The other day, just for the fun of it, I pulled an old book off the shelf and thumbed through it. The book is Age of Enlightenment, by Peter Gay and the editors of Time-Life Books. It's part of a long out-of-print Time-Life series, Great Ages of Man (yes, as I may have mentioned here before, there was a time, way back in the previous century, when Time-Life actually published books and not just nostalgic CD sets and DVD series).
Most of the old Time-Life book series stuck to a standard format of chapters followed by "picture essays," and the Great Ages of Man set is no exception. What caught my eye in Age of Enlightenment, which covers much of the eighteenth century, was the essay following Chapter 3, "In Search of an Ideal Society." Titled, "The Credulous Era," the section begins:
In the Enlightenment's mood of optimism, the difference between open-mindedness and gullibility was often indiscernible. The philosophes' insistence that old concepts be re-examined opened the door to a flock of irrational schemes and fakeries. If man's intelligence could solve all problems, then it seemed reasonable to believe that people with special gifts could manage special feats...The subtitles within the picture essay set the tone:
Twenty-first Century Boulder/Austin/Santa Fe/San Diego, etc.Eighteenth Century Europe became a paradise for visionaries, pseudo scientists and outright quacks. They persuaded the educated and ignorant alike that they could perform a variety of wonders – e.g., transmitting invisible healing powers to others, giving birth to rabbits and even corresponding with the man in the moon.
"A craze for easy cures." Magnetism was all the rage in the eighteenth century, and a few enterprising medical guys took advantage of this. Many folks know about Franz Mesmer and his "animal magnetism," but perhaps fewer know about a London doc named James Graham. Dr. Graham built a salon that contained a "Celestial Bed" supported by forty "magnetized" pillars. Apparently one purpose of this special bed was to treat men suffering from what is today called erectile dysfunction. Their powers could supposedly be fully restored by lying on the bed and sniffing incense while watching erotic dances. Today I believe such a setup would be called a "Gentleman's Club."
"A genius for mixing sense with nonsense." The Enlightenment was rife with "well-meaning savants who worked in the fringe area between science and fantasy." F'rinstance, there was German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, who discovered some worthwhile therapeutic drugs but also advocated remedies such as maiden's teardrops and crushed bedbugs. Hahnemann is perhaps best known for giving the world homeopathy.
"A booming market for frauds." The author notes, "So gullible were the rich and fashionable of the Enlightenment that a shrewd trickster needed only audacity to leap to wealth and fame." One example: a crude Sicilian peasant named Allesandro Cagliostro, who "became the toast of Paris when it was rumored that he could turn pebbles into diamonds and crones into lovely maidens." Then there was Mary Tofts (sometimes spelled "Toft"), pictured above in a William Hogarth engraving. Mary convinced half of England that she could give birth to rabbits and rabbit parts. I imagine she was in great demand around Easter time.
"A public bamboozled by bubbles." Now, here's something that could never happen today:
...Naive investors, confusing paper certificates with real wealth, were so eager to buy stock that at one point shares were even sold in England "for an undertaking of a Great Adventure but no one to know what it is." Two ventures in particular caught the public's fancy. London's South Sea Company was set up to trade with Spanish America, and Paris' Mississippi Company was founded to exploit the wealth of Louisiana. Both companies were backed by their governments, which saw the stock issues as a way to erase the public debt. Investors stampeded to speculate in what was soon worthless stock. Prices rose astronomically. In 1720 both bubbles burst. Prices plummeted, thousands were wiped out and the two governments were shaken...But all of that crap happened a long, long time ago. Thank Goddess we're far too sophisticated today to fall for anything even remotely like the nonsense they believed back then.
PS ~ For a good time, read (or re-read) the Enlightenment-era classic, Voltaire's Candide. Tell me if that Pangloss character reminds you of anyone you know or have read about.