These different perspectives on the Enlightenment are perhaps inevitable, given that our own use of the term differs from that of 18th-century authors. While we refer by ‘Enlightenment’ to a historical period, contemporaries usually saw it as a tendency, a frame of mind or a set of cultural achievements. Even if they thought Lumières or Aufklärung typical of their own time (the English term was not commonly used), it was usually not seen as limited or unique to that period. Immanuel Kant’s essay of 1784, ‘What is Enlightenment?’, opens with the statement ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity’. This is a plea for independent thinking, as expressed in his call ‘dare to know’ ( sapere aude ). It is in this sense that Kant saw his own time as a not yet enlightened age, but rather an age of enlightenment. According to this view, the Enlightenment might well still be a work in progress. Yet historians have to distinguish carefully between such normative assessments and historiographical markers; our 18th-century Enlightenment is not Kant’s perpetual process.
To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism. To retrieve the past, we require all those virtues, and something more. If we want added value – to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside – we pick up a novel. The historian and the biographer follow a trail of evidence, usually a paper trail. The novelist does that too, and then performs another act, puts the past back into process, into action, frees the people from the archive and lets them run about, ignorant of their fates, with all their mistakes unmade.