Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jonathan Israel's 'A Revolution of the Mind': Not Locke, Newton and Voltaire, but Spinoza, Diderot and d'Holbach who define Enlightenment

Jonathan Israel teaches at Princeton University, and the book, 'A Revolution of the Mind' (Prince University Press: 2010), flows from the Isaiah Berlin lectures he delivered at Oxford University in 2008. The subtitle of the book, 'Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Roots of Modern Democracy' reveals the argument of the book.
 Israel distinguishes between mainstream Englihtenment -- 18th century intellectual Europe -- represented by Voltaire, Adam Smith and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- and which traces its main ideas from Newton, Locke and Montesqieu, and Radical Enlightenment -- represented by Diderot, d'Holbach, Helvetius and Tom Paine. And intellectual roots of Radical Enlightenment go back to 17th century Dutch-Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza.
The argument is that the ideas of democracy we take for granted like freedom of speech, equality before law, scientific temperament have been propagated for the first time and with tremendous energy by the Radical Enlightenment thinkers. He also argues that it is not possible to understand the ideas that expressed themselves during the French Revolution without the Radical Englightenment.
The difference between the two Enlightenments is this: mainstream Enlightenment did not argue for the need to question the rationality of monarchy, nobility and higher clergy. Voltaire made fun of religious superstition and questioned priesthood but he did not ever flirt with atheism or preach egalitarianism. Adam Smith, father modern economics and market economy, was comfortable with monarchy and aristocrats/nobility.  On the other hand, Radical Enlgihtenment thinkers did believed in a republican polity, where the king was redundant as much as the noble and the priest. Reason was the only guide they would accept and not custom or tradition. Though none of them was a debauch or a criminal, they did not believe in traditional morality. Radical Enlightenment also believed that all the old inequalities could be destroyed if people were educated enough. Voltaire strenuously opposed the atheistic, egalitarian Radical Enlightenment, and he attacked the ideas of Spinoza which were at the root of the radical movement.
Israel shows that Rousseau was opposed to the rule of reason and he was at loggerheads with Diderot and his friends. Robespierre, the political disciple of Rousseau, who unleashed the Reign of Terror and who introduced the idea of killing the enemies of the Revolution, was also anti-rational. Israel says that Robespierre was anti-Radical Enlightenment. This is indeed the most debatable point that Israel makes. From what one knows of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre converted churches into temples of reason, and he does not show any traces of Rousseau-an sentimentality. Of course, he seemed to have believed in Rousseau's General Will.
The other major point that Israel makes is the old idea, which was pushed to the margins by Marxist and other leftist hisorians: that it was philosophes or the encyclopedists, the group formed by Diderot and even Voltaire, who sowed the seeds of French Revolution. Marxists and others argued that it was the economic conditions -- the so-called material conditions -- that led to the eruption of the French Revolution and not ideas.
Israel ends with the plausible argument that today's liberal modern democracy, where individual liberties are seen as the sole criterion, is indeed the legacy created by Radical Enlightenment, and that not enough attention has been paid to Spinoza, Diderot, d'Holbach of having spearheaded the intellectual revolution which preceded the essentially political French Revolution.
Israel has redrawn the intellectual contours of 18th century Europe, which is interesting and debatable as well.

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