Today was the first of two sessions on “The Enlightenment” in European History Since 1648 at UNLV, and also the students’ first discussion of one of our longer sources.
I provided a rough and all-too-brief (and probably too fast) overview of some of the key themes and characteristics of the Enlightenment, as well as of some of the conversations historians have about how to pin down or define the same: as a period, a constellation of ideas, a process, etc.
From there, we moved on to group discussions in class, with students juxtaposing Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (a play about the Crusades and about tolerance) with Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments and Frederick II’s Political Testament.
There was considerable thematic overlap between Lessing’s play, the treatise on reform, and the defence of “enlightened despotism”, which hopefully begin to tie together the theme for students and illustrate what seemed to emerge as a class consensus from the conversation: that the Enlightenment provided a grab-bag of ideas from which different people drew selectively according to their ambitions.
On Tuesday, we’ll continue with the theme and discuss some of the impacts of the Enlightenment overseas…