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The British 18th Century Enlightenment

Fifty years ago a historian asked about the British Enlightenment might have answered ‘What enlightenment?’. Hobsbawm regarded the enlightenment as a conspiracy of white men in wigs providing the intellectual foundation for imperialism. But more recent historians have developed an important understanding of how the enlightenment functioned in the UK: recently Roy Porter has transformed our apprehension of the eighteenth century and J.G. A. Pocock a little earlier developed a clear view of the considerable intellectual ideas of the period. This lecture will argue that cultural, political and religious developments in 18th century Britain have left a lasting legacy on the intellectual foundations of today’s humanism.

Hume had one of the finest minds of the era – or any era – and was especially impressive in writing about miracles or atheism. Gibbon changed thinking completely in writing a secular account of early Christianity in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There were the profound thinkers and the activists. Wilkes in his struggle for free speech and struggle with Parliament and Paine in his emphasis on the rights of man and the need to write critically about the Bible had followers who led to conflict and long term development of an understanding of human rights. Methodism was the most dynamic strand of religion with an emphasis on good works – one of which was for some the abolition of the sale of slaves. Conway, who became the leader of SPES in the nineteenth century trained as a Methodist and became an itinerant Methodist preacher and vigorous campaigner against the slave system.

Individual thinkers have their impact, but the underlying changes in society were also important. Eighteenth century Britain was a place with much poverty and hardship, but there was growing wealth and leisure, a burgeoning press for newspapers and books, a really important spread of scientific ideas and activities. By the end of the century the undercurrents and individual intellects had transformed society. Wollstonecraft and Godwin were able to provide a completely new way of looking at the world. The eighteenth century enlightenment was a key stage on the road to twenty-first century humanism.

Jim Herrick is a historian, author and former editor of both New Humanist and The Freethinker. He is currently chair of South Place Ethical Society.



Jim Herrick | talks


Date and Time:

26 June 2011 at 11:00 am


1 hour



Conway Hall
Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square
0207 242 8034

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