The Age of Reason

By Harold Nicolson
Paperback: $15.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-011-3

With a New Introduction by Adam Nicolson


Harold Nicolson called his book “a gallery of portraits…of conflicting characters and successive states of mind.” In it, he examines and presents these ideas and states of mind through the extraordinary people who were responsible for them: the duc de Saint Simon, elegant and unabashed social climber; the dashing “Prince” Potemkin, lover of Catherine the Great of Russia; Count Cagliostro, practitioner of “black arts”; Bernard de Fontenelle, brilliant essayist; Thomas Paine, inflamer of the masses; Jacques Casanova, lover, pornographer, and “con man.” This single masterful volume synthesizes, through people and events, the eighteenth century ideals of reason and liberty, and the attacks on superstition, tradition, and authority which shook the world and produced a revolution in values.

About the Author

Harold Nicolson (1886–1968) was born in Tehran of British parents, educated at Oxford, served as a diplomat for twenty years, then returned to Britain to become a journalist, biographer, historian, and member of Parliament during World War II. His Diaries and Letters, 1930–1964, became a bestseller after his death. The famous gardens that he and his wife, Vita Sackville-West, created are a popular national trust property.

Adam Nicolson is the author of Sea Room, Power and Glory (God’s Secretaries), and Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero. He lives in Sussex and at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. He is the grandson of Harold Nicolson.

Foreword by Adam Nicolson

Author’s Note


1: Courtly Standards (Saint Simon, 1675–1755)

2: Rationalism (Pierre Bayle, 1647–1706)

3: Setting Sun (Louis XIV, 1700–1715)

4: The Emergence of Muscovy (Peter the Great, 1672–1725)

5: Skepticism (Voltaire, 1694–1778)

6: Philosopher King (Frederick the Great, 1712–1786)

7: Semiramis (Catherine the Great, 1729–1796)

8: Complacency (Joseph Addison, 1672–1719)

9: Savage Pessimism (Jonathan Swift, 1667–1745)

10: Thirteen Colonies (1492–1783)

11: The Simple Man (Franklin, 1706–1790)

12: The Salons (1660–1789)

13: Dilettante (Horace Walpole, 1717–1797)

14: Free Thought (The Encyclopédie, 1751–1772)

15: Disintegration (Louis XV, 1715–1774)

16: Gullibility (Cagliostro, 1743–1795)

17: Solid Sense (Samuel Johnson, 1709–1784)

18: Sturm Und Drang (1770–1778)

19: Rights of Man (Thomas Paine, 1737–1809)

20: Religious Revival (John Wesley, 1703–1791)

21: Sensibility (Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712–1778)



From the Foreword by Adam Nicolson

When in 1958, Doubleday’s, the New York publishers, first suggested to Harold Nicolson that he should write the volume on the 18th Century for a wide-ranging series they were planning on world history, “portraits of epochs” as they called them, he said no. He was 72, had already suffered two mild strokes, was haunted by the idea that he was past his best and threatened with a sense of his own impending death. But the next morning he thought about it in bed and decided that he liked the 18th century and might as well agree. It was to be 150,000 words long, due on January 1, 1960.“I shall be dead by then,” he wrote to his wife, the novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West, “but it will keep me happy and busy for the remainder of my life and they will pay me 3,000 pounds in installments to keep me going.”

It is a book which has both the benefits and drawbacks of coming at the end of a long, extraordinarily wide-ranging, deeply curious and active life. Nicolson was born in 1886, the third son of a family, as he described it, of “impecunious high civil servants.” He inherited from them a high-minded belief in the central role public service should play in a man’s life. Honor, propriety, dignity, honesty, and moral courage remained his touchstones. In that way he was a Victorian all his life. He became first a diplomat, then a politician and for a time was a junior minister in Churchill’s wartime government. But many other colors and tissues were laid over that foundation. He was a literary critic, biographer, and autobiographer; a garden designer of genius; a brilliantly witty and delighted describer of the world around him; multi-lingual, passionately internationalist, in love with the civilizations of Greece and France; and above all filled with curiosity for anything which life might bring him. “Only one man in a thousand is a bore,” he told my father and my father quoted repeatedly to me, “and he is interesting because he is one man in a thousand.”


From Chapter 1: Courtly Standards

(Saint Simon, 1675–1755)


In his diary for Tuesday, November 16, 1700, the duc de Saint Simon made the following entry:

On quitting his levee, the King summoned the Spanish Ambassador to his private study. The duc d’Anjou had already reached the room by the back staircase. The King pointed to the duc d’Anjou and informed the Ambassador that he could now do homage to the boy as King of Spain. The Ambassador, according to the Spanish custom, flung himself on his knees and delivered a complimentary address in the Spanish language. The King explained that the duc d’Anjou did not yet know that language and that he would himself reply on his grandson’s behalf. Thereafter the King, against all precedent, ordered that the double doors of his study should be thrown wide open and invited the courtiers to enter.

Majestically his eyes wandered over the assembled company. “Gentlemen,” he said to them indicating the duc d’Anjou, “I present to you the King of Spain. He has by his birth been called to that throne; the late King of Spain has in his will designated him as successor; the Spanish nation desires him to become their sovereign and have begged me to agree. I regard it as the command of Heaven. It is with pleasure that I have given my assent.”

Then turning to his grandson he said: “You must prove a good Spaniard, that is now your first duty. But never forget you were born a Frenchman in order to foster the union between the two nations; by that means you will satisfy both France and Spain and preserve the peace of Europe.”

This prophecy was but half fulfilled. The little duc d’Anjou, on becoming King Philip V of Spain, did in fact show himself a good Spaniard and eventually won the loyalty, and even the affection, of his subjects. But the War of the Spanish Succession which had thus been provoked proved one of the most stubborn wars in history. The French armies suffered successive defeats at Blenheim in 1704, at Ramillies in 1706, and at Oudenarde in 1708. The prestige of Louis XIV which had till then proved unsurpassed and seemed unassailable, was shattered forever. In the sixty-second year of his age and the fifty-seventh year of his reign he had allowed his thirst for glory to entice him into a decision which united against him the armies of Austria, England, and the Netherlands. By 1709 France was on the verge of collapse. Had it not been for Queen Anne’s weakness in succumbing to the wiles of Abigail Masham and the intrigues of Harley and the peace party, Louis XIV might have been forced to accept inglorious surrender.

It should be remembered that throughout the eighteenth century Europe was almost constantly at war. In the 127 years between 1688 and 1815 Great Britain was engaged in seven major wars with France which lasted sixty years. The fact that this study deals mainly with the development of ideas should not blind the reader to the fact that the Age of Reason was also an Age of Violence.


From Chapter 2: Rationalism

(Saint Simon, 1647–1706)



When Catherine II, in bidding farewell to Segur III, referred to “the new philosophy,” she was not thinking of any coherent system, such as that of Descartes or Locke, but rather of the pervading climate of skepticism that spread across Europe under the influence of Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopedistes. It is more difficult, when addressing intelligent minds, to found faith than to disseminate doubt. The youths of France have always been tempted to repudiate the conventions of the older generation, and they are glad to think that their own minds are nimble, fashionable, and up to date. Thus in the eighteenth century the Paris intellectual acquired the habit of questioning, not the supernatural only, not only existing institutions, but anything that had been believed in, or reverenced by, their fathers and mothers. And since Paris in those days was the crucible of ideas, what was felt and thought in Paris rapidly spread throughout the civilized world.

Although it was Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopedistes who rendered skepticism the fashion, they were not in fact the pioneers of the movement. They had their predecessors and their precursors. No study of the Age of Reason can omit some mention at least of the skepticism of Bayle and the epicureanism of Fontenelle.