“Fire and Light” by J M Burns: a review

“Fire and Light – How the Enlightenment transformed our world”, by James MacGregor Burns, Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2013, First edition.

Following an impulse…

When it comes to purchasing a good read I often like to impulse buy, on the basis that it’s not so much lowering my defenses against the assault of the modern marketing machine as it is opening my mind to the universe at large, allowing it to guide me to what inevitably must be the right choice.

Reality check

It doesn’t always work out that way, of course – the disciples of Edward Bernays more often than not win out over those of Carl Jung… what I mean is that when they see me coming, my local bookstore is confident of bagging a sale on account of the effectiveness of the publisher’s investment in Bernays-inspired PR doctrine, rather than relying on my connection with the Jungian ‘collective unconscious’ to bring me to the book.

It is the cover and the blurb, the position in the store and on the shelf that together will draw my hand, eye and mind. The guiding light of inner inspiration has nothing to do with it, and the serendipitous nature of the outcome is but an illusion.

The transfer of dollars to the bank account is real enough, though!

For one more than just one reason or another, I regard Edward’s ideas as being used by those in touch with the Dark Side of the Force, whereas Carl’s pontifications are somehow much more benign, if somewhat irrelevant… or so it seems these days…

For better or worse, these are the times we live in, when the idea of ‘Economic Man‘ is pervasive and all-powerful.

It hasn’t always been this way –

“The abstraction known as the economic man was developed in the 19th century by philosophers like John Stuart Mill as part of the broader enlightenment project, the aim of which was to bring natural science to bear on all areas of knowledge.” [ my emphasis added]



Which, happily, brings us nicely back on topic – I ended up buying this book as the result of a conscious decision to find out a bit more about the period ‘1650s – 1800 or so’ – the times my current favourite coin types come from.

As it turns out, that date range is practically coincidental with the era known as the ‘Age of Enlightenment’.

[For what it’s worth, I did make the ‘decision to buy’ long ago and far, far away from the shop…but then the blurb and subtitle did for me…what can I say… it was clearly meant to be!]

A different point of view

Anyway, you know, this book is good stuff – completely lacking in the pictorial department, it’s true – but I didn’t feel in any way cheated because a significant portion of the content is written from a US perspective.

Americans get three whole chapters and this was really quite refreshing, since the standard subject treatment is usually straight out eurocentric, if not simply a rehash of English history combined with a nod and a wink to France… and footnotes for everyone else.

Puzzling notes

Speaking of which, there are extensive notes – and a solid, 17 page index… however the organisation of this part of the book initially baffled me, but then I had never experienced anything quite like it before…

The arrangement consists of the relevant portion of the bibliography placed at the beginning of the notes for each chapter, and, following that, the numbered sequence of the notes themselves.

No real surprises so far, in fact the divided bibliography could be handy… but then there aren’t any numbers in the text…

Each numbered note begins with a bracketed phrase, so you have to find that in the writing, ie scan for a specific group of words, not a superscripted number and it seems to me to be a bit of a clunky system.

Having said that, there is plenty of meat in evidence, and certainly enough to complete the work by making it potentially a very handy reference for the period – in addition to being a pleasant enough read.

Sound result

Realistically there was so much of import going on back then, at least that’s the impression of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in my mind, that Mr MacGregor has done a tremendous job to get it all more or less nicely covered without producing a tome that breaks the weight limit on the scales.

A respectable achievement, given the complex character of the topic and the temptation to gloss over a lot of the available material.

Good vibes

Overall, the flavour of the era comes through in a fashion that avoids subjecting the reader to swathes of archaic language – I reckon the interpretation of the sources is not only consistent, but also accurate.

As I understand it, a very real difference between now and then is that in those far off days of some 250 odd years ago, many people – those now thought of as either ordinary or ‘great’ – truly felt that they were living through the ‘Dawning of a Great New Age’.

They were excited to be alive, and surviving records of their expression of that feeling come across as hopelessly naive or outrageously ‘over the top’ to current sensibilities, yet they were downright seriously and honestly optimistic, with every right to be so.

I guess that’s one of the reasons why I just love their coins; for the association with times of broad, genuine belief in hopes for a better future – something achievable and worth striving for.

aaannd… that’s all I’ve got, so… ‘Thanks heaps!’ for reading … and Happy Collecting!