Englightement’s “New Kind of Equality”

Erasmus Darwin in 1792 by Joseph Wright of Derby

Erasmus Darwin in 1792 by Joseph Wright of Derby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In chapter 2, Outram explains that trade and exchange in ideas promoted “a new kind of equality” between consumers from different classes. What kind of “equality” does she mean?

“The increasing volume of goods made and sold included many consumer items such as books, pamphlets, newspapers, pictures, all of which were media for the transmission of ideas and attitudes” and “the global exchange of ideas, like all market exchanges, broke down barriers between cultural systems, religious divides, gender differences and geographical areas” (Outram 13). In Britain, extensive literacy and a large middle-class made up wealthy professionals created many institutions which facilitated the discussion of ideas which eventually led to “a new kind of equality between consumers of culture” (Outram 13; Outram 22). These institutions, such as the Manchester Library and the Philosophical Society, helped elites meet on common and neutral ground and forge stronger contracts with each other (Outram 22). In particular, since many different people shared a common interest in Enlightenment ideas, these societies provided spaces for people to meet, and facilitated a new interplay “between manufacturers, men of science and local intellectuals” (Outram 22).  One example is the Birmingham-based group called the Lunar Society.  The Lunar Society included members like the industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, the poet and doctor Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the Charles Darwin, and inventor Richard Arkwright (Outram 22). These places allowed for an exchange of ideas which facilitated intellectual equality. This kind of equality was based on knowledge and intellect which required work and effort to gain, not just finances. Therefore, it was not the kind of equality that could be bought. People had to read and work hard on themselves to be “enlightened” and as a result, societies were places where enlightened ideas could be exchanged with others who were intellectually inclined, despite their positions in society.

Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, 2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN: 9780521546812

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