How mystics, radicals, and philosophers shared heretical views of the self in 18th-century France.
The traditional consensus on the Enlightenment describes a compellingly simple narrative. It portrays humankind’s emergence from the shadows of blind faith and self-denial to its discovery of a path illumined by reason, utility, and sociability. As the story goes, this passage led to an unprecedented sense of personal and collective agency in a universe where man, rather than God, stood as the principal measure of all things. Along with the possessive, autonomous individual arose the watershed ideologies of liberalism and secularism, sparking revolutions in both the old world and the new.
Of course, nothing—particularly history—is so cut-and-dried, which is where history professor, Charly Coleman, comes in. His new book, The Virtues of Abandon, offers a fundamental reinterpretation of the French Enlightenment. It does so by uncovering the opposing strands of anti-individualist sentiment that ran through the rituals of heretical Christian mystics, the salons of the materialist philosophes, and the French Revolution’s cult of patriotic self-sacrifice. Each of these groups, in their own way, spurned the idea of individual self-ownership in favor of an ideal of dispossession that, while often overlooked, bore an equally crucial influence on thought and experience in eighteenth-century France.
Accepting only the predominant line on the French Enlightenment, with its undue emphasis on triumphant individualism, has had profoundly distorting effects. It not only impoverishes our understanding of a historical moment in which the values that inform the modern world took shape, but also perpetuates a misapprehension of what these ideals have meant and should mean. According to Coleman, the complex interplay between individualist and anti-individualist ideals clarifies both the nature of the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement and also the surprising contingencies that have marked the history of selfhood. In the interest of better understanding this dynamic and its significance, we asked Professor Coleman a few questions about the Enlightenment and anti-individualism.