ENLIGHTENMENT AND POLITICAL FICTION:
THE EVERYDAY INTELLECTUAL
(New York/London: Routledge, 2016).
Advanced, theoretical ideas can be found in the most unlikely books. A handful of books—sometimes surprising ones—not only entertain the reader but also contribute to new ways of seeing the world. Indeed, some theorists explicitly cite literature. Adam Smith, for example, makes repeated references to Voltaire, and Marx later claims numerous literary sources, including Don Quixote. Why, though, should an historian of ideas direct sustained scholarly attention to literature? And what, exactly, beyond high entertainment, should anyone not in literary studies expect when reading great fiction?
To address these questions, I examine the particular textures and peculiarities of thought in five famous works of fiction, written from 1600-1850: Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605, 1615, in Spanish); Grimmelshausen, Simplicissimus (1668, 1699, in German); Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726, 1735 in English); Voltaire, Candide (1759, in French); and Manzoni, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1825-1827, 1840-1842, in Italian). I have found a web of text-based, interrelated ideas that are attributed to the Enlightenment, and yet that existed considerably before the early-modern period, and, in many cases, that lasted well into our own time. Ideas ascribed to later thinkers—for example, John Locke, in the late seventeenth century, on private property—can be found in much earlier works of fiction. In this case, however, Locke himself acknowledged his debt to Cervantes, but this has been forgotten, as few modern readers read both the theory and the fiction of the past. The five works of fiction examined here, from five different languages, therefore, not only reflect European Enlightenment thinking, but in some cases they helped to create it.
Overall I argue that access to political and economic theory by way of fiction made it possible for any person, even someone beyond traditional scholarly circles, to become part of an ongoing, vital academic debate. Enlightenment and Political Fiction: The Everyday Intellectual is designed as an homage to E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) by telling the story of the making of the everyday intellectual. The stress here is on the abstract theory to be found in a few famous works of fiction, ideas presented in a format highly attractive to contemporary (and later) readers, yet also exhibited in a manner that showed respect for the intelligence of the average reader. Extrapolating from Thompson, I argue that it was not passive reception but active participation of readers—including those who listened to the book read out loud—that fostered Enlightenment from below. The decision to engage in this intellectual debate, grounded in ideas often first found in fiction, and much of it featuring less-than-gifted central characters, allowed everyday people—the vast majority of whom were wholly removed from both salons and universities—to participate in the questioning and eventually the decision-making of their own states. This led to greater political participation, which is often cited as one of the indicators of the shift to the modern age.
Looking at fiction alongside philosophy, political theory, and the history of economic thought enriches our notion of theorizing, and shifts our understanding about which texts should be addressed. Authors, in the midst of developing theories, take their source materials from ideas in their own cultures and then systematize particular concepts. In some cases, nascent political and economic ideas appear first in literature, as in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and, in other cases, theorists deliberately used literature to propound their theories to a much wider audience, as in Voltaire’s Candide, which might be considered a novelization of moral theory. It is not that the former case—abstract ideas breaking through first in fiction—is the rule in this period, and the latter—theorists manipulating fiction for their own purposes—the exception, but rather that there is a dialectical relationship between fiction and theory in the long eighteenth century.