Epicurean and stoic enlightenments: the return of modern paganism?

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In his two-volume work The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966–1969), Peter Gay sought to show how a ‘small flock’ of ‘modern pagans’ had ushered in the modern era within intellectual history by employing classical learning to ‘free themselves from their Christian heritage’. Gay's book remains one of Enlightenment studies' most ambitious syntheses, but it has often received short shrift from historians. Robert Darnton provided a scathing review shortly after publication, and the next 30 years saw Gay's dialectical method and sweeping European narrative fall out of favour. Instead, analyses increasingly sought to present the Enlightenment as a group of discreet cultural networks tied to particular locales rather than an international movement in the history of ideas. This article argues, however, that the 21st century has seen a renewed interest in paganism, with a range of studies, including major works by Pierre Force, John Robertson and Christopher Brooke, concerning themselves with the Epicurean and Stoic foundations of 18th-century thought. While clearly alert to the ‘social history of ideas’ pioneered by the previous generation of historians, the work of such writers has been characterised by its desire to formulate genealogies which are international in scope and primarily focused on defining the philosophes' intellectual achievements. My discussion will trace the historiographical origins of this ‘pagan turn’ (or rather return) and look at its role in a series of interconnected debates concerning the origins, scope and significance of the European Enlightenment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)486-495
Number of pages10
JournalHistory Compass
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes


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