In this engaging, provocative history, James MacGregor Burns brilliantly illuminates the two-hundred-year conflagration of the Enlightenment, when audacious questions and astonishing ideas tore across Europe and the New World, transforming thought, overturning governments, and inspiring visionary political experiments. Fire and Light brings to vivid life the galaxy of revolutionary leaders of thought and action who, armed with a new sense of human possibility, driven by a hunger for change, created the modern world. Burns discovers the origins of a distinctive American Enlightenment in men like the Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and their early encounters with incendiary European ideas about liberty and equality. It was these thinker-activists who framed the United States as a grand and continuing experiment in Enlightenment principles.
Today the same questions Enlightenment thinkers grappled with have taken on new urgency around the world: in the turmoil of the Arab Spring, in the former Soviet Union, and China, as well as in the United States itself. What should a nation be? What should citizens expect from their government? Who should lead and how can leadership be made both effective and accountable? What is happiness, and what can the state contribute to it? Burns's exploration of the ideals and arguments that formed the bedrock of our modern world shines a new light on these ever-important questions.
Praise for Fire and Light
"With this profound and magnificent book, drawing on his deep reservoir of thought and expertise in the humanities, James MacGregor Burns takes us into the fire's center. As a 21st-century philosopher, he brings to vivid life the incandescent personalities and ideas that embody the best in Western civilization and shows us how understanding them is essential for anyone who would seek to decipher the complex problems and potentialities of the world we will live in tomorrow." -- Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How they Changed America, 1789-1989
“James MacGregor Burns is a national treasure, and Fire and Light is the elegiac capstone to a career devoted to understanding the seminal ideas that made America - for better and for worse - what it is.” --Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Revolutionary Summer
"James MacGregor Burns, one of America's most distinguished historians, has written a superb book. Fire and Light is a fluent and wide-ranging history of Enlightenment thinkers and of the many political actors--in Britain, France, and Britain--whom they influenced between the 17th century and the mid-1800s. Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel, Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Tocqueville, James Watt, James and John Stuart Mill, and Marx are among the host of writers, entrepreneurs, and national leaders who come to life on Burns's pages.” --James T. Patterson, Bancroft Prize-winning author of The Eve of Destruction
“Our most eminent scholar of political and intellectual leadership offers a glowing narrative of the emancipation of reason in Fire and Light. Sweeping across two centuries, James MacGregor Burns's graceful prose etches memorable portraits of the leading thinkers, doers, and movements that transformed England, France, and America in the cause of reason, liberty, and equality. Through his riveting tale, we are reminded that the great but unfinished project of Enlightenment remains a challenge for our own times.” --Bruce Miroff, author of Icons of Democracy: American Leaders As Heroes, Aristocrats, Dissenters, and Democrats
“James MacGregor Burns, who has achieved well-deserved acclaim for his histories of American politics and government, has now expanded his vision to the world of ideas in both Europe and America during the age of the Enlightenment. His newest book, Fire and Light, is a brilliant analysis of the way in which the power of ideas transformed the governments and cultures of America, Great Britain, and France during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its description of that process is not merely instructive and insightful, but genuinely inspirational.” --Richard Beeman, author of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution
“Burns’s 18th and 19th century Enlightenment—the flourishing of ideas that’s the subject of this book—is essentially the New Deal writ large, the story of intentional improvement brought about by thoughts and action… [A] captivating tale of the (mostly) men who altered the Western world’s way of thinking. Briskly and beautifully told, it’s basically a triumphal story… The writing never lapses into academese, and it has the same propulsiveness of another, though vaster, survey of ideas: Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy…. [S]uperb.” –Publishers Weekly
“The unleashing of the human mind from orthodoxy ushered in one of the most exciting periods in history, and consummate historian Burns proves a lively guide to the great currents of Enlightenment thought… Happiness, property, reform, universal suffrage: The author traces these key concepts to our own era, still worthy of fighting for, as evidenced by the recent events of the Arab Spring. An impassioned, big-picture primer ideal for college students.” --Kirkus
Praise for Packing the Court:
"This important volume is basic and essential and should be vigorously read and debated by all of us." —Michael Beschloss, New York Times bestselling author of Presidential Courage
"Mr. Burns uses his intimate knowledge of America's past to situate judicial rulings within a political and social context, even as he dissects the practical consequences of particular decisions." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Just what you would expect of Burns: a readable and accessible history, full of memorable details . . . I was engaged, entertained and provoked." —Jeffrey Rosen, The Washington Post
How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World
James MacGregor Burns