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Historiography: Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Voltaire, Robertson, Gibbon)

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Jul 09, 2022 , Updated: Jul 18, 2022 · 4 min read

The Age of Enlightenment, or simply the Enlightenment, was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries with global influences and effects.

History was widely read, and the brilliant writing of "Voltaire" and "Gibbon" helped to create something like a mass public for historical works.

Finally, the Enlightenment expanded the historical world, in principle at least, almost to the limits recognized today - and it never shrank again.

Enlightenment historiography set itself definitely against Church historiography.

The historians of the Enlightenment extended their horizon by including China, India and Persia in their survey.

They provided depth to history by bringing into their works the whole social and cultural history of the world and not merely confining it to politics.

The leading historians of the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu (1689–1755) and Voltaire (1694–1778), responded in different ways to the scientific impulse.

Montesquieu (1689–1755 AD)

A French noble, Montesquieu sought laws in history.

His "Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans" and "The Spirit of Laws" were early attempts at philosophies of history.

In "The Spirit of Laws", Montesquieu explored the natural order that he believed underlay polities as well as economies.

Despite lacking information about many cultures, he systematically applied a comparative method of analysis.

Climate and soil, he believed, are the deepest level of causality.

The size of the territory to be governed also determines what kind of government it can have - republics have to be small; large countries like Russia require despotism.

Montesquieu's preferred form of government was "constitutional monarchy", which existed in France before Louis XIV and in England during Montesquieu's day.

Among his many readers were the Founding Fathers of the United States, who embraced Montesquieu's idea of balanced government and indeed created one exquisitely contrived to allow each branch to check the others.

Voltaire (1694–1778)

Voltaire was a poet, dramatist, novelist, essayist, political thinker, historian and philosopher.

Born of middle class parents and educated by the Jesuits, he was the greatest luminary of the Age of Enlightenment.

History, he declared, "is a pack of tricks we play on the dead."

He nevertheless spent much of his life playing those tricks, producing "History of Charles XII" on the Swedish monarch, "The Century of Louis XIV", and "Essay on Morals".

Voltaire noted that the modern historian requires not only precise facts and dates but also attention to customs, commerce, finance, agriculture, and population.

Voltaire was curious about everything—but not tolerant of everything.

Like most philosophes (the leading thinkers of the French Enlightenment), he considered the Middle Ages an epoch of unbroken superstition and barbarism.

Even the age of "Louis XIV" exhibited "a history of human stupidity."

Like Machiavelli, he believed that one could learn from history—but only what not to do.

Author of about a hundred books, Voltaire's correspondence alone runs into 107 volumes.

David Hume (1711–1776)

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, librarian and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, scepticism, and naturalism.

David Hume had at the age of twenty-eight written the brilliant philosophical piece - "The Treatise of Human Nature".

Hume's "History of England" in six volumes covered the story of Britain from Julius Caesar's invasion of the island to the glorious revolution of 1688.

Voltaire reviewed Hume's History and thought the author quite impartial and later pronounced it the best history perhaps ever written in any language.

William Robertson (1721–1793)

William Robertson was a Scottish historian, minister in the Church of Scotland, and Principal of the University of Edinburgh.

True to the Enlightenment theory, Robertson thought of history as the development of human society and civilization, a conviction exemplified by his "The History of America.

His "History of Scotland" rejected everything that smacked of fable and conjecture.

Robertson’s most famous work is "The History of the Emperor Charles V (1769)".

He made significant contributions to the writing of Scottish history and the history of Spain and Spanish America.

Edward Gibbon (1737–1794)

Edward Gibbon was an English historian, writer, and member of parliament.

Quite early in life Gibbon had aspired to be a historian and had made elaborate preparations.

His most important work, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", published in six volumes is known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its polemical criticism.

Gibbon borrowed rather than contributed to historical erudition, for he was not a great archival researcher.

He met Voltaire and read his "Essay", he read "Montesquieu" and "Hume".

To the believer, he wrote, all religions are equally true, to the philosopher, all religions are equally false, and to the magistrate, all religions are equally useful.

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