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Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World Hardcover – October 29, 2013

4.2 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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

About the Author

JAMES MacGREGOR BURNS is the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox and Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom. He is the author of more than two dozen other books, including The Deadlock of Democracy and Leadership, which remains the seminal work in the field of leadership studies. He is the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College and lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; First Edition edition (October 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250024897
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250024893
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #401,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Eminent historian James Macgregor Burns has written a fascinating survey of the Enlightenment -- a group of philosophical ideas on liberty, science, and the rights of men -- and the leaders who led movements to change society to conform to those ideals, causing the English revolution of 1688, the American revolution of 1776 and the French revolution of 1789.

I read his compelling narrative with great enjoyment, and would recommend it to others with the caveat that it is an advocacy piece with some major flaws.

This book is not an objective survey of the Enlightenment, but an enthusiastic classical liberal narrative: deists, atheists, scientists, left-wing revolutionaries -- good liberals! Christians, centrists, conservatives, right-wingers -- bad reactionaries!

While I am a liberal -- albeit a Christian -- I am concerned that this viewpoint leads to some historical problems.

For example, Professor Burns depicts the 18th century American colonies as hotbeds of secular thought. Actually, the parents of the colonists who fought in the American revolution participated in a series of intense, widespread Christian religious revivals called the "First Great Awakening" in the 1740s.

Which leads me to another problem with this book -- Professor Burns draws hard-and-fast ideological lines, but reality is much messier.

For example, Professor Burns correctly discusses the erosion of faith in the 17th and 18th centuries, and how, in some circles, this was associated with Enlightenment ideas.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
James MacGregor Burns's new history of the enlightenment will prove to be an important one because of its breadth, insight, and, simultaneously, its compactness. Peter Gay's magisterial two-volume study remains the standard against which other histories will be measured, but Burns's study is a quick read for an audience of intelligent, general readers.

Part intellectual history and part economic and industrial history, Burns quite properly sees the origins of the enlightenment in the reformation and he tracks its effects down to the American civil war and beyond. The thrust of the enlightenment is its contention that new forms of authority must replace the arbitrary authority represented by the church and aristocracy. That new form of authority will be science, a science that can be developed and challenged by human reason, a science whose (usually, tentative) conclusions and (usually, real) applications can be disseminated to all. The encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert, e.g., provides extensive information on mechanical and industrial processes--the construction of a well or the operation of a printing press.

For the enlightenment, knowledge is power and scientific knowledge represents `objective' power, not the self-interested and arbitrary authority wielded by prelates and aristocrats. Burns traces the superstructure of ideas, from Bacon-Galileo-Newton, et al. and from Hobbes-Descartes-Locke, et al., the period's epistemology undergirding its defense of the individual and the individual perspective, an outlook that joins with democratic impulses in politics and other historical movements to make the enlightenment possible.

It is never, however, an easy course. The English `glorious' revolution is also bloodless.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
James MacGregor Burns is a prominent American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award for his work Roosevelt - The Soldier Of Freedom - 1940-1945). He is also an incredible inspiration. He is currently 95 years old and still producing solid historical works, such as this one. In the current work he traces the history of ideas, and their principal proponents, during a period favorably referred to as "the Enlightenment," and how these ideas impacted political developments in three countries: France, Britain and the United States.

The author commences with the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, a free-thinker and anti-cleric, most famous for his gloomy outlook that life is "nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes relationship with Francis Bacon, generally consider to be the father of the modern scientific method is described. Burns then crosses the Channel and chronicles the contributions of Rene Descartes, of "I think and therefore I am" fame. Descartes never completely broke with the Catholic Church, but was a sharp critic of it. He led a mobile and highly secretive life. Next the author sketches the life of Spinoza, an ex-communicated Jew, living in the Netherlands, who first became a disciple of Descartes, and then a critical thinker in his own right. He was one of the first to promote a critical evaluation of the reality of the Bible, and its stories. As might be expected, this won him no friends in the established church hierarchies.

Back across the Channel, John Locke's early life was one beholden to establishment ideas. He credited life experience with changing his mind, and he became best known as an empiricist.
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