Ritchie Robertson in The Spectator:
History used to be so much easier. There were the Wars of the Roses, then the Reformation, the Civil War, the Enlightenment and finally the Victorians. Each one had its own century and its distinctive tag. Throw in Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, garnish with a few zealots and adventurers, some glorious triumphs and some grisly deaths. It was all part of our Island Story. You knew where you were.
Take the Enlightenment, for example. Everyone knew that this was the Age of Reason: the moment when science finally started to impose order and banish religion. The French rationalists had their heyday, Voltaire, the philosophes and all that, before they were vanquished by the Scottish empiricists David Hume and Adam Smith and the great commercial acceleration of the late 18th century. As for the English, they did not make much of an appearance, alas. And the French got their comeuppance, as reason got out of control and led to the Age of Revolutions, blood on the streets of Paris and Madame la Guillotine. Or something like that. Still, it ended up well because of the inevitable progress of history and here we all are. These schoolboy caricatures have long been exploded, of course. But the caricatures had their uses: they were simple, memorable, easy to teach and, in their breadth, an invitation to further inquiry.
Now, however, the academics have had their revenge. Was there really an Enlightenment at all, in any distinctive sense? Was it a movement of ideas, or something more organised? Does it make sense to talk of the Enlightenment, or were there plural enlightenments? Was it radical or moderate, or both? Science or Art? Reason or Religion? A host of recent books have addressed these questions. What has energised debate still further is the degree to which the Enlightenment — always a controversial idea — has become more widely contested and politicised. In particular, the tendency to project modern obsessions back into the past, to find origins and make judgments based on contemporary values, has been pervasive.