A Revolution of the Mind? A Purge of the Enlightenment?

By Amato, Joseph | Modern Age, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

A Revolution of the Mind? A Purge of the Enlightenment?


Amato, Joseph, Modern Age


A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, by Jonathan Israel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)

The Enlightenment is a tried battleground. Countless wars over the meaning of modernity have been waged across it. Nineteenth-and twentieth-century liberals, socialists, utopians, and positivists essentially endorsed the Enlightenment's project, which, according to sympathetic historian Peter Gay, joined rationality, reformism, freedom, cosmopolitanism, and progress in a quest for a new human order. On the other end of the political spectrum, reactionaries and conservatives judged the Enlightenment as ahistorical and antitraditional, and believed it to be the ideological source of the godless French Revolution, Napoleon's hegemonic France, socialism, and much more.

Liberal-conservative Alexis de Torqueville interpreted the French Revolution as a consequence of the frightful convergence of democracy and the growing centralization of the ancien regime. Bifurcating the ideological inheritance of the Enlightenment, historian Jacob Talmon (d. 1980) argued that there emerged concurrently in the eighteenth century two opposing trends: liberal democracy and totalitarian democracy. The latter tyrannically assumed "the sole and exclusive truth of politics," the power of reason to survey all of human existence, and the right to remake life and society. It succumbed to "totalitarian messianism."

Contradicting both Gay and Talmon and critics on both sides of the debate, intellectual historian Jonathan Israel has devoted his scholarly career to declaring the existence of a second, distinct, and positive Enlightenment. He calls it the Radical Enlightenment. Since he has elaborated this thesis in two imposing prior volumes of nine hundred pages, and has promised an elephantine third, Israel's two-hundred-page summary, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, comes, if only for the sake of brevity, as a godsend.

Defining the Radical Enlightenment as a "revolution of the mind," he judges it "cone of the greatest and most decisive shifts in the history of humanity." He gives this mind that appears in full bloom in the 1760s and 1770s a long and pure lineage, an intellectual genealogy. He declares its founding father to be Dutch philosopher, Jew, and independent thinker Baruch de Spinoza (1632-77), and he finds that its primary ancestral lines descended through Dutch and German families rather than renowned English, Scottish, and French families.

Israel writes with filial piety of Spinoza as a new Moses. Spinoza infallibly fused matter and spirit, body and soul, into one substance. This freed Spinoza of contradictions and inherent confusions that characterize the thought of those who believe in a transcendent God and history. And specifically in contrast to those of Descartes, Hobbes, and Bayle (three long-esteemed and presumed-enlightened patriarchs), Spinoza's principles, Israel asserts, were "more resistant to being manipulated by religious authorities, powerful oligarchies, and dictatorship, and more democratic, libertarian, and egalitarian."

Spinoza's principles, according to Israel's intellectual genealogy, moved cohesively and singularly through "the spirit" of Europe. They did not move as part of sensibility or a worldview but stood as a set of identifiable propositions forming a clear, distinct, and correct mind. Spinoza's principles proceeded (by text and illumination) across history, declaring--wherever they became articulate--freedom, equality, and fraternity while fervently, and at the cost of persecution, denouncing dysfunctional, inconsistent, and arbitrary religious and political institutions. In all theaters of thought (economic, social, political, and international), which Israel cogently surveys, Spinoza's principles consistently called for secularism and democracy, as well as for the associated principles of freedom, egalitarianism, rationalism, internationalism, and, if not absolute pacifism, a cosmopolitanism dedicated, in the words of lesser-known thinker Cerisier, "to have no other fatherland than the universe, no other friends than truth and justice. …

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