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InFocus: Richard Whatmore

Economic crisis, global unrest, and a political system at its knees. These may resemble the headlines of newspapers today, but in University of St Andrews’ History Professor Richard Whatmore’s new book, The End of Enlightenment, one can see how the thinkers of the 18th century found themselves facing the same challenges as us today. The Saint sat down with Prof. Whatmore to discuss the process of writing a popular history book, the parallels of the late 18th century to today, and the dangers of our own end of enlightenment.

The Saint first asked the St Andrews academic to describe what it was like writing for the popular reader instead of for fellow academics.

“Well, I didn't think it was going to be different at all, because the assumption when you write a history book is always that the story is going to sell the book. But if there's something that I've learned from writing this book, it's that it's not that simple. Because with this book, I had to rewrite it so many times as the publisher wanted to publish something which, for them, was accessible for the person they call the trade reader. People who read it, friends of mine have said that my writing style has improved exponentially. Obviously implying that I couldn't write before and now I can, but all I can say is that it wasn't just me writing this because you do get a lot of support. The scrutiny of the text has been far greater with a trade press than with the University press”.

Living in a world beset by crises, is there a parallel between the late 18th century and today?

“It's living at a period of time where there has to be pretty much endless speculation about alternative futures because everybody thinks that what exists can't be maintained”, says Whatmore. “So the levels of crisis that you're facing, obviously today one of the terms that you see a lot is poly-crisis, which is equivalent to the period at the end of the 18th century because they see crisis left, right and centre”.

The fears of key enlightenment figures were crystallised by the French Revolution which, in Whatmore’s eyes, was “a great big failure”. He doesn’t think we will see the same type of disorder in our time, but is worried about “the rise of demagogues who say that there's an easy solution to all of your problems, which could be Brexit or it could be make America great again”.

He feels 18th century concerns about enthusiastic and fanatic figures have been lost and we could and should use the language of the 18th century to combat threats to liberal democracies, the descendants of the free states Whatmore has devoted his academic life to studying, “I think the language of the projector, the language of what they used to call a man of system, obviously it was all men, a man of system which is a rigid person who thinks they have the solution to all problems and they just want to apply it”.

“I think their language is superior to our language”. Whatmore continues, “because if we had the language of the projector today, it would have been able to warn us against the Johnsons and the Trumps”.

For Whatmore, the men of system today are foremost in the world of tech and AI as he explains that “when you listen to Musk, when you listen to the kind of people who associate with tech giants, you know, they tend to be men and they are men of system because they believe in notions of science which describe an alternative future that they think will be adhered to if their ideas are put into practice. So, actually, I think there's probably more men of system, genuinely men of system, today than there were even in the 18th century. But the irony of the present and the irony of the 18th century was that the state that everybody thought was going to collapse, which is Britain, survived, and it didn't just survive, it becomes the model free state. But the odd thing about it is that it's a free state with what contemporaries thought was a corrupt commercial empire which acted like an anchor and was going to sink Britain as a ship of state”.

When asked if the world has changed since then, Whatmore responds, “Not much. You know, ultimately, we still believe in the British model of empire. I think China still fits that. I think America post-war fits the model of the British Empire. We pretend the British Empire as a model has gone. It hasn't at all because it was often all about the economic control of states rather than the direct political control of states”.

The paradox within the triumph of Whatmore’s free states is their military prowess. Borne from both the fact they are “paranoid about survival” and possess an element of “republican fanaticism that can be called on in free states”.

However, within this fanaticism is what Whatmore describes as “xenophobic and nationalist lies”. . “The greatest danger for free states, I think, is normally domestic. So, it's a free state that then collapses because of the rise of a figure who, like Bonaparte, the Republican general, is a Caesar figure. The thing about free states, as well, is they can look free and they're not really free, which is, again, something in our times where, ‘Oh, we’re still a democracy, we're still a democracy. Oh no, we’re not’”.

With the growing fear of fascism and the far right on both sides of the Atlantic, Whatmore thinks “the tools that we used to have for fighting fascism are more blunt now, and I think the reason is a turn against history”. To counter this he says, “[W]e need more study of the history of ideas, the history of political thought, because you'll find different answers to the questions that you're asking.”

Richard Whatmore’s The End of Enlightenment is out on the 7th of December and is published by Penguin. He is staging a launch event in Toppings bookshop at 8pm on 7 December. More details can be found on the Toppings website.

Image Provided by Richard Whatmore

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