Reason to be Cheerful, Part 5


Frontispiece of Über den Menschen und seine Verhältnisse, by Carl Wilhelm Frölich, 1792. Engraving by Carl Christian Glaßbach

From Eurozine:

Professor of Modern European History at the Institute for Advanced Study located in Princeton, New Jersey, Israel built his reputation as a historian of the Spanish and Dutch empires. Over the past decade, however, he has published an extraordinary trilogy, Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested and Democratic Enlightenment, that has begun to reset the debate about the character of the period and its meaning for the modern world.

The size of Israel’s labours is eye-catching. Each work in the trilogy runs to almost a thousand pages; in total there must be close to two million words here. Equally eye-catching is the detail. Israel possesses an astonishing command of sources in English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Swedish. It sometimes seems as if there is no pamphlet he has not read, no debate he has not revisited, no intellectual alleyway into which he has not poked his head. What really sets the trilogy apart, however, is the way that Israel has wielded all that detail to cement a new structure for understanding the Enlightenment.

Like many before him, Israel lauds the Enlightenment as that transformative period when Europe shifted from being a culture “based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority” to one in which “everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason” and in which “theology’s age-old hegemony” was overthrown. And, yet, despite language and imagery that hark back to Kant, Israel is also deeply critical of much of the Enlightenment, and hostile to the ideas of many of the figures that populate the works of Cassirer and Gay. At the heart of his argument is the insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know, which provides the public face of the Enlightenment, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment “rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely”.

In Israel’s view, what he calls the “package of basic values” that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derives principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment.