An Age of Reason: The Encyclopedic Century

The Great AwakeningThis sequence of assignments comes from my introductory "Modern Europe and U.S. I" course. You will note that it takes students far more deeply into the Enlightenment than is usual for an introductory course. In part this is possible because we can build upon work we have already done, especially with art. By this stage of the course, students are used to looking at paintings and expect to make connections between art and other developments. They are also accustomed to the notion of genius as it developed from the Renaissance and have just completed units on the Scientific Revolution and on the Stamp Act Crisis between Great Britain and its American colonies, during which we made numerous references to the Age of Reason. In part we can go more deeply because students can choose their own paths into the materials. The first class poses a straightforward task: How did Voltaire present Newton? The next pushes the envelope. It asks students to compare Voltaire's and Mandeville's differing notions of Nature. The challenge here is coming to grips with Mandeville's sardonic, mocking tone. Students can work with either his notorious poem or with his essay, written afterwards as a sort of formal explanation of his ideas. Then we remind ourselves that deists did not have the eighteenth century to themselves by turning to the Great Awakening in the American colonies. Our link here is Benjamin Franklin, himself a philosopher and an admirer (of a sort) of Mandeville who also hosted George Whitefield, the great Methodist revival preacher, when he visited Philadelphia. Then we finish this segment of the course by looking at how Adam Smith sanitized Mandeville's ideas by casting them in a Newtonian mold.

The web provides students easier access to primary documents -- such as these essays by Voltaire (from my own site), Mandeville, and Adam Smith -- helping to cut some of the financial and labor costs involved in obtaining printed material.

The Grumbling Hive


1. Barzun, “The Encyclopedic Century”

2. Voltaire, Letter XV, “On Attraction,” from English Letters (1736)

3. Voltaire, “On Religion,” from Philosophical Dictionary (1764)

4. Bernard Mandeville, “The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves Turn’d Honest” (later republished as “The Fable of the Bees” or Bernard Mandeville, “An Inquiry into the Origin of Moral Virtue

Adam Smith, The Wages of Labour5. Adam Smith, “The Wages of Labour,” from The Wealth of Nations (1776)
6. McClymer, The Great Awakening

Nov. 24: Discussion of the impact of Newton; as Barzun points out, it was Voltaire who popularized Newton in France, demolishing the influence of Descartes in the process. What, according to “On Attraction,” were Newton’s principal accomplishments? Submit notes.


Dec. 1: Discussion of “On Religion” and Mandeville’s “Hive”; Voltaire presented Deism as a sort of natural religion whereas Mandeville presented Nature as an indiscriminate collection of urges. Submit notes discussing their competing understandings of nature.

On Attraction by VoltaireDec. 3:  A Sidelong Glance at the “Great Awakening”
History, especially cultural history, does not proceed along one continuous line of development. One of the clearest cases in point is the enormous religious revival which spread across the Anglo-American world in the 1730s and 1740s, the “Great Awakening.” However rapidly Deism and then agnosticism were gaining adherents among the intellectual elites, evangelical Protestantism gained far more among ordinary folk.  We will work with the website your instructor created for Prentice Hall.  Submit answers to the questions found on that site.

Dec. 5: Back to the “Encyclopedic Century”
Discussion of Mandeville and Smith; Smith generalized Mandeville’s argument that a sort of “natural law” governed marketplace transactions, including wages. Use Mandeville, either the poem or the essay on the origins of moral virtue, to annotate Smith’s discussion of wages.