BOOK: "Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750"

Date: Wed Feb 28 2001 - 07:05:39 MST

Here's a review of a very interesting book by Jonathan Israel. It seems to
be consonant with my own on-going re-evaluation of the Enlightenment, and is
going onto the top of my reading list:

   <<<>>> <<<>>> <<<>>>


EVEN revolutions need their patron saints. Revolutionary France canonised
Voltaire and Rousseau as the fathers of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity".
And to honour their prophetic status, in 1793 - just as the Revolution was
winding up to its most frenzied killing-spree, the Terror - their mortal
remains were installed in the Pantheon, the new republic's Temple of Heroes,
in a ritual of suitably pagan splendour.

Since 1793 historians have generally concurred that the two great thinkers
had merited their place in the Pantheon. In the Enlightenment, the
intellectual movement that did so much to undermine the foundations of the
ancien regime, they were obviously giants, exposing the effrontery of the
monarch's claim to rule by divine right, denouncing the Church as a peddler
of superstition, and elevating nature and human reason over the bogus
authority of scripture and tradition.

Of course, freedom-loving England produced Enlightened figures of its own -
not least Locke, Shaftesbury and Toland - but they were clearly outshone and
outsold by the French philosophes. Voltaire in the 1740s and Rousseau in the
1760s were both Europe-wide publishing phenomena.

Or so it has seemed until now. Enter Jonathan Israel - once described as the
thinking person's Simon Schama - one of Britain's most distinguished
historians, recently sadly brain-drained to Princeton. His vast - and vastly
impressive - book sets out to redefine the intellectual landscape of early
modern Europe. Beside this enormous 800-page JCB, earlier toilers in the
field seem to have been working with buckets and spades. If he is right,
these former historians of the Enlightenment have got the topography of their
chosen field quite spectacularly wrong.

First, argues Israel, let us reassess Voltaire and Rousseau. Of course, they
had a huge influence as synthesisers and popularisers. But by the time they
appeared on the scene to reap their success, "the real business was already
over". The truly "revolutionary concepts" had been sown almost a century
earlier, and by other hands.

So, too, with the question of chronology. The real watershed - the age of
truly "Radical Enlightenment" - Israel argues, lay in the last quarter of the
17th century. And rather than being either French or English, it was a
genuinely pan-European phenomenon. "National" approaches to the Enlightenment
simply fail to grasp the inter-connectedness of ideas and influences across
the European continent - hence the stupendous scale of this book, which
ranges from London to Moscow, Stockholm to Naples, in a virtuoso display of
polyglot learning.

Until the 1650s, Israel argues, European society - for all its divisions
between Roman Catholic and Protestant - had been built on a common
theological foundation: the belief in an all-powerful God. He intervened
directly in human affairs, and gave his divine sanction to the hereditary
monarchies through which most European states were ruled.

>From the middle of the 17th century, however, this theistic world-view was
assailed from a variety of quarters: from the scientific revolutions of
Galileo and Newton; from advances in mathematics, which seemed to offer a
higher and purer standard of "truth" than revealed religion; and, above all,
from a new and dangerous group of "atheist" philosophers, who either denied
the existence of the deity or so closely identified him with Nature as to
make the traditional Christian idea of a personal God seem absurd.

And by far the most subversive and influential of these radicals, Israel
argues, was Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77), the Amsterdam Jew whom most
historians have tended to dismiss hitherto as the Cinderella at the
Enlightenment Ball.

To Spinoza, the rituals of religion were nothing more than a response to
psychological weakness and superstition. The belief that God intervenes in
the world to punish wickedness he regarded as self-evidently false, since
natural calamities afflict the virtuous and the wicked alike.

With the dethroning of God, it was but a short step to the dethroning of
temporal kings. Spinozan atheism struck at the very idea of a divinely
sanctioned social hierarchy of any kind, still less one with a monarch and an
aristocracy at its top.

Israel argues that Spinoza and his philosophy sent a seismic shock through
the European continent in the last decades of the 17th century. Whether in
universities, learned societies, churches or coffee-houses, European
intellectual life was divided among warring factions of traditionalists and
radicals, with varying shades of moderates - striving to achieve a synthesis
between the old and new - caught in the crossfire in between. Treatises and
pamphlets poured from the presses - or, if really subversive, in manuscript -
all of them to some extent touched by the new ferment of radical ideas.

Many of these authors are hardly household names: step forward Geulincx,
Bredenburg, Bekker, Burman and Wachter. The attention they receive here is
itself a reflection of the powerful originality of a book that sets out to
redefine the entire dramatis personae of the Enlightenment, re-assigning
major roles, and introducing a far more varied and cosmopolitan cast than has
ever previously been allowed to be seen.

In so gargantuan an edifice, there is inevitably the occasional crack. How
far the Enlightenment radicals were influenced by Spinoza - rather than a
series of other possible contenders - is never definitively established. And
the case that 18th-century political radicalism was philosophically derived
is more often assumed than proved. But these are the merest quibbles beside
the scale of Professor Israel's achievement.

Magnificent and magisterial, Radical Enlightenment will undoubtedly be one of
truly great historical works of the decade.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:56:48 MDT