Up until the nineteenth century, this idea had been widely agreed upon. It had led Enlightenment thinkers to subordinate the fight against oppression to the fight against obscurantism. In his Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations, Voltaire noted that human history had been continuously disfigured by superstition “until philosophy finally came to enlighten men.”

This “subjectivist” conception of history—which cast the beliefs of individuals as the main engine behind the human adventure—gave way to a “materialist” understanding that relegated the influence of beliefs and ideas to a secondary, subordinate status, without autonomous influence and wholly dependent on the political, economic, and natural circumstances that preceded them.



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