What has the Enlightenment ever done for us? This is an important question and the title of the last chapter of this book. My biased answer would include human rights, democratic government, personal freedom, and separation of church and state. I think it is no great exaggeration to say that the Enlightenment marks the beginning of a sea change in thought that rejected tyranny, acknowledged the rights of common people, and helped create the intellectual environment that made our modern world possible.
In this relatively short book (244 pages not counting notes), Gottlieb summarizes key points of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers: Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Leibniz, and David Hume, with due mention to others who supported or opposed them. It shows how these philosophical pioneers began to question convention, challenge authority, and propose alternatives. Some of their ideas may seem strange, backward, or even outrageous to us now, but they were constrained by the knowledge and beliefs of their time, as we all are. Unlike today, or at least not to the same extent, they also had to be cautious of the authority they were calling into question. The fact that we today can more freely express our thoughts without undue fear of reprisal is also, I think, a lasting gift of the Enlightenment.
Gottleib’s writing is clean, precise, and easily comprehensible. The philosophers he has chosen, and the points he selects from each of them, are appropriate to subject. I recommend this to anyone interested in cultural evolution and the progress of human thought.