Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2010

Enlightenment, Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (2003), Edited by Kim Sloan

I’ve just started reading Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, which is a novel about two giants of the Enlightenment in Germany.  I got up to about page 25 and something rustled in the back of the brain – I remembered that I had bought a coffee table book about the Enlightenment a little while ago …

It’s a fabulous book.  The editor, Kim Sloan, makes the point in the introduction that whereas most people know about ‘the Vikings, the Tudors, the Civil War, the American and French Revolutions, the Victorians or the World Wars’ (p13) they know very little about the Enlightenment – and yet it’s the foundation of our modern world!

I knew very little about it myself until my most recent visit to the British Museum and discovered the Enlightenment Gallery.  I enjoyed a talk about it at the Summer School for Teachers in 2008, which you can download if you are interested here: it’s called The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia. I subsequently heard more about it later that year at the History Teachers Conference from Mike Wohltman, a colleague I met at the History Summer School, and a teacher from Marden College in Adelaide. He was passionate about the need to teach students to value reason in decision-making and to use it to combat prejudice and ignorance.

This beautiful book from the British Museum is focussed as you would expect on the British contribution to the Enlightenment so it’s not very helpful in finding out more about the subjects of Kehlmann’s book, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt.  It is, however, lovely to browse through pictures of the objects in the Enlightenment Gallery and more importantly the introduction prompted me to find out more.   It sent me back to my report of Mike’s presentation (see the link above) which reminded me that

  • the motto of the Enlightenment is Sapere aude! which means have the courage to use your own understanding;
  • there are five driving forces: happiness, liberty, nature, reason and progress, and
  • the giants of the Enlightenment  influenced all aspects of C18th life, including politics, intellectual life, culture, society and the economy.

So now I am armed to read on!  (It’s a super book!)

Editor: Kim Sloan
Title: Enlightenment, Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century
Publisher: The British Museum, 2003
ISBN: 9781588341648
Source: Personal library, purchased from Dymocks $29.95.


  1. Looks like a lovely book Lisa. I remember learning about the Enlightenment at school – and then forgot about it for a few decades until both my kids came across it at school/university thus renewing my awareness while I proofread their essays. It was like meeting an old friend that I’d forgotten! I remember learning movements – Renaissance, Enlightenment, Reformation – but the only one that stuck well was the Renaissance!


  2. It is gorgeous. And the essays that go with each chapter are excellent. I’ve only read two so far; this one is going to replace the one about illuminated manuscripts on the bedside table that I’ve been browsing through ever since going to the exhibition. A chapter every now and again on a Sunday morning…


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