The 18th-century Enlightenment celebrated human individualism and the ability of the mind to understand and determine the course of human events. Empowered by Descartes's radical affirmation of the human intellect ("I think, therefore I am") and the essentially limitless capacity of scientific inquiry, Western European thinkers broke away from medieval tradition, proclaiming knowledge to be rational, theoretical, scientific, and universal. Masters of their own fate, they sought to identify forms of knowledge useful for social development and personal prosperity.
Daniel Roche, a Sorbonne history professor, explores the effects of this movement in France from the perspective of the men and women who experienced it, comparing and integrating points of view that historians have usually kept separate. Foregrounding possible connections between facts of intellectual and material culture, Roche centers his study around three primary relationships: that of social roles and government action, of the monarchical state to its subjects and corporations, and, finally, of the fundamental values of the period to those of the preceding century.
France in the Enlightenment is not meant to provide an entry-level introduction to the period. Roche, who has devoted his academic career to this era, assumes his reader possesses a fundamental knowledge of its major thinkers and events and, with his enthusiastic, in-depth treatment of the subject matter, can overload the reader with detail. Arthur Goldhammer's English translation is seamless, yet it faithfully reproduces Roche's discursive sidetracks along with his insights. For those already familiar to the period, France in the Enlightenment provides a highly informative compendium and a compelling analysis of the diverse individuals, events, and ideas of 18th-century France. --Bertina Loeffler