Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Georgians and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

Immanuel Kant
the German philosopher
who defined the Enlightenment

The eighteenth century is the age of the Enlightenment – the application of reason to all aspects of life. In France it is associated with Voltaire and the other philosophesIn 1784 the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (go here if you want a detailed philosophy tutorial!) published 'Was ist Äufklarung?' (‘What is Enlightenment’?)
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. … Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’,  is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

The origins of the British Enlightenment

The origins go back to the late seventeenth century. Two thinkers above all influenced Georgian Enlightenment thought. Isaac Newton described a universe based on rational principles.  John Locke constructed a theory of knowledge based on the accumulation of ‘impressions’. The human infant was born a ‘tabula rasa’(blank slate) and character was acquired rather than innate.

The Enlightenment in action: smallpox

Georgian doctors were largely ignorant of the causes of diseases and unable to treat illness. However, there was one significant medical advance – the use first of inoculation and later of vaccination.

Inoculation was brought to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire 1717-18. In Turkey she had her son inoculated and when she returned to England her daughter received the same treatment. Both survived.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
by Jonathan Richardson the Younger
Public Domain

However, it took time for inoculation to be accepted. It came from the Muslim world, it was advocated by a woman, and, above all, it was counter-intuitive and risky (though of course less risky than the disease itself). It was first tried -successfully - on seven condemned criminals. It became more acceptable with Caroline, Princess of Wales, a highly intelligent and enlightened woman, had her daughters inoculated in 1722. 

The Wellcome Library has a couple of fascinating letters, written by George I to his daughter, the Queen of Prussia, urging her to inoculate her children. See here for more.

By the end of the Georgian period, inoculation was being replaced by the safer and more reliable vaccination, pioneered by the physician, Edward Jenner. From his observations of milkmaids, who were generally immune to smallpox, Jenner concluded that the mild ‘cowpox’ they contracted gave them immunity. On 14 May 1796 he vaccinated an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, with 'cowpox' from blisters from the hands of a milkmaid who had caught the disease. 

Thanks to the twin treatments of inoculation and vaccination, smallpox was far less of a killer at the end of the Georgian period than it had been at the beginning. Instead, medical science was puzzling over how to treat the newer threats of tuberculosis and cholera.

The Scottish Enlightenment: scepticism, moral philosophy, and economics

Scotland was in the forefront of the Georgian Enlightenment. The union with England in 1707 enhanced the country’s prosperity. The network of parish schools may have made it easier for a poor boy to enter university. The ground-breaking lectures of Francis Hutchinson at Glasgow University put Scotland in the forefront of contemporary philosophy.

David Hume, by Allan Ramsay
Public Domain

In his day, David Hume was best known for his multi-volume History of England, and for his famous quarrel with the paranoid Swiss philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but he is now regarded as the greatest British philosopher. He took a sceptical approach to knowledge, arguing that it is based on experience rather than authority - the philosophical position known as empiricism. His ethical theory, known as sentimentalism, argued that our moral judgements are - and ought to be - based on emotion rather than on dispassionate reasoning. His hostility to Christianity, though cautiously expressed in writings such as the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), made him notorious.

All this is a gross over-simplification! If you want the full works, go to this erudite site.

Hume's great friend, Adam Smith, shared his sentimental philosophy, which he expressed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). But he is most remembered for his enormously influential Wealth of Nations (1776), which argued that it was the free market rather than protectionism that provided the conditions for wealth-creation. He set this out in his famous metaphor of the 'invisible hand'. (The italics in the quotation below are mine.)

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. … he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. … By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The British Museum

The museum as an institution goes back to the Renaissance. Museums were designed to house collections of works of art and other items of cultural or scientific interest. The eighteenth century saw the foundation of museums on a large scale. They frequently housed wealthy men’s cabinets of curiosities and were open to the public.

The Irish-born physician and naturalist, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) bequeathed his collection of over 70,000 curiosities to the nation for a sum of £20,000. On 7 June 1753, King George II gave his formal assent to the Act of Parliament which established the British Museum. The body of trustees decided on a converted 17th-century mansion, Montagu House, as a location for the museum, and the first exhibition galleries and a reading room for scholars opened on 15 January 1759.

Montagu House in 1715
Public domain

The Museum was the first in Europe to be explicitly owned by and open to the public. It was presided over by the Royal Society. There were three main sections of the museum: the gardens, the Reading Room and the exhibition rooms. Initially, all classes of people -but not their dogs- could stroll through the gardens free of charge, but entry soon became restricted to those with written permission from the trustees. The Reading Room, a small room in the basement, was only open to a small scholarly community. There were no published catalogues. For the main collection, free tickets were introduced for which individuals were required to apply in person to the porter, giving their name, address, and social rank. Prospective visitors then had to wait weeks or even months for approval from the trustees. Visiting hours were usually limited to between 9 am and 3 pm and visitors were escorted in groups of five for an hour at the most. There is more on the Museum here.

Exhibits came to include

  1. Sloane’s collection of antiquarian books and manuscripts, paintings and dried plants
  2. George II’s Old Royal Library and with it the right to a copy of every book published in the country
  3. Objects from the South Seas brought back by James Cook
  4. Sir William Hamilton’s collection of Greek vases.

The advance of science

For two excellent accounts of the advance of science, see Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810 (Faber & Faber, 2002) and Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonders: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Harper Press, 2008).

The Lunar Society: In the English Midlands the Enlightenment was seen in the group industrialists, writers and natural philosophers, who met at each other’s houses. In 1775 it gave itself the formal name of the Lunar Society, so-called because its meetings were held at the time of the full moon. Meetings were usually held on the Sunday nearest the full moon from 2 to 8 pm. 

Lunar men included the industrialists, Matthew Boulton, James Watt,  and Josiah Wedgwood, the naturalist, Erasmus Darwin, and the Dissenting radical and chemist, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Many of them were painted by Joseph Wright of Derby, whose 'Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump' (1768) shows the society's fascination with scientific experiment.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Joseph Wright of Derby
National Gallery. Public Domain

Priestley and oxygen: Priestley developed the pneumatic trough, a device for collecting gases over a liquid, which enabled the gases to be handled separately.

Diagram of Priestley's pneumatic trough

In 1771 the Swede Karl Scheele had produced a gas he called ‘fire air’. However, it was Priestley who gained the reputation for the discovery when in 1774 he published the first volume of Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, announcing his discovery of ‘dephlogisticated air’. In Paris in the same year he met Antoine Lavoisier. In 1778 Lavoisier named this gas oxygen. 

Sir Humphry Davy and the Royal Institution

While apprenticed to an apothecary in preparation for reading medicine at Edinburgh, the young Cornishman, Humphry Davy read Lavoisier and then William Nicholson’s Dictionary of Chemistry – a work of popular science. 

In October 1798, he joined the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol. It had been established by Thomas Beddoes to investigate the medical powers of gases, and Davy was to superintend the various experiments. His experiments with laughing gas (nitrous oxide) attracted wide public attention appealing to a Romantic generation eager to experiment with new sensations. But were they science or just entertainment?

In 1799, the American, Count Rumford, had proposed the establishment in London of an 'Institution for Diffusing Knowledge'. A house in Albemarle Street was bought in April 1799, and in the following year the Royal Institution was given its charter. It was funded by a membership fee of 50 guineas, but the lectures were public and the lecture theatre could seat 900 people. Science was to be a public activity.

In 1800 Davy was appointed lecturer. In 1801 he gave his first lecture on galvanism, the application of electricity to the body parts of dissected animals, devised by Luigi Galvani.

The Royal Institution, c. 1838
Public Domain

Knowledge of the workings of electricity was expanding rapidly. On 20 March 1800 the Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta, had written to the Royal Society describing his technique for producing an electric current through pairs of alternating discs of copper (or silver) and zinc. Even while he was still employed by the Pneumatic Institute, Davy began to experiment with his own voltaic pile, a battery consisting of up to 110 pairs of plates. 

A voltaic pile on display in the Tempio Voltiano
near Volta's home in Como.
Public Domain

Progress was then rapid. William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle constructed their own voltaic pile and were able to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen. Davy had even larger batteries constructed, and in a series of ground-breaking lectures from 1807 Davy announced the isolation of five chemical elements:  sodium and potassium (1807), and barium, strontium, and magnesium (1808). In 1810 he announced the discovery of chlorine. 

The Swiss-born Jane Marcet was one of those who attended Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution. Her Conversations on Chemistry, first published anonymously in 1805, made his work known to a wide audience. It ran into many editions and was the book that set Michael Faraday on his career as a scientist.


The Georgian Enlightenment also saw significant advances in astronomy.

In 1757 the nineteen-year old William Herschel arrived in Britain from Hanover. He initially made his career as a musician in the house in Bath he shared with his sister, Caroline.

However he soon developed a passionate interest in astronomy and built his own telescope. On 17 March 1781, from the garden of his house in Bath, he observed a new celestial body, which he recorded as a ‘Comet or Nebulous Star’. He named it ‘Georgium sidus’ in honour of the king (George III). The news was communicated to Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, who cautiously surmised that it was ‘a regular planet’. This was confirmed by European astronomers. 

Replica in the Bath Museum of Herschel's telescope
Public Domain

Herschel had discovered a new planet, the seventh in the solar system, beyond Jupiter and Saturn and the first to be discovered for over a thousand years. He became a celebrity. The king appointed him as his personal astronomer at a salary of £200 p.a. In the nineteenth the planet became known as ‘Uranus’ after Urania the goddess of astronomy.


  1. The British Enlightenment was part of a European movement,  influenced in particular by the ideas of Newton and Locke.
  2. It was characterised by the empirical method - knowledge was built up through testing and experience. (This was a particularly British contribution to the Enlightenment.)
  3. It contributed to the treatment of disease, philosophy, economics, chemistry, and astronomy.
  4. It was a public project, disseminated through books, lectures and friendships.

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