Two decades ago, while studying in Paris, I stumbled across the wonderful bookstore of the Libre Pensée (“Free Thought”) association. Tucked away in the narrow streets of the Fifth Arrondissement, near where Balzac set Le Père Goriot, it seemed a relic of the past: shabby, dim and cluttered, the gentle odor of old book leather hinting at hidden treasures on the shelves. And indeed, most of the books appeared, delightfully, to have come out of an alternate timeline in which the age of Voltaire had never ended. Thick volumes denounced the hidden conspiracies of the Jesuits and chronicled the crimes of the Inquisition. Pamphlets offered concise defenses of Deism. And a rickety postcard stand displayed, alongside the usual images of the Pantheon and the Seine, engravings of the execution of Jean Calas, an eighteenth-century victim of religious bigotry posthumously exonerated through the efforts of Voltaire. One half expected to see the philosophe himself browsing quietly at the next shelf.
Back then, in the mid-1980s, La Libre Pensée seemed like nothing more than a pleasant curiosity. After all, the great battles of the Enlightenment had burned out long before. Religious intolerance and fanaticism were no longer matters of major concern. Indeed, for many of my French fellow students, the great enemy was the Enlightenment itself. Every week they would cram into a crowded lecture hall at the Collège de France to hear Michel Foucault, then in the last year of his life, explain how the eighteenth century saw the imprisoning of the Western world in a straitjacket of mental discipline. They struggled to grasp the quicksilver sentences in which Jacques Derrida deconstructed the criteria of rationality and truth that eighteenth-century philosophy had taken as axiomatic. They spoke derisively of an Enlightenment that had culminated not in modern democracy but in Auschwitz.
Today, things look rather different. Pace Foucault, enlightened psychiatrists and prison reformers do not seem particularly dangerous compared with suicide bombers and book burners. In the twenty-first century the Enlightenment appears anything but the triumphant imperial “project” denounced by vulgar postmodernists. Its heritage is fragile and endangered. Admittedly, its works remain in the “canon”–but perhaps only because they go largely unread in certain quarters. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, for instance, a public university system asked all entering students to read Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, with its deep, deliberate offensiveness toward Christianity. What if a major studio attempted to film his Mahomet, a play far more systematically disparaging of the Prophet than Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?
If nothing else, though, our own century’s retreat from the Enlightenment should help us appreciate that this great movement of ideas has been a fragile thing all along, and never more than in its supposed eighteenth-century heyday. Its swift apparent triumph in the American and French revolutions makes it easy to forget that its greatest authors constantly ran afoul of the authorities and took great personal risks throughout their careers. Both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as these two excellent new biographies point out, had books officially shredded and burned in Paris–even if, in Voltaire’s case, the responsible official surreptitiously substituted another volume at the last minute, so as to take the offending one home for himself. Roger Pearson reminds us that Voltaire served several stints in prison, lived much of his life in exile from his native France and had to have the sheets of his first great work, the Philosophical Letters, smuggled into Paris in a furniture cart. Even his most famous patron, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, once remarked of him: “I shall have need of him for another year at most, no longer. One squeezes the orange and throws away the peel.” As for Rousseau, Leo Damrosch recalls that the threat of prosecution kept him constantly on the move among France, Switzerland and Britain. “I never get a virtuous or useful idea,” Rousseau wrote to his patron Malesherbes in 1765, “without seeing the gallows or the scaffold before me.”