Spinoza got it

Margaret Jacob

  • A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy by Jonathan Israel
    Princeton, 276 pp, £13.95, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 15260 8

Once primarily interested in economic history, Jonathan Israel has more recently turned his attention to the intellectual roots of Western modernity in the 18th-century Enlightenment. In the 1980s, critics on the left would have told him not to bother. During that decade the Enlightenment became a prime target in the American culture wars. Postmodernists found it masculine, universalist and Eurocentric; fiscal conservatives read its texts selectively, finding value in Locke on government, or praising the free market philosophy of Adam Smith. Those were the days (to paraphrase Todd Gitlin) when the right got the White House and the left got the English departments, where the Enlightenment was seen as quaint at best and as the source of Western claims to superiority at worst.

The battles of the 1980s dimly echoed those waged over the Enlightenment during the Weimar Republic. In Davos in 1929, presenting his defence of Kant and the Enlightenment, the liberal idealist Ernst Cassirer faced down the philosopher and future Nazi Martin Heidegger. Observers claimed Heidegger won that debate. A German Jew who would go into exile four years later, Cassirer had urged his contemporaries to look into ‘that bright clear mirror fashioned by the Enlightenment’ and to abandon their false notions of progress. His classic study, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), argues that there is unity in the basic principles, despite the ostensible variety in the positions staked out by thinkers as different as Locke and Rousseau. They had in common a commitment to Newtonian science, and a belief that its laws of nature could be extended to society and to government so that both might become law-abiding and knowable. Cassirer’s view of the Enlightenment dominated historical writing as late as the 1960s, and is best represented by Peter Gay’s two magisterial volumes published in 1966 and 1969.

After Gay and Cassirer, two trends dominated Enlightenment history until Israel came on the scene. One situated the Enlightenment in a particular national context, giving little attention to the international circulation of enlightened texts and the widespread knowledge of French among the educated. Just as Europeans were forming an economic union, their common cultural legacy dropped out of the discussion. It became possible to question whether some countries had even experienced the Enlightenment. Everyone agreed there had been a Scottish Enlightenment, but sceptical historians, such as J.G.A. Pocock, asked if there had ever been an English one. People still write about the Enlightenment as experienced in a single country but they are now once again aware that ideas know only linguistic barriers. This is a lesson that Israel has learned.

The second trend was to situate the Enlightenment socially and politically within coteries, the political opposition, salons and Masonic lodges, and to locate republican tendencies among the enlightened. According to this school, the intellectual movement had its origins in the 1680s, in the response to the invigorated absolutism of Louis XIV in France and James II in England. The French Protestants who fled persecution, and Locke, who hid in the Dutch republic from agents sent by James II to capture him, were credited with formulating new ideas about religious toleration, representative government, Newtonian science and alternatives to absolutism in church and state.

With the political and international dimension restored, the cultural warriors of the left, disenchanted with postmodernism, reclaimed the Enlightenment, and this was where things stood when Israel entered the picture. For him, the unity of enlightened ideals was founded in philosophical materialism, in an atheism which allowed nature and the works of man t0 be explained solely in terms of matter in motion. All his books see a philosophical and ethical debt to Spinoza (who died in 1677) as guiding the Enlightenment project and giving momentum to its quest to establish republics based on a democratic egalitarianism. Spinoza’s conflation of God with nature, his attack on superstition and fundamentalist readings of the Bible, his denial of free will – leaving the passions simply to exist, unmoralised – set a new intellectual agenda whose effects were evident in the clandestine literature of the early 18th century and, after 1750, in the mature thought of French materialists such as Diderot, Helvétius and d’Holbach. For Israel, the true unity of the Enlightenment movement lies in what his 2001 book called a ‘Radical Enlightenment’, whose influence was fundamental, he now claims, to the French revolutionaries.[*]

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[*] Jonathan Rée wrote about Radical Enlightenment in the LRB of 14 January 2002.