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 the Browse all exhibit items category). 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 BIO-BIBLIOGRAPHICAL ESSAYS).
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, published in 2010 by the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford University as an issue of its journal SVEC. For the Stanford community, this work is available in digital form in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment Online.
All essays were originally published in 2006, no updates to contents or to professional affiliations have been made.
Special thanks to Zachary Chandler for the graphic design of the original site, and to Richard Wittman for conceptual input.
Additional funding for the original project was provided by the Research Unit of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL), of Stanford University.
Thanks as well to the following institutions for permission to include their materials in this digital collection: Princeton University Library; the Château d’Oron; Éditions d’histoire sociale internationale (EDHIS); the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.