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Summer 2011

What was the Enlightenment?

book cover imageA Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy
by Jonathan Israel
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Pages xiv, 276.

Christopher O. Blum

“For what do we live,” Mr. Bennet asked his second daughter, having just read to her a particularly egregious letter from Mr. Collins, “but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” The wistful irony that Jane Austen perfectly captured in this maxim-like question not only matches the mentality of many a contemporary historian, but, more importantly, reflects a common attitude toward the enterprise of historical interpretation as a whole. Take the fourth century as a case in point. Do many think that it matters whether we speak of it as the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, or of the rise of Christianity, or of the transformation of the Late Antique world? Gibbon, Dawson, Brown: who bothers to ask which of them is correct? Are the labels of historical periods at all significant? As readers and as writers we now seem to flee grand narratives with their ready periodizations and instead content ourselves with the diary of a disaffected nun, the chronicle of a faddish fascination with the tulip, or yet another third-rate biography of Lincoln.

Against all such ironic detachment—and much else—comes a champion to the lists, Jonathan Israel, opposing “resurgent forms of bigotry, oppression, and prejudice” with an epic tale of the origins of “modern secular egalitarianism” in the works of the Radical Enlightenment. Proposing to fill the “gigantic yawning gap” in the story of the origins of modern democracy, Professor Israel has in A Revolution of the Mind offered a manageable summary of his near three-thousand-page trilogy, Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and the forthcoming Democratic Enlightenment (2011). Unlike these volumes, which are for the most part ordered chronologically, A Revolution of the Mind presents a thematic overview of Israel’s sweeping reinterpretation of the Enlightenment. With chapters on ideas of progress, democratic theory, the rise of classical economics, Enlightenment debates on war and peace and on moral philosophy, and a summary chapter on Voltaire and Spinoza, the volume does a turn around most of the major concerns of the eighteenth century, with even natural philosophy appearing from time to time. To readers interested in a brisk, even bracing account of the Enlightenment that never loses the forest amongst the trees, this book has much to recommend itself.

Israel’s contention, in brief, is that we should not think of the Enlightenment as a unitary phenomenon—the single “party of humanity” of Cassirer, Becker, and, especially, Peter Gay. Nor should we bow to the more recent trend of seeing an irreducible multiplicity of Enlightenments divided into so many national styles: the Scottish, the American, the French, the German, and so on. No, the Enlightenment was, he argues, essentially a duality, a long drawn-out fight between a time-serving, toadying Moderate Enlightenment—nervous about the restive masses and cozy with the despots, the rich, and even at times the Jesuits—and the pure at heart, resolute, and, as the century wore on, increasingly revolutionary Radical Enlightenment. The basis of this interpretation is Israel’s confidence that men are moved by their ideas, and at its very heart lies an event about which nothing “makes the slightest sense or even can be provisionally explained” without granting the motive force of ideas and, in particular, the ideas of the Radical Enlightenment. That event, of course, is the French Revolution.

It is here that Israel’s argument is strongest, although not perhaps as explicit as it might have been. In effect, his position seems to be something like this. Yes, it is true there were differences in style within the Enlightenment, and these differences sometimes roughly map on to national boundaries. So in England, the tone was set by the Moderate Enlightenment, while in France, especially after 1770, the Radical Enlightenment was increasingly vocal and influential. But if we allow ourselves to attend only to the Voltaires, Franklins, and Humes of the world, we will miss the fact that these and other members of the Moderate Enlightenment were not in fact setting the terms of the debate; they were instead reacting to positions laid down by the Radicals, positions often traceable directly to the works of Spinoza. It is as if Israel were looking at the assembled ranks of the eighteenth-century philosophes and publicists as so many denizens of a faculty common room. In the center of the room are the full professors who enjoy the privileges of rank and respectability, surrounded by their epigones, keen to please so that they might fare well in their careers. But amongst this gathering are those who look anxiously over their shoulders to a knot of less prepossessing characters huddled in the corner, talking about the latest in critical theory. These, too, have impressive degrees, and moreover they are brilliant and seemingly fearless. Although the respectable ones in the center of the room do not approve of them, their own liberal principles prohibit them either from dispatching them to some academic Siberia or even ignoring them. Who knows, after all, what shard of shattered truth might shine forth from these luminaries of the Sorbonne and Berlin? And they are so popular, after all, with our brightest graduate students. So the radicals, almost inevitably, succeed in defining the terms of academic debate. Even when they are not explicitly opposed, they are worried about. And so it went in the academies, salons, and coffee shops of the eighteenth century.

Yet how are we to gauge the quantity or influence of the anxious backward glances of the moderate philosophes? Why should we even suppose them to have been significant? The answer, ultimately, is that the French Revolution happened and that we are all its heirs. Today, Israel avers, we take for granted such principles as social and economic equality and the universal toleration of religious beliefs and lifestyles, and we do not tolerate the interference of dogmatic religious claims upon our polity. But such principles have only triumphed in the aftermath of World War II. Between the reaction to Napoleon and the middle of the twentieth century, the Moderate Enlightenment had its day, and it was a day of continued oppression through colonial empires, male chauvinism, economic elitism, and low-grade religious bigotry. The resources for the principles we hold so dearly today, Israel endlessly repeats, are not to be found in the works of Rousseau, Adam Smith, the Federalist Papers, and the like. They are only fully present in the writings of the great triumvirs of Radical Enlightenment—Diderot, Bayle, and Spinoza—and the host of their followers, including, notably Tom Paine. And, prior to the 1970s, these principles were only fully prosecuted during that dawn of liberty, the French Revolution, especially during those years between the fall of Robespierre and the rise of Napoleon, when, as Israel memorably puts it, “the Revolution of reason again had the upper hand,” and was once again able to gain some real success in its “conscious and systematic effort to erase completely the institutions and consciousness of the past and replace these across the board with the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

One cannot help but admire in Professor Israel the courage of his convictions. Against his detractors on the Left, who have not been lacking, he stands tall. To defend himself against the criticism that he writes present-centered history (to the professional historian the sin of sins), he dons the helm of the “new natural morality,” true today and for all times because based on reason alone and not prejudice. In the face of the arrows of methodological censure—especially the charge that he ignores the findings of social history—he straps on the breastplate of “plain intellectual cogency.” How do we know the Radical Enlightenment really was influential? Because its concepts were clear. And to the faint of heart who complain about his dogmatism, he brandishes the sword of “one-substance metaphysics.” There is nothing to fear from the forceful presentation of Radical Enlightenment, for it offers us “the idea of a universal system of higher values self-evident in reason and equity.” God and Nature are one. Man is thinking matter and not spirit. Happiness is to be sought in this life alone. Liberty and the universal and equal provision of it is the common good. And, these values being under attack by a new intolerance, we must be ever-vigilant in their defense. For, as he somewhat shrilly asserted in his 2004 Bayle Lecture, “neither democracy, nor toleration nor individual freedom can long survive unless government, teachers, media reporters and police in whatever country join together in a co-ordinated fashion; acting promptly, consistently and without hesitation to block theological power and calls from the pulpit, wherever and whenever these seek to mobilize sections of the populace against unpopular minorities, dissenters, homosexuals, women, and independent critical thinkers.”

It is not surprising that one who expresses his convictions in such a manner should paint a history with broad strokes of the brush. It would be easy enough to quibble, as some have already done, about his interpretation of this thinker or that text. Suffice it to say that alongside the tendentious claims, there is also much here, as in his other, longer studies, that is marvellously perceptive and essentially accurate. The role in promoting the Radical Enlightenment that he ascribes to the English and American Unitarians, to name but one example, is surely true and important. And his sleuthing around the long eighteenth century—his veritable unearthing of the Radical Enlightenment—has been truly indefatigable. It is a shame, therefore, that some will dismiss his labors as mere propaganda, for propaganda surely they are.

To those who agree with him that men are chiefly moved by their ideas, Israel has provided a singular corrective to the flight from grand historical narrative. By championing the Radical Enlightenment and its conviction that “the ‘revolution of the mind’ of the 1770s and 1780s [was] the decisive turning-point in the history of modernity and all humanity,” he has offered to his readers a wonderful proposition to either affirm or deny. Yet those who do agree with him that human actions chiefly proceed from the work of the intellect may find it hard to accept the abrupt materialism—the “one-substance metaphysics”—that he insists is the basis for Radical Enlightenment. And if thought be not what Darwin once scribbled in his notebook, “a secretion of the brain,” then will not the Radical Enlightenment—on Israel’s account the precursor in the minds of men to the French Revolution and to the rise of “modern secular egalitarianism”—have been somewhat misleadingly named?  

Christopher O. Blum is professor of humanities at Thomas More College.

Posted: July 24, 2011

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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