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

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

5

CENSORSHIP AND CULTURE

i. French Royal Censorship

A crucial factor shaping the rise of radical thought in Europe—as well in a different way, the moderate Enlightenment—was the impact of censorship, secular and ecclesiastical. While it is true that Europe's intellectual censorship in early modern times was unsystematic and frequently inefficient, providing minimal scope for coordination across political and jurisdictional borders and exhibiting all the chaotic, bewildering, institutional, and procedural variety characteristic of the ancien régime, one must not underestimate either its broad impact or the degree of ideological convergence all varieties of institutionalized censorship manifested in fighting radical ideas. All across the continent, albeit with varying degrees of intensity, unacceptable views were suppressed and publishers, printers, and booksellers, as well as authors of books embodying illicit ideas punished.

Even in Europe's two freest societies—the Dutch Republic and England—lands where urban culture was most prevalent, and the rigid social hierarchies of the past had become most fluid, radical writers were more profoundly influenced by censorship than is often realized. In Britain there was a marked easing of censorship after the Glorious Revolution, and especially the expiry of the Licensing Act in 1695, a phenomenon linked to a more general receding of the Church of England's influence in cultural life.1 Nevertheless, appreciable constraints remained. Deistic writers who denied miracles and the divine authorship of Scripture, decried the established Church, or the constitutional outcome of the Glorious Revolution, could not ignore restrictions imposed by parliamentary authority. Especially, the Blasphemy Act of 1698, which expressly outlawed denial of Christ's divinity, and rejection of the Trinity (except for Jews, who were exempt from its provisions), was not to be treated lightly. Toland's first book, Christianity not Mysterious (1696), may have been timed to exploit the demise of the Licensing Act, but that did not prevent its being denounced, and publicly burnt, by both the English and Irish Parliaments, while Toland himself was obliged to flee Ireland, where he had returned in expectation of appointment to a government post, orders being issued for his prosecution as a 'public and inveterate enemy to all reveal'd religion… one who openly affected to be

1 Goldie, 'Theory', 331–3; Bossy, 'English Catholics'. 375; Israel, 'William III and Toleration', 161–2; Casini,
Introduzione, 1, 49.

-97-

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