“The Secular Enlightenment” by Margaret Jacob— A New Look

Jacob, Margaret. “The Secular Enlightenment”, Princeton University Press, 2019. A New Look Amos Lassen Margaret Jacob’s “The Secular Enlightenment” is a major new history of how the Enlightenment transformed people’s everyday lives. We look at the radical ways that life changed for the ordinary person as the philosophies of historic figures such as Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau took hold. We hear from voices that have been largely unheard until now and these include  freethinkers and freemasons, French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers. The new secular outlook “was not a wholesale rejection of Christianity but rather a new mental space in which to encounter the world on its own terms.” We go to London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Turin, and Naples to read rare archival materials that show how ideas central to the emergence of secular democracy touched all facets of daily life. What was once considered sin becomes seen through the eyes of the social sciences which now appeared on the scene. It seems that now people went to church to admire the architecture rather than to pray and God took a back seat to reading a newspaper or an erotic book on Sunday mornings. The secular-minded looked for their own temporal and commercial well-being without concern for an afterlife and considered their personal  successes as the rewards for their actions. Their failures were seen as the result of blind economic forces. In “The Secular Enlightenment” we clearly see how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe and spilled into the American colonies, leaving a lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come. Writer Jacob has done fantastic research to bring us this new understanding. Basically she is concerned with the social history of the Enlightenment and how it was experienced by everyone and not just by its luminaries.

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