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Dark Side of the Enlightenment


"A Philosopher lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary" by Joseph Wright, 1766

Digital Archive Offers Glimpse into the ‘Dark Side’ of 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 Gébelin, a Protestant, Mason, and Physiocratic antiquarian, author of the nine-volume Monde primitif that sought to “supplement the Encyclopédie” 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 On-line 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.  

For more information, visit: The Super-Enlightenment Project Professor Dan Edelstein’s bio