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Dark Side book coverThe Dark Side of the Enlightenment is a work of literary and cultural history that suggests, through a series of topical and biographical essays, some intellectual complexities of the period of the European Enlightenment, often called the “Age of Reason”.  Our general view of the Enlightenment (as the term itself suggests) is of rapid strides in moving away from a pre-modern world view based in social custom and revealed religion toward a view governed by philosophical skepticism, rationality, scientific investigation, and increasingly pragmatic and democratic political attitudes.  In general the great thinkers of the Enlightenment abandoned or severely limited the category of the supernatural to pursue Nature itself, capaciously understood.  A list of the most prominent Enlightenment thinkers usually includes such skeptics as Denis Diderot, David Hume, and Voltaire.

However, the “spiritual” and “supernatural” aspirations of traditional Christianity were not as easily dispensed with as were its religious forms, dogmas, and even institutions.  There was accordingly during this period a near mania for occultism, often fostered by the very institutions (especially Free Masonry) rightly credited with the spread of Enlightenment ideas.  Specific occult interests include magic, cabala, and alchemy.  Two chapters of the book deal with the troubling persistence of miraculous healing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Other chapters find in the biographies of “Count” Cagliostro (half conman, half social reformer) and Julie de Krüdener (best-selling sentimental novelist and ecstatic Piestist preacher) complicating aspects of “Enlightenment” thought.  The book shows that the Enlightenment had its distinctly darker side.