The James Ford Lectures 2023 - Peculiarities of the English Enlightenment: Ancients, Moderns and Pagan Pasts

England was an outlier in the age of Enlightenment. It saw neither the emergence of an adversarial intelligentsia nor the rise of a new science of society. If there was an English Enlightenment, it was understated, unobtrusive and of a peculiarly conservative cast. These lectures approach the topic by way of eighteenth-century England’s acknowledged fascination with classical antiquity, focussing in particular on critical philology, pagan philosophical schools and ancient genres.

Lecture One: Peculiarities (19 January 2023)

This lecture examines the phenomenon of English exceptionalism, in particular the historiographical commonplace that eighteenth-century England missed out on an Enlightenment, and the reasons given for that. However, it will also look at J.G.A. Pocock’s attempts to insert a conservative English variant within a family of European Enlightenments. 



Lecture Two: Ancients and Moderns: a Contrapuntal Enlightenment? (26 January 2023)

The battle of the books between the ancients and the moderns at the turn of the eighteenth century provides a useful point of departure, not least because the quarrel raged on both sides of the Channel. How far did the pioneering scholarship of the Modern Richard Bentley shape a more distinctively critical and philological Enlightenment in England? On the other hand, their cultural conservatism notwithstanding, were the Ancients necessarily an anti-Enlightenment party?


Lecture Three: Modern Paganism Revisited (2 February 2023)

The philosophies of ancient paganism informed English deism. More surprisingly, perhaps, ancient philosophy also occupied an honoured place in the arguments of the Church of England’s defenders. This lecture explores the significance of pagan antiquity in a Christian society, focussing in particular on the absorption of certain modes of scepticism.  


Lecture Four: The Warburtonian Moment (9 February 2023)

The dominant intellectual figure in mid eighteenth-century England was William Warburton, later bishop of Gloucester. Warburton earned the amused contempt of Hume and Gibbon, which fed his reputation as an ogre of supposed anti-Enlightenment insolence and vituperation. Nevertheless, this is far from the whole story. Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses – the most controversial book of its era – was ambiguously situated, and Warburton’s relationship to the Enlightenment was complicated and involved.      


Lecture Five: Platonists and deplatonizers (16 February 2023)

The Platonic legacy was a vital, but contested and highly ambiguous presence in English culture from the mid seventeenth century to the early nineteenth. The influence of the Cambridge Platonists and, later, the outright neo-pagan Thomas Taylor, was overshadowed by a persistent and dominant critique of Platonism, in Bolingbroke, Gibbon, and Priestley among others.  


Lecture Six: Words and Things (23 February 2023)

This lecture explores the place of linguistic and scientific scholarship in the eighteenth-century English reception of the classics, with a particular focus on the era of the French Revolution. In addition, the series will conclude with an attempt to situate England relative to the recent classical turn in Enlightenment historiography.