Clio Among the Philosophers

In the historiography of the Enlightenment, there was considerable evolutionary continuity as regards the Renaissance-Baroque phase: the progress of erudition (Muratori was one of the outstanding figures), the very marked educational orientation of history, its teleological approach, its cultural relativism, the contributions of leading cultural and social figures, (jurists, librarians, publicists, professors), its diffusion among relatively widespread urban groups – although they continued to be minorities –, in addition to being favoured by the style of great popularizers, such as Hume and Voltaire; and its particular attention to national history.

Yet in the historical works written in the Age of Enlightenment there are certain no less noteworthy innovative features. For this reason, we have the feeling of a way of approaching the past that is quite close, in several respects, to our own present-day conceptions. The most important transformations could be synthesized, perhaps, in three aspects, which will be explained below and which it may be possible to reduce to the conviction that socio-political changes towards more satisfactory forms (with greater freedom and a more rational approach) can and must be favoured by reflections of historical substance (“discourses”, “considerations”, “essays”), supported by formidable erudition that is represented in footnotes.

  We can distinguish, as one of the key differentiating aspects, the clear and self-confident assertion of humanity’s progress towards perfection and worldly happiness (Voltaire, Gibbon) as a thread of history; as a synthesis of the past and a consoling philosophical faith (in the history that has elapsed and for the history that is to be expected). In many cases, such a statement runs the risking of breaking away from the idea of Providence as a guarantor of progress.

Another innovative aspect: was the efforts made to put forward, from the known historical facts (the importance of which was thus accentuated) explicative theories, embryonic in nature, but relatively explicit and formalized, concerning the progressive evolution of human societies (some kind of social physics that did not always avoid the influence of determinism). Demographic and economic realities (especially trade) played an essential role in these reflections (for example in Campmany), in keeping with the growth of such aspects in this period. Montesquieu set the standard in his efforts to construct a science for the human world analogous to that of the physical world. For that reason, it is logical that the former political and factual approach to history was found to be insufficient. In many cases, there was also a preference for studies covering broad periods of time and space, which enabled a more comparative perspective to be adopted: Gibbon chose Rome; Voltaire universal history from Charlemagne; Robertson synthesised medieval European history. 

A third aspect, no less important, distinguished enlightened historiography from that of the Renaissance and Baroque: in general, its authors had a more critical attitude towards the established monarchical power and were slightly more independent of it as regards its patronage. More than in the previous period, the philosopher-historians of the Enlightenment contributed with their analysis not only to legitimizing power, but also to the reform (to a greater or lesser degree) of the same, as regards the (ideological and material) objectives that it pursued and as regards the groups that exercised it. The fact that liberals, Marxist socialists and many Christians could identify themselves with a substantial proportion of the analyses of Enlightened historiography could be interpreted, at the same time, as evidence for its validity and the ambiguity of its message.

We can conclude with a number of overall considerations. It is well known that there is a series of deep questions and underlying motivations that continually reappear in history, which are revived in that fascinating and interesting exploration, over time, of the shape of human nature. These include the experience of decline and decay, and the desire to last forever; the concurrence of liberty and necessity in the unfolding of events; the enquiry into the existence or lack of progress towards a goal that endows history with sense; the concern about the origins and legitimization of different powers, which is linked with human capability for solidarity and the tendency towards confrontation between people and groups, etc. The persistence of these leitmotivs in human history is, in a way, existential proof of the continuity of one single nature, of a core of common humanity, which to some extent leads us to consider the reports and reflections of Thucydides, of Clarendon and Voltaire, for example, as our own; in fact, undoubtedly doubly so, as both men and as members of the Western European civilization that they have contributed to shaping.

F. Sánchez Marcos