Quentin de la Bedoyere on a book of essays about the 18th century which hangs its conclusions on an unusual peg — George Washington's teeth
George Washington's False Teeth by Robert Darnton, W.W. Norton £16.95
The term sans culottes does not imply that the rabble of the French Revolution ran around naked from the waist downwards, merely that they eschewed a type of breeches which had bourgeois connotations. But George Washington was sans dents, and his numerous sets of false teeth, none of which — despite popular belief — were wooden, have become part of American folklore. And through this rather tenuous link Robert Darnton's book of eclectic essays on the 18th century seeks to reconnect modern Americans to the history of ideas which are the progenitors of their modern values and assumptions. The book is appropriately subtitled "An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century".
Darnton is an Enlightenment purist, preferring to confine the term to a relatively small but influential movement centred on France, and best known through such names as Diderot, the editor of the Encyclopidie, Condorcet and of course Voltaire. He is entitled to his narrow focus, despite the arrogation of the term by the major centres of learning and discovery throughout the Western world, for there were many other influences which created the intellectual upsurge of the time. Ironically the English philosopher, John Locke, had given an intellectual foundation to the rationality and rights of human nature in the previous century, just as Newton had done for science.
But it is easy to compile a list of influences. The reality is that a multiplicity of factors coalesce over time to form the critical mass which becomes an identifiable and comprehensive movement: the idea whose time has come. But this labelling has its.own dangers: we may think of these periods, the Renaissance for example, as something which occurred between specific dates and with easily assignable characteristics. In reality, the metaphor of the incoming tide which builds up to the occasional big wave is more appropriate. The big waves swell and retreat, but the tide keeps coming in. Anyone who thinks that reason began with the Age of Reason forgets the whole erudition of medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophy, to say nothing of the Greeks.
The flaw in the Enlightenment was not reason itself but in its ele
vation to unique status as the Golden Calf of progress. God shrank to a remote, irrelevant being, before disappearing altogether. Reason was the panacea which would introduce some new utopian age. Its first blood-red fruit was greeted by Wordsworth with "Bliss was it in that dawn to
be alive"; we know it as the French Revolution. Ironically many of those, such as Brissot, leader of the Girondins, who were champions of the new, perfectible, republican man, died for their moderation on the guillotine.
But the wave of the Enlightenment by no means retreated without trace, and this is an important theme which Darnton follows.
Much of what we believe about the purpose of man in society, and the rights which flow therefrom, originated in the 18th century. The concept of political government whose rights cannot supersede the interests of the governed found a voice at that time. Even the concept of a Europe which, despite internecine wars, is at heart a cultural unity was foreshadowed by the Enlightenment. And the high importance of reason, applied to observable or discoverable facts, is the basis_of scientific development and the eradication of superstition. Arguably, it has acted as a bulwark, in Western culture, against the cruelties and stultification of fundamentalism. But we should not forget another lesson that the 18th century taught us: that the apotheosis of any one of these admirable values can lead in the end to disaster.
As we ride on the crest of the wave we think for the moment that we are masters of the ocean. But there are other big waves before it from which it has drawn its force, and other big waves behind.
part of Darnton's agenda is. to demonstrate curious and arcane features of the period. And very odd some of them are, too. We learn a bit about dentistry (who would go back in Lime unaccompanied by a modern dentist?), about how information and rumour spread in France and made its contribution to the destruction of the court. There is much about Rousseau, including his disreputable youth, and much about America described enthusiastically by Frenchmen, many of whom had never been there. And there is much about Brissot, a formidable leader of moderate reform, who seems to have moonlighted as a police spy; one might as well believe that Martin Luther King cheated in his college examinations.
Darnton's final essay considers the historian playing God, imposing shape and pattern on events, and so creating a new reality. If someone so prolific needs another topic, he might explore the significance of the fact that many of the luminaries of the Enlightenment were educated by the Jesuits (who were expelled from France in 1764). A companion essay might trace the particular influence of the Enlightenment on Jesuit thought today. I suspect it to be both strong and beneficial.