Lots of books consider the Enlightenment, but few earn such high marks as Dan Edelstein’s The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution. In a recent review essay in the Nation, Samuel Moyn calls Edelstein’s history “one of the most memorable and absorbing books on the era I have ever read.” He goes on:
Edelstein argues that Enlightenment naturalism turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs. Edelstein wants to know how the Jacobins, whom he rightly credits with some of the most progressive and egalitarian aims any political movement has ever professed (notably the invention of social rights to work and education), ended up orchestrating a reign of terror. Against interpretations that simply blame circumstances, Edelstein too insists that ideas mattered. But the most provocative argument in his book is that the ideas that made the revolution spiral out of control were the cult of nature and the belief in natural rights.
A highly original work of historical analysis, political theory, literary criticism, and intellectual history, The Terror of Natural Right challenges, as Moyn notes, prevailing assumptions of the Terror to offer a new perspective on the Revolutionary period. Read more about the book or check out other titles on the period that call into question traditional ways of thinking about the Enlightenment.