World History 2 100 - 7.2.2 The Republic of Letters

Conversation and debate in the public sphere were inseparable from the flourishing print culture of the Enlightenment era. Literacy rates, which hovered around 30 percent for men and 14 percent for women in late-seventeenth-century French cities, had increased to 48 percent for men and 27 percent for women by the mid-eighteenth century. These rising rates led to an explosion of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and political cartoons. The spread of printed materials not only standardized spelling and systems of knowledge, but it also enabled news, opinion, poetry, political philosophy, scientific texts, and information of all kinds to reach a much wider audience than the spoken word alone. The Republic of Letters was a long-distance community of writers who corresponded with each other across Europe and the Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sending handwritten letters and published materials of every kind that provided a crucial international exchange and transmission of ideas. The Republic of Letters was a society whose citizens, rather than living in the same geographic area, like the citizens of a political republic, were united by ideas spread through print. No matter where in Europe or the Atlantic world they lived, all literate people could belong to the Republic of Letters. They engaged with one another on terms of intellectual equality and freely exchanged ideas, just like citizens of a political republic who were, theoretically, free and equal.

Among the luminaries were prominent philosophers and political leaders, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Catherine the Great. Given that those who participated in the Republic of Letters hailed from many different countries and spoke many different languages, much of their writing either was in Latin, then the universal language of scholarship in multilingual Europe, or required access to proficient translators. This obstacle made it difficult for the majority of people to participate directly in the print culture of the Enlightenment.

The Past Meets the Present

Spreading Ideas in the Past and Present

The emergence of the public sphere in the Enlightenment has had a long-standing influence on the exchange of ideas in the modern world. In his influential 1962 treatise The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas identified the development of the free and open exchange of ideas as a product of the eighteenth century. According to Habermas, this development was the result of the “feudal foundations of power” (that is, Europe’s medieval legacy of centralized monarchical rule and the institutional power of Christianity) being supplanted by the development of a capitalist economy and the emergence of spaces for the free and open exchange of ideas beyond the control of the state or the church. Habermas asserted that between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, economic activities that had formerly been part of the domestic space of the household increasingly became associated with spaces of exchange, such as markets and coffeehouses that functioned independently of government authority.

  • How have modern means of communication, particularly social media, changed the way ideas and information are spread?
  • What is considered “public” today, and how do modern conceptions of “public” differ from those of the Enlightenment era?

Despite the pervasive influence of print culture, the direct impact of Enlightenment texts among the general public was limited by relatively low literacy rates among the artisans, peasants, and tradespeople of the era. Literacy rates were climbing rapidly among members of the urban elite, particularly wealthy merchants and aristocrats, but they remained well below 20 percent for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy, especially in rural areas. Although the Enlightenment embraced, in theory, some democratic principles about the exchange of knowledge, in practice, participation in that exchange was limited to those with adequate wealth and leisure time. Books were prohibitively expensive and remained well out of the reach of all but the wealthiest members of society. Even cheaply printed pamphlets represented a significant expense for most eighteenth-century laborers and peasants. By the second half of the eighteenth century, lending libraries had emerged to expand the reading public’s access to printed materials, but only select academics and government officials were permitted to borrow books. By the end of the century, however, reading clubs whose members paid an annual fee for access to books and periodicals began to expand the size of the reading public and increase levels of literacy among the middle class.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax