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

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

8

SPINOZA

Spinoza, then, emerged as the supreme philosophical bogeyman of Early Enlightenment Europe. Admittedly, historians have rarely emphasized this. It has been much more common, and still is, to claim that Spinoza was rarely understood and had very little influence, a typical example of an abiding historiographical refrain which appears to be totally untrue but nevertheless, since the nineteenth century, has exerted an enduring appeal for all manner of scholars. In fact, no one else during the century 1650–1750 remotely rivalled Spinoza's notoriety as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality, and what was everywhere regarded, in absolutist and non-absolutist states alike, as divinely constituted political authority.

Admittedly, in Britain many (but by no means all) writers deemed Hobbes more widely pervasive than Spinoza as a promotor of freethinking, irreligion, and incredulity. But given Hobbes' politics, and his attitude to ecclesiastical power and censorship, as well as his being (by his own admission) philosophically less bold and comprehensive, he simply was not, and could not have been, the source and inspiration for a systematic redefinition of man, cosmology, politics, social hierarchy, sexuality, and ethics in the radical sense Spinoza was. When placed in a full historical context, Spinoza evidently had no real rival even in England as the chief progenitor and author of 'that hideous hypothesis', as Hume (ironically?) called it, the 'doctrine of the simplicity of the universe, and the unity of that substance, in which "Spinoza" supposes both thought and matter to inhere',1 eliminating divine Providence and governance of the world, in other words, the Naturalistic, materialist, one-substance undercurrent culminating in La Mettrie and Diderot.

But is it likely, one might well object, or even conceivable, that any single seventeenth-century author, let alone an aloof, solitary figure raised among a despised religious minority who lacked formal academic training and status, can have fundamentally and decisively shaped a tradition of radical thinking which eventually spanned the whole continent, exerted an immense influence over successive generations, and shook western civilization to its foundations? Can one thinker meaningfully be said to have forged a line of thought which furnished the philosophical matrix, including the idea of evolution, of the entire radical wing of the European Enlightenment, an ideological stance subscribed to by dozens of writers and thinkers right

1 Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 240–1.

-159-

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