The enlightenment and “pleasure”

“The Enlightenment was convinced, as Bayle wrote, that basic to the human temperament was ‘our natural inclination to seek pleasure.’ In reaction to the religious view that in this life and under its veil of tears a virtuous person lived a life of self-denial and privation, Enlightenment writers emphasized enjoyment and happiness, not the least of which was sensual pleasure. How better to ridicule the asceticism and self-denial preached by religion than to mock it in sexual fantasy. So it was that the eighteenth century is the fountain of modern pornography, be it the Marquis de Sade or John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Montesquieu, Diderot, and even Franklin wrote their share as well. In his Encyclopédie entry on ‘Enjoyment’ (jouissance), Diderot praised sexual pleasure as the most noble of passions. To the ‘perverse man’ who takes offense at this praise ‘I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say to him: why do you blush to hear the word pleasure pronounced, when you do not blush to indulge in its temptations under the cover of night.'”

Diderot, Kant and “Enlightenment dialogue”

“Diderot therefore exemplifies another major enlightenment preoccupation: curiosity. All periods exhibit curiosity about some issues. But the Enlightenment, unlike earlier periods, valued curiosity itself. In late antiquity, Saint Augustine had deemed curiosity a vice. But Immanuel Kant’s famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) challenged people to follow their own understanding wherever it might lead. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant declared, “is…Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own understanding!” Perhaps no one lived out this creed more boldly than Diderot. He and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers valued the companionable exchange of ideas in spontaneous conversation as the highest form of discourse. This is one reason Diderot chose the rambling philosophical dialogue as his trademark genre, Enlightenment dialogue is not just an exchange of views, but a collaborative project in which participants open them selves to each other’s points of view. Implicit in this free-ranging, exploratory form is the assumption—not shared universally by intellectuals of preceding periods—that innovation is at least potentially a good thing.”