Idealising the age of reason as a perfect model of truth, virtue and knowledge is bad history as well as bad philosophyby Jonathan Rée / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
The humble ambition of every historian, as defined by Leopold von Ranke nearly two centuries ago, is to describe the past as it really was. But no one will be satisfied with mere lists of stuff that happened. WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman were nearer the mark when they suggested, in 1066 and All That, that a historian who wants to be useful must know how to “console the reader,” focusing on what is “memorable,” showing how it became “the cause of nowadays and the end of History,” and deciding whether or not it was a Good Thing. “All other history,” as they pointed out, “defeats itself.”
The naming of epochs has always been one of the historian’s main tasks. Tom Paine hit a bullseye in 1792 when he reflected on the recent “revolutions of America and France” and proclaimed that “the present age will hereafter merit to be called the age of reason.” His words were astute because the idea of an “age of reason” was already established as a way of referring to a stage in life when feckless innocence gives way to adult responsibility. The result was the consoling idea that humanity was finally coming of age.
Paine was not the first to speak of living in the age of reason—or “Enlightenment” as it came to be called—and 18th-century historians were already well versed in the related vocabularies of antiquity and renaissance or the ancient, middle and modern ages. Any tuppenny pedant could, of course, tell you that these terms will highlight some things and conceal others, introducing biases and serving ideological agendas. On top of that, they threaten a self-confirming cycle of supposition and evidence: certain individuals and works will be raised to canonical status because they are supposed to be typical of their epoch, and then they will be looked to for proof that the epoch was indeed suffused with the spirit for which they were canonised. Like tourists who refuse to notice anything not in their guidebooks, seekers after the spirit of an age are liable to end up chasing their tails in ever-decreasing circles.