetime but still a possibility. Gottlieb outlines and critiques their arguments, praising where due but also showing where they went wrong in their reasoning.

Descartes, Gottlieb says, compromised his work by designing proofs of the existence of God which weakened his philosophy and failed to win over the theologians who condemned his work throughout the 17th century for not making the mind sufficiently independent of the body.  He is criticised for failing to live up to his own aim of scepticism.  Descartes saw his metaphysics as a prelude to finding out about the world and much of his life was spent in practical scientific exploration – mostly superseded although modern applied mathematics is largely based on his invention of analytic geometry.  For Gottlieb, Descartes’ main legacy in philosophy is the idea of a world of matter out there and a ‘private garden’ of one’s own images, thoughts and impressions which raises the question of how we can live in both worlds at once.

Hobbes rational attitude to miracles and prophecy and his position on materialism which included maintaining that everything is physical including God took him into heretical territory although he didn’t regard himself as an atheist. He suggested a new way to see government where he started not from utopianism but by imagining a lawless world in the face of which life would be “nasty, brutish and short“(pg 39) and concluded that subjugation to a sovereign authority was the solution.  He lived through the English civil war – a chaotic and terrifying time that likely influenced his pessimism and somewhat despotic solution.  His theory of state did however insist on the consent of the governed and the rule of law and he is now seen as a pioneer of modern political philosophy.


Most of the philosophers discussed here stayed safe by keeping their ideas obscure or putting them in the mouth of a ‘friend’ with whom they would not necessarily agree.  Spinoza however made no attempt to disguise his heretical ideas and attack on conventional religion.  Consequently he was excommunicated and made an outlaw from his family and community. Nonetheless he believed in the importance and certainty of God, a conclusion reached through sophisticated reasoning in his Ethics. He was supported in continuing his philosophical writing by admirers and pupils, and he maintained an active interest in the world of science.  He remained an outcast after his death and was only rediscovered in the late 18th century by thinkers who wanted to make a religion out of nature, equating God with nature, although this was not Spinoza’s position.  His philosophy aimed for peace of mind through self knowledge, and divine bliss.

Locke’s earlier working life encompassed medicine, monetary policy, diplomacy and government, and also gardening which made him in German eyes (according to Gottlieb) beyond the pale – being too down to earth and commonsensical.  He in turn had a distaste for the intellectual life and “learned gibberish” (pg 121). His main message was that we must think for ourselves and not trust received wisdom, because others are often wrong.  Consequently he was seen as a defender of the right to rebel although he would have been shocked by how his work was used to justify rebellions against British colonialism. His writings were key in helping to erase the medieval world view in spite of Oxford trying to ban his work.  He argued against an idea espoused by many contemporaries that moral principles and religious truths were inborn, implanted by God, since they require exercise of the mind. His close connections with the Royal Society are apparent in their motto ‘Take nobody’s word for it’.

Leibniz aimed to build a complete system of the world, to explain everything. Gottlieb portrays him as an endearing eccentric who sometimes confused his own mind with God’s. If he couldn’t think of a good reason why God would do something he assumed God couldn’t either. This led him into believing we are in the best all possible worlds for why would God make any other and his attitude was lampooned by Voltaire in his character of Dr Pangloss.  Leibniz was a prodigious intelligence and polymath. He made many significant inventions and ideas for advancement in several fields.  Unfortunately much was left unfinished and remains unpublished.  He didn’t produce a magnum opus yet some of his ideas have proved invaluable such as infinitesimal calculus and binary arithmetic.

Hume came first in a 2009 poll of philosophers asked to pick the dead thinker with whom they most identified. Gottlieb suggests he is admired for his brilliantly unsettling writing, his endorsement of naturalism and his gentle manner of challenging cherished beliefs and modesty. His exploration of mind led him to distinguish between ‘relations of ideas’ such as mathematics where definitive proofs can be discovered; and ‘matters of fact’ that lead to inferences based on experience that could have been otherwise. He suggested our actions are mostly guided by the latter, relying more on instinct and habit than deductive reasoning and that we are closer in wisdom to animals, who also employ some level of experimental reasoning, than God.  He trod lightly into delicate territory but Gottlieb suggests he was less concerned to evade persecution than to avoid offending his devout sister and mother, and many clergy friends.  He preferred to let people read between the lines, or not.

In summary Gottlieb suggests instead of ‘Enlightenment’ it should be really be called ‘The Age of Trying to be More Reasonable’ in the face of intellectual orthodoxy, tradition and religious dogma. The thinkers in this book fought for scientific progress, against the power of religious authority, for toleration of dissent and moves towards democracy.  It was interesting to learn of the range of their activities beyond philosophy and I particularly appreciated Gottlieb setting them in their own time and place – highlighting how we can be trapped inside our own current paradigm in spite of our efforts to escape it. This is a very witty and engaging read, elegantly compressing a vast range of ideas and developments in thought about ourselves and our world. He plans a third volume that will continue the story with Kant.  I hope it isn’t another 16 years before that is published!