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Although poverty in the eighteenth century has long been an object of focus for social historians, it has figured only marginally in the intellectual history of the period. This is because it has been assumed that the existence of poverty was rarely problematised before the transformative decade of the 1790s. Yet because the theme of poverty played important roles in many critical issues in European history, it was central to some of the key debates in Enlightenment political thought throughout the period, including the controversies about sovereignty and representation, public and private charity, as well as questions relating to crime and punishment. Indeed, leading thinkers like the Scottish political economist Adam Smith, the French Physiocrats and the Milanese jurist Cesare Beccaria had come to see the fate of the poor as an urgent political question in the middle decades of the century. This book examines some of the most important contributions to these debates, while also ranging beyond the canonical Enlightenment thinkers, to investigate how poverty was conceptualised in the wider intellectual culture, as politicians, administrators and pamphlet writers grappled with the issue. The volume also revisits the question of why and how many governments and men of letters began to address poverty as a social problem in the 1790s. It asks how far the drive to reduce or eliminate want was already underway before the French Revolution, as well as challenging the binary characterisation of debates in the period as a struggle between humanitarian radicals and cold-hearted reactionaries.

An introduction
R. J. W. Mills
Niall O’Flaherty

The issue of poverty is rarely held to be a key concern of the European Enlightenment. Instead, the emergence of our modern notion of poverty is held to take place in the revolutionary 1790s. This introduction sets out the argument that this ignores the emergence of what Mark Ravallion has termed the ‘First Poverty Enlightenment’ from the 1740s onwards. The transformation of how poverty was conceptualised should be viewed as one of the key humanitarian goals of an Enlightenment concerned with temporal well-being. To this end, the introduction explains how the chapters that follow examine changing conceptualisations of the causes, character and consequences of poverty, as well as proposals for its amelioration. The collection seeks to provide the perspective of the intellectual historian on an issue that has long been the preserve of social historians (though surprisingly not economic historians), and to suggest that poverty was more central to Enlightenment-era thought than the current literature suggests. Our contributors have sought to situate conceptualisations of poverty within their original social, political and philosophical contexts, and to view those conceptualisations as contributions to pan-European debates over the paths to prosperity and improvement. Through reconstructing the major themes of Enlightenment-era thought about poverty, the following chapters avoid viewing these debates in terms of early twenty-first century concepts and categories. Equally importantly, our contributors have been encouraged to explore how changing notions of poverty inform political and social action and thereby demonstrate the crucial interplay between Enlightened ideas and political practices.

in Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment