The Age of Philosophy saw a surge of interest in empirical science, humanistic inquiry, and cosmopolitan societies. It also witnessed a 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 allows students and scholars to explore the writings of French authors who went beyond John Locke's famed "limits of human understanding" to investigate the mysterious parameters of knowledge--and who often did so with the same wit and epistemological concerns as Parisian philosophes. The ideas and practices of these writers (often dismissed as "illuminist") constitute a sort of "Super-Enlightenment," a category that begs a larger question: did the more "orthodox" Enlightenment thinkers ever cross over to the other side themselves?
A Digital Archive
The Super-Enlightenment database contains 36 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 18th-century intellectual intrigue. Together, they represent 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, and 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 lesser-known characters to a wider audience (see authors).
What is the Super-Enlightenment?
This database is also designed to test a thesis: 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, a member of the Académie royale des sciences, and a correspondent of Voltaire; Morelly's utopian Code de la nature was long attributed to Diderot; 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 use the term "Super-Enlightenment" to designate the individuals, texts, and practices contained and described in this database.
The prefix "super-" acknowledges that these texts pass beyond the usual boundaries of Enlightenment thought; nonetheless, this label re-orients these texts back towards the intellectual movement that provides their point of departure and their principle interlocutors. In doing this, we emphasize two important points. First, "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 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.
The concept of a Super-Enlightenment also allows us 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). The term "Super-Enlightenment" suggests, in other words, that the philosophes and 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, The Super-Enlightenment: Daring to Know Too Much, edited by Dan Edelstein (2010).