Soundbite: Lightening Up


Ten years in the making and boasting more than 300 contributors, Oxford University Press' new Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment is one of the most ambitious and important reference works to be published in recent years. Edited by University of Pennsylvania historian and reason Contributing Editor Alan Charles Kors, the four-volume, 2,000-page Encyclopedia redefines the Enlightenment as "the long eighteenth century" (the 1670s through the early 1800s).

The contributors also expand the geographical boundaries of the Enlightenment by discussing intellectual, political, cultural, and technological discoveries from "the Urals to the west coast of South America," says Kors, who is also president of the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and co-author of the 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. The result is a great summing up of the period that still underwrites the modern world. Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie talked with Kors in March.

Q: Why an encyclopedia of the Enlightenment?

A: The past generation of scholars has produced a remarkable flowering of new research in terms of revising and deepening our understanding of certain figures, works, and movements, and asking new questions. The Enlightenment has also come under attack as something that has restricted the freedom of the civilization in which it occurred. In fact, it was an extraordinary movement that was about the liberation of the human mind and human choices and human knowledge. It was above all else a rejection of the presumptive authority of the past, not a rejection of authority per se but of arbitrary authority whose sole claim was its having stood the test of time.

Q: Where did the Enlightenment come up short?

A: It's greatly exaggerated by people from the cultural right and left, but some Enlightenment figures believed in the ability to construct by reason alone blueprints for human life and society. In my own view, the problem was not something the Enlightenment thought it solved but something it inadequately identified as a burning issue. The Enlightenment identified problems of human life in need of reform—the need for religious tolerance, abolition of torture, improving agriculture, ending privileges of birth, for instance—without thinking about power. Enlightenment thinkers were more interested in outcomes than in what limits were placed on even beneficent reformist power.

Q: Who are your favorite Enlightenment figures?

A: Denis Diderot and David Hume. One of my great delights is that two men so extraordinarily different admired each other wonderfully.