Reasonable Pasts for Reasonable Futures: Writing History in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution

History 103B.007

Fall 2007
Instructor (text): 
210 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
Mon 4-6
Veit Elm is interested in the role of religion in modern European culture. His principal area of research is the Enlightenment, which he has studied from the perspective of its heroes and of their enemies in the Christian Churches. He received his doctorate from the Free University Berlin and has held teaching positions at the Free University and Princeton University.

Among the tools prehistoric men used to make sense, story telling has proved to be both the most influential and the most elusive. Like their archaic ancestors, modern men tell stories about the origin and destination of humanity to make sense of their lives and motivate collective action. As mythical stories which link past and future to a meaningful whole have motivated agendas as divergent as human sacrifice and radical pacifism, their impact on world history is not easy to assess. In the long history of rational reflection on myth, the 18th century is an important turning point. Many Enlightenment thinkers attempted to dispose of the instruments which would allow them to finally eradicate mythical thinking from private and public life. Enlightenment Philosophers used the methods of radical historical criticism, developed at the end of the 17th century, to denounce the falsifications of history perpetrated in the name of religion. Pioneers of the social and economical sciences like Montesquieu and Adam Smith produced new ";scientific"; explanations of history. Enlightenment historiography established strict standards of plausibility. Writers like Diderot used storytelling to illustrate the workings of the mythopoetic imagination. Voltaire and Schiller, both eminent historians, produced new forms of historical literature. Given the acute awareness of the manipulative potential of representations of history, it may come as a surprise that 18th century historical thought is often considered the cradle of most of the new mythical stories, which, in the form of scientist, liberal, egalitarian ideologies, introduced mythical thinking into post revolutionary modernity. The seminar will discuss different concepts of myth and ideology, look at the new pasts and futures conceived in Enlightenment historical, literary, moral, political and economical thought and examine how they were made operational in revolutionary politics. Requirements: two short papers in connection with reading presentations and a longer paper at the end of the term.