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  • Published: 26 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9780241523421
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 496
  • RRP: $65.00

The End of Enlightenment


A landmark study of the Enlightenment from an eminent historian

The Enlightenment is popularly seen as the Age of Reason, a key moment in human history when ideals such as freedom, progress, natural rights and constitutional government prevailed. In this radical re-evaluation, historian Richard Whatmore shows why, for many at its centre, the Enlightenment was a profound failure.

By the early eighteenth century, hope was widespread that Enlightenment could be coupled with toleration, the progress of commerce and the end of the fanatic wars of religion that were destroying Europe. At its heart was the battle to establish and maintain liberty in free states – and the hope that absolute monarchies such as France and free states like Britain might even subsist together, equally respectful of civil liberties. Yet all of this collapsed when states pursued wealth and empire by means of war. Xenophobia was rife and liberty itself turned fanatic.

The End of Enlightenment traces the changing perspectives of economists, philosophers, politicians and polemicists around the world, including figures as diverse as David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft. They had strived to replace superstition with reason, but witnessed instead terror and revolution, corruption, gross commercial excess and the continued growth of violent colonialism.

Returning us to these tumultuous events and ideas, and digging deep into the thought of the men and women who defined their age, Whatmore offers a lucid exploration of disillusion and intellectual transformation, a brilliant meditation on our continued assumptions about the past, and a glimpse of the different ways our world might be structured - especially as the problems addressed at the end of Enlightenment are still with us today.

  • Published: 26 March 2024
  • ISBN: 9780241523421
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 496
  • RRP: $65.00

Praise for The End of Enlightenment

In this lucid and beautifully written book, Richard Whatmore evokes the darkening vision of the 18th century thinkers forced to confront the failure of Enlightenment. Instead of achieving perpetual peace and progress, they saw Europe fragment into a collection of warmongering states teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and global turmoil. Whatmore carefully reconstructs the historical context for the failure of Enlightenment and presents it as a powerful echo chamber for our own troubled times. This is a fascinating and important book

Ruth Scurr

As the eighteenth century progressed it was increasingly apparent that the Enlightenment was failing. If religious bigotry was in retreat, new evils advanced: revolution, terror, and greed, fuelling war, exploitation and imperial expansion. Richard Whatmore shows how thinkers from David Hume to Mary Wollstonecraft strove to find solutions to such challenges. This intellectually exhilarating book is particularly relevant today, when liberal democracy is facing new dangers which threaten to drag us back into the darkness once more

Adam Sisman

A brilliant work of intellectual interpretation by our foremost historian of Enlightenment ideas. Whatmore rescues the Enlightenment from today's circular debates and places it where it belongs: in the pulsing, chaotic era of its genesis and demise

Christopher de Bellaigue

The Enlightenment had seemed to promise a limitless bounty of peace, prosperity, rational inquiry and mutual tolerance to a Europe long ravaged by religious fanaticism and war. Why did it come to end in the extreme violence and continental bloodshed of the French Revolution, and how could another such disaster be avoided? Richard Whatmore charts the response to these concerns of many of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century, from Smith and Burke to Wollstonecraft. His book is panoramic in scope, always fresh and deep in its analysis, but with a polemical edge for today’s readers fearful again for our global future

Jesse Norman

This book shows brilliantly how an idea, though it may travel across the centuries, can still be historically located, just like the people who invented it. Invigorating. . . the Enlightenment in Whatmore’s telling is not a staid, steady procession of pompous ideas, but a vital intellectual exercise in making the best of a bad hand. And that’s a lesson for the 21st century too

Robbie Smith, Evening Standard

In a study with chilling modern resonance, the history don contends that the age of reason was betrayed by the greed, corruption and barbarism of Britain’s ruling elite. . . A nuanced history. . . Enlightenment, for Whatmore and the thinkers he so engagingly profiles, had an objective, namely to overcome superstition that had soaked 17th-century Europe in blood

Stuart Jeffries, Observer

Highly intelligent and sensitively written, The End of Enlightenment focuses on post-1750 British and Irish contributors to the movement

Linda Colley, Financial Times

Whatmore approaches the Enlightenment on its own terms. . . There is buried treasure in his account of how figures from different intellectual backgrounds negotiated the Enlightenment crisis. . . Whatmore is to be applauded

History Today

Richard Whatmore serves up eight scintillating portraits of disillusioned thinkers who gave up on the hope of a lasting peace... an ambitious exposition of the British thought-world in the years bookended by the American and French Revolutions

Pranitav Avil, The Times

Excellent... suggests that the Enlightenment ended up devouring those who most believed in it, providing the context for the emergence of Napoleon

Katherine Bayford, Engelsberg Ideas

One of my favourite books on the British Enlightenment... the author captures the tenor of 18th century British debates about liberty very well... Whatmore writes as if he is actually trying to explain things to you! If you read a lot of history books, you will know that this is oddly rare

Tyler Cowan

An exhaustive and fascinating read on how the Enlightenment came to a grizzly end

Miriam Sallon, Reader's Digest

An accomplished exercise in intellectual history

Alexander Faludy, Catholic Herald

The End of Enlightenment is an illuminating, indeed enlightening, exploration of a period that was far more sombre than we may now realise'

Ritchie Robertson, TLS

A brilliant and revelatory book about the history of ideas

David Runciman

Richard Whatmore’s intriguing new book is a study of eight late 18th century figures one would not expect to be brought together... Whatmore has provided a lucid and erudite commentary on an important and little understood moment in British intellectual history. That his key protagonists were so profoundly mistaken in what they thought only adds to the enjoyment

Jeremy Jennings, Critic

Richard Whatmore aims to alter our image of the 18th-century Enlightenment by showing how its heroes anticipated their own failure... A consistent strength of this book is his readiness to capture his subjects in contrary moods... instructive

Literary Review