Oxford, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: The Enlightenment, and why it still matters, By Anthony Pagden

The thinkers of two and three centuries ago still guide our ideas about society – and stir conflicts

"If I knew something useful to my family and not to my country, I would try to forget it," the French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu argued. "If I knew something useful to my country and harmful to Mankind, I would look upon it as a crime."

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

Montesquieu's sentiment expresses, for Anthony Pagden, the essence of the Enlightenment. In the belief that all humans "share a common identity and thus belong ultimately to a single global community – a cosmopolis" lies, he suggests, the Enlightenment's greatest legacy. Unlike, say, the Renaissance or the Reformation, the Enlightenment is not simply a historical moment but one through which debates about the contemporary world are played out. Pagden, too, writes with one eye to current discussions about, and attacks on, cosmopolitanism. He pursues an important argument here. The Enlightenment, he suggests, developed through a struggle with the ghosts of two Thomases: Aquinas and Hobbes.

It was Thomas Aquinas who had, in the 12th century, created a new foundation for moral and social thought by marrying Christian theology to Aristotelian philosophy. Morality and society could, for Aquinas, only be understood by acknowledging humans as God's creatures, created to be social beings.

Scholasticism, as the development of Thomist ideas came to be called, began to crumble in the 17th century. Who would sustain social and moral order if not God? One of the first to provide an answer was the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Humans, Hobbes insisted, are innately not social but egotistical beings, driven by self-interest. In the state of nature, humans were constantly at war.

To find peace and protection, individuals established a "social contract", handing over their liberty to a central power that had absolute authority to maintain order. Fear, not cooperation, drove humans to establish society.

Enlightenment thinkers, Pagden argues, built on Hobbes's critique of scholasticism, and appropriated his account of society, but rejected his vision of human nature. They restored instead the idea of humans as social beings, but freed from theology. Central to this project was the notion of "sentiment": an innate understanding of our common humanity, and of our instinctive desire to feel sympathy.

The idea of sympathy allowed philosophers to give "humankind an identity independent of God" without embracing a Hobbesian view of human nature. "The shift from 'selfishness' to 'sentiment'" provided a means of "recognizing all peoples as of equal worth, and of embracing some kind of common good". The highest expression of this development lies, for Pagden, in Kant's vision of "a society of the citizens of the world": a vision he sees as underpinning international law and institutions such as the UN and the EU.

Both Pagden's retelling of the Enlightenment story, and his defence of cosmopolitanism, are cogent and important. But over the past decade traditional accounts of the Enlightenment have been challenged by the historian Jonathan Israel in an outstanding trilogy of books. Israel sees not Hobbes but the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza as the key figure in establishing an alternative to scholasticism. There were, Israel insists, two Enlightenments, mainstream and Radical. Mainstream thinkers, such as Kant, Voltaire and Hume, accepted compromises with the old order, and were wary of pushing too far ideas of liberty and democracy.

The Radical Enlightenment, drawing inspiration from Spinoza, "sought to sweep away existing structures", insisting that politics and morality had to be grounded on a "radical egalitarianism". The different accounts reveal again that how we frame the Enlightenment has significance well beyond the history books.

'Multiculturalism and its Discontents' by Kenan Malik is published by Seagull Books

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam