The Society of the Enlightenment is a useful elucidation of the various social gathering organizations established in Germany during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Histories of the Enlightenment reflect a range of approaches from theoretical depictions of cultural patterns and development, to narratives that tell an exciting chronological story with characters from history struggling to introduce reason in a superstitious and conservative society. Richard van Dulman’s offering is more on the theoretical end of the spectrum. He presents an evolutionary model where organizations develop through three phases over time. It is not so theoretical that the reader will find herself in a web of ungrounded, abstract thought. In each chapter, after the phase is described, Dulman presents detailed examples of organizations. He employs primary source records from individual group archives. In this way, the reader sees a vivid picture of what these gatherings were like socially and functionally. Despite the usual problems of records becoming scattered after the demise of an organization, Dulman is able to provide an impressive 18 pages of footnotes at the end of a study that is only 143 pages, indicating a fulsome picture of the institutions he examines.
Phase One begins in the 17th Century, with Learned and Literary Societies that are important antecedents to Enlightenment clubs. Their chief goal was to expand personal and elite knowledge. While outside of the organization, there existed an unequal divide between middle class and aristocratic individuals, within the organization, members “were answerable only to truth and reason.” (Dulman, p. 31). This attitude created an environment where the two classes could meet and discuss ideas as peers, where “force of argument alone was decisive.” (Dulman, p. 49). Some organizations, even included women in their membership despite a general prejudice in society and academia that women were intellectually inferior. (Dulman, p. 47). One should not think of these organizations as entirely liberal or politically egalitarian. During this phase, the researcher found that Learned and Literary Societies “excluded the common people” of the worker/peasant class. (Dulman, p. 49). Their main contributions are in a structure that encouraged evaluation of individuals based on performance rather than class, and a learning process based on reason over tradition or superstition.
Phase Two organizations began appearing “around the middle of the 18th Century. While maintaining a commitment to expanding personal knowledge, these organizations also “contained some elements of middle class reformism.” Two types of societies developed along these lines: secret societies like the Freemasons and “the so-called patriotic and public-spirited societies.” Freemasonry “aimed to create a private moral world independent of the state and the Church in which to further the development of men…in accordance with the laws of enlightened reason. Public-spirited societies functioned “openly…in the interests of the common good…by means of practical proposals and reformist endeavors.” Neither form of organization represented a challenge to absolutism. Most members could not conceive of a system without a ruling prince. They saw themselves as acting “on behalf of the state.” (Dulman, p. 52). The kinds of reforms they promoted ranged from establishing schools based on reason and science, to proposing improved forms of agriculture. Modifications to the state itself were not a concern.
It was only in Phase Three, late in the 18th Century, under the conditions of “absolutism in crisis,” when organizations developed which “no longer blindly accepted that their socio-political aspirations could be fulfilled by a benevolent prince. They were progressive reformers in their own right” who “founded associations which were independent of, or co-existed alongside, established state institutions. Indeed, they even displayed a tendency to oppose the state’s claim to be the sole legitimate source of authority.” (Dulman, p. 82). These forms persisted through the end of the century and gained influence once Napoleon expanded his sphere into the German territories.
It is of marginal importance that this version of the book is a translation from the original German. Translations are most important to creative writing where artistry is necessarily altered in the process. In non-fiction, as long as a translation does not change the author’s original meanings, its’ impact is of little consequence.
Dulman’s scholarly gifts are not only in regard to his stamina for research. In addition, he is able to analyze the successes or failures of the organizations he examines with care and balance. It is not uncommon for a secular historian to become overly-enthusiastic, about the early attempts of secular/scientific intellectual movements, to the point of overlooking imperfections. The author does not fall prey to this tendency. For example, in his depiction of the Bavarian Academy of Science, Dulman is able to discern that “in general, the academy conducted its scientific activity in an unspectacular manner,” (Dulman, p. 37), while later showing its positive aspect as “a forum for public debate which pursued a policy of Enlightenment” and, particularly with regard to public education, “contributed to the successes achieved by the advocates of the policy of enlightened reform.” (Dulman, pp. 38-9). This ability of discernment makes The Society of the Enlightenment an exceptional addition our knowledge of this period in Germany, providing realistic portraits of the era’s organizations.
Dulman, Richard van. The Society of the Enlightenment. The Rise of the Middle Class and Enlightenment Culture in Germany. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.