Grim Database – Obscure texts from the Enlightenment

When most people talk about the age of enlightenment they are usually referring to a period in 18th century European history when logic and reason rose to supremacy. During this important period of cultural growth, public intellectuals like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire dedicated themselves to solving perennial human dilemmas. They and their contemporaries gathered in salons and coffeehouses and exchanged volumes of letters in the name of sharing knowledge and improving the human condition. Dan Edelstein, a Stanford French professor, has been exploring an aspect of the Age of Enlightenment that is less familiar to most, the so-called “dark side” of the enlightenment. He described the differentiating factors. “The prevailing understanding of the enlightenment is one in which there was only scientific and rational thinking, but there was also a significant number of people contributing to the enlightenment who were absorbed in dubious scholarly pursuits like alchemy, mythology, astrology and secret societies.”

The Super-Enlightenment: From Imagined Civilizations to Solar Mythology

After learning about these fringe scholars, Professor Edelstein started to refer to their contributions as the “Super-Enlightenment” because they saw themselves as engaging in the same intellectual projects as their more conformist peers. Edelstein partnered with scholars from UC Berkeley, Washington University, UCLA, Kings College London, and other institutions to learn more about these unconventional figures, and more specifically how much their ideas and arguments really diverged from those of the canonical enlightenment figures. “The more time I spent reading these curious works, the more I realized that my familiar Enlightenment friends were sometimes up to the same tricks,” Edelstein recounts. Among the texts that Edelstein and his team came across were a series of letters written by Jean-Sylvain Bailly, a respected astronomer and subsequently the first mayor of Paris during the French Revolution, to Voltaire, the most famous philosophe. Bailly wrote a history of early astronomy, in which he postulated that a fictional society that once lived near the North Pole, called the Atlanteans, invented all of the sciences. Edelstein explained that through an odd intermediary (Madame Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy), this myth of a “Hyperborean Atlantis” became a touchstone of Nazi ideology. According to Edelstein, one of the most notorious among this crowd of unorthodox philosophes is Adam Weishaupt, the law professor, champion of Enlightenment philosophy, and founder of the infamous Illuminati, for whom he invented mysterious Masonic rituals in order to better do battle with the Jesuits. Edelstein said there were many notable “Super-E” characters, “One also thinks of Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Protestant, Mason, and Physiocratic antiquarian, author of the nine-volume ‘Monde primitif’ that sought to ‘supplement the Encyclopedie’ and launched a craze for solar mythology. Franz Anton Mesmer is another emblematic figure, one who desperately and futilely sought out scientific and medical recognition for his ‘animal magnetism.'”

Did fringe scholars influence the enlightenment?

The examination of the numerous texts and letters attributed to Super Enlightenment authors like these revealed that in many instances their works and ideas did in fact reach the thought leaders of the day. This raised the interesting question of how Enlightenment principles could coexist, seemingly without difficulty, with those lasting currents of mysticism, magic, mythical speculation, and hermeticism that persisted throughout the eighteenth century.

Creating an Online Database to Share Rare Texts and Further Research

Together with the help of Sarah Sussman, the Curator for French and Italian collections at Stanford University Library, Edelstein set out to create a database of these lesser-known texts so that he and others could easily plumb their content and identify their main characteristics. The hope is that by making these works available as a searchable corpus they will open up new paths of research for an array of scholars at Stanford and around the world. Edelstein is also editing a volume of essays on the Super-Enlightenment, which will be published in early 2010 by the Voltaire Foundation, at the University of Oxford. The site features a collection of about three dozen rare works in French written between 1716 and 1835, covering mythology, alchemy, religion, free-masonry, science, and other topics, with accompanying bio-bibliographical essays by specialists in the field. Rather than rejecting what we commonly think of as Enlightenment ideas and paradigms, these esoteric texts explore many of the same themes. The beta version of the website was launched in April, 2009 and should be fully functional, with 10 new texts by late 2009. At first glance, further study of the Super-Enlightenment may not seem like an area that can expand the of the Age of Enlightenment body of knowledge. But in fact, a better understanding of the influences of these seemingly occult philosophers will likely provide a better window onto the history of ideas and practices of this pivotal period in human history.

The Database

The Age of Philosophy saw a surge of interest in empirical science, humanistic inquiry, and cosmopolitan societies. It also witnessed a surprising fascination with ancient mythologies, alchemy, divine arcana, and secret societies. Did this dark side of the Enlightenment have anything in common with the rational undertakings of the day, or was it a remnant from times past? This digital archive will allow students and scholars to explore the strange, yet uncannily familiar, writings of French authors who went beyond John Locke’s famed “limits of human understanding,” in order to investigate the mysterious perimeters of knowledge — but often progressed with the same wit and epistemological concerns as Parisian philosophes. The ideas and practices of these writers (often dismissed as “illuminist”) may thus best be understood as constituting a sort of “Super-Enlightenment,” a category which begs a larger, open question: did the more orthodox Enlightenment thinkers ever cross over to the other side themselves?

A Digital Archive

The Super-Enlightenment database contains thirty-six texts, written in French between 1716 and 1835 (for a full list, click on texts in any menu). Some of these, such as Antoine Court de Gébelin’s nine-volume Monde primitif, were widely read in their time; others, such as the abbé Larudan’s Les francs-maçons écrasés, are more emblematic of the shadowy demi-monde of eighteenth-century intellectual intrigue. Taken as a corpus, they offer a fair representation of the disparate and unorthodox interests of the age: Mesmer’s memoir on animal magnetism, Bailly’s letters on the myth of Atlantis, Morelly’s blueprint for a natural utopia, or Pernety’s alchemical interpretation of Egyptian mythology all shed light on obscured corners of philosophical inquiry during the Enlightenment. Using full-text word searches, scholars can know explore these works and themes much more easily; we have also included a number of biographical sketches that will introduce some of our lesser-known characters to a wider audience (see under authors).

NB: The current site is a beta version. Not all of the texts are presently available for consultation. We will be adding full functionality on the search page later in 2009. For the moment, to search a text, please download the PDF and use the built-in Acrobat search function.

What is the Super-Enlightenment?

This database is also designed to test a thesis, namely that the border between canonical Enlightenment authors and writers working in the shadows of rational thought is porous and shifting. To return to the examples listed above, Bailly was a respected astronomer, member of the Académie royale des sciences, and correspondent of Voltaire; Morelly’s utopian Code de la nature was long attributed to Diderot; and Pernety compared his efforts to those of Buffon and Geoffroy, since they all sought simply to “force Nature to reveal some of her secrets.” Even Mesmer, as Jessica Riskin has shown in Science in the Age of Sensibility, was ultimately more faithful to the Enlightenment’s sensationalist credo than the committee charged with investigating his practices. For this reason, we have chose the term “Super-Enlightenment” to designate the individuals, texts, and practices that are contained or described in this database. The prefix “super-” acknowledges that these texts pass beyond the usual boundaries of Enlightenment thought; but nonetheless, this label re-orients these texts back towards the intellectual movement that provides their point of departure and their principle interlocutors. In so doing, we are able to emphasize two important points. Firstly, that “hermetic” and orthodox philosophers often shared an identical epistemological framework: both are equally concerned with the risk of human error, and both acknowledge Nature as the supreme arbitrator of truth. If Super-Enlightenment authors and ringleaders seem to place a greater emphasis on traditional authority, a closer examination of the uses of authority by the philosophes shows them to rely considerably on tradition, as well. But the concept of a Super-Enlightenment allows us, secondly, to maintain other distinctions, between, for instance, different types of sociability (e.g., Masonic lodges such as the Loge des Neuf Sœurs, and the Bavarian Illuminati), different kinds of philosophers (Voltaire vs. Saint-Martin), and even different moments in a single œuvre (e.g., the Kant of the categorical imperative and the Kant of the “aesthetic ideas,” capable of penetrating the super-sensible world). This term suggests, in other words, that the philosophes and the educated elites could practice enlightened science, philosophy, and morals without necessarily throwing themselves into mythical fantasy, but also that it was dangerously easy to pass super-, into a speculative realm no longer grounded by empirical inquiry.

For a more in-depth discussion of the Super-Enlightenment, and a series of case studies, we invite the reader to consult the companion volume to this database, entitled The Super-Enlightenment: Daring to Know Too Much, edited by Dan Edelstein. This volume will be published in 2010 by the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford University as an issue of its journal SVEC.

STANFORD, Calif., June 16 (AScribe Newswire)


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