Yale for Life

The Enlightenment and Its Critics

June 18-24, 2017

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” 

“The motto of Enlightenment is therefore:  Sapere aude!  Have courage to use your own understanding.”  

– Immanuel Kant

No period of modern history has come under more intense scrutiny than has the Enlightenment. What is – or was — the Enlightenment?  We have not ceased asking this question and the answer or answers are far from settled.  The question – as quoted above -was most famously stated by Immanuel Kant at the start of his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?” All the rest, as they say, is commentary.

This course will examine the case both for and against the Enlightenment.  Is the Enlightenment at the forefront of our ideas about science, democracy, and toleration or is the source of a new form of political repression and social engineering?  Has it fostered a conception of the free and responsible individual or is it the source of our modern concerns with rootlessness, anomie, and alienation? Our purpose will be to get a rounded picture of what the Enlightenment meant and how it has shaped our civilization.

In studying this greatest of eras, we will take an approach familiar to all who have studied at Yale: we will use the tools of the humanities, of foundational texts and primary sources. We will immerse ourselves in works of unsurpassed beauty and profundity. We will examine the period from many angles, with an interdisciplinary lens.

We will be led, as Yale for Life programs always are, by Yale’s most gifted professors – world-leading experts on this period of unequaled upheaval, invention, and dynamism.  “The Enlightenment and Its Critics” will be led by Professors Steven Smith and Isaac Nakhimovsky.  They are first of all supreme scholars.  Prof. Smith has held a wide range of high academic posts at Yale; in addition to his title as the Alfred Cowles Professor of Government & Philosophy, he has directed programs from “Special Program in the Humanities” to Judaic Studies; Prof. Nakhimovsky, after teaching at the University of Cambridge, comes to Yale with expertise in areas ranging widely over the Humanities and History.  But beyond this, they are widely acclaimed teachers, universally described as “generous pedagogues,” and sought by departments throughout Yale.  Indeed, Professor Smith is a winner of the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize – the highest award for teaching excellence in the social sciences at Yale.

Join Professors Smith and Nakhimovsky, treasures of Yale, for a week of seminars. This intensive, energizing experience will lead students in detailed discussions of a number of literary, philosophical, and historical texts. We will learn not of this era alone – we will learn how it is that one probes deeply into any complex period, and how in doing so, fundamental lessons emerge. Program cost is $4,900 which includes all classes, all meals, all readings (books are sent to you), special activities, and lodging at Swing Space (Baker Hall).

Our Lead Faculty:

Steven B. Smith
Alfred Cowles Professor of Government & Philosophy

Steven B. Smith has taught at Yale since 1984. He has served as Director of Graduate Studies in Political Science, Director of the Special Program in the Humanities, and Acting Chair of Judaic Studies and from 1996-2011 served as the Master of Branford College. His research has focused on the history of political philosophy with special attention to the problem of the ancients and moderns, the relation of religion and politics, and theories of representative government. He received the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences in 2009.

Isaac Nakhimovsky
Assistant Professor of History and Humanities

Isaac Nakhimovsky is Assistant Professor of History and Humanities. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University in 2008 and began teaching at Yale in 2014, after six years at the University of Cambridge. His research interests lie in the history of political thought, and focus primarily on European debates about economic competition and international relations in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries

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Guest Professors

Our morning seminars with lead faculty will be followed in the afternoons by a seminar with an amazing guest professor.  These scholars bring a variety of different perspectives to our subject, from eighteenth century British Literature, to Theater of the Enlightenment, and more.  Yale for Life continues its emphasis on interdisciplinary study, not only through the variety in the core syllabus, but through these world-class leaders of Yale’s intellectual portfolio.

Jonathan Kramnick
Maynard Mack Professor of English

Jonathan Kramnick, the Maynard Mack Professor of English, specializes in eighteenth century literature and philosophy, philosophical approaches to literature, and cognitive science and the arts.

Markus Rathey
Professor, Yale School of Music

At Yale, Professor Rathey serves as Professor in the Practice of Music History. His research interests are music of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, Johann Sebastian Bach, and the relationship between music, religion, and politics during the Enlightenment

Maurice Samuels
Betty Jane Anlyan Professor and Chairman, Department of French

Maurice Samuels specializes in the literature and culture of nineteenth-century France and in Jewish Studies. He also directs the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism. He is a beloved veteran of Yale for Life, having taught the work of Modiano to the course on “Revisiting 1914-1945.”

Murray Biggs
Associate Professor of English and Theater Studies (Ret.)

Murray Biggs, semi-retired Adjunct Associate Professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale, is known throughout the campus and with alumni everywhere for his dynamic teaching style that inspires great enthusiasm and active participation. Professor Biggs is also a Rhodes Scholar, actor, director, and writer; he has led alumni theater seminars in London, New York City, and elsewhere.

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All Yale for Life courses actually start months before our June meeting.  After registration, you will receive all books and scholarly articles for the course, and will immerse yourself in great works curated by our faculty.  “The Enlightenment and Its Critics” is no exception, with works ranging from contemporaneous writings to great books written by your own Yale for Life professors.  Primary sources will mix with authoritative texts to produce night after night of joy as you prepare for your return to the life of the mind.

See an excerpt from a Yale for Life Reading List

Special Events

One of Yale for Life’s unique and most beloved features are our Special Events; sessions at a number of Yale’s well-known (such as the Yale Art Gallery) or less-known (such as a 2012 session at the not-yet-processed Kissinger Papers) centers of collection and learning.  “A New Birth of Freedom” is no exception. We are keeping some surprises up our sleeve, but here is a taste:

Interior view of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Yale has acquired the great Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, the greatest collection of Lincoln photographs in existence.  Professor Laura Wexler will follow-up her seminar with us by accompanying us to the Beinecke where we will be greeted by the curator of the collection.  These two great experts will guide us through a hands-on look through this, one of Yale’s newest glories.


The Yale Art Gallery received the renovation-to-end-all-renovations in recent years, producing arguably the greatest university art museum in existence.  We will tour the Gallery with Yale’s experts on works that not only depict, but also reflect, the events and forces we will study.

Learn more about Yale for Life special events

Beyond the Classroom

Everything that happens during the Yale for Life program is colored by the fact that it takes place at Yale.  Learn more about the experience!

Learn more about the living at Yale experience
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