Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

1

Early Enlightenment, Revolution,
and the Modern Age

1. ANCIEN RÉGIME AND REVOLUTION

Even a cursory study of the French Revolution will soon convince an attentive student that the ideology and rhetoric of revolution in late eighteenth-century Europe, and not least the slogans—'liberty', 'equality', and 'fraternity'—were very intimately connected with the new ideas of the Enlightenment. Pre-revolutionary early modern societies, by contrast, were unquestionably too steeped in tradition, theological doctrine, and the mystique of kingship, as well as too respectful of legitimacy rooted in the past, and idealized conceptions of the community, to embrace 'revolution' in the modern sense of a 'radical change and a departure', as one scholar expressed it, 'from traditional or accepted modes of thought, belief, action, social behaviour or political or social organization'.1 Still less conceivable in early modern times was a 'universal revolution' of the kind urged by the radical philosophes of the Enlightenment, that is revolution moral, cultural, and political, based on schemes for fundamental reorganization potentially applicable to any society.

The basic difference between pre-modern revolts and upheavals and modern revolution, therefore, is that, with the former, justification of social and political change invariably invoked theological fundamenta, customary law, and veneration of tradition while modern revolutions quintessentially legitimize themselves in terms of, and depend on, non-traditional, and newly introduced, fundamental concepts. What historians of 'modernity' are really striving to pinpoint when they set out to investigate the phenomenon of 'modernity', then, and within 'modernity' the problem of 'revolution', is the difference between social, cultural, and political renewal expressed theologically, traditionally, and dynastically, on the one hand, and, on the other, far-reaching action and reform justified in secular, nontheological, and non-customary ideological terms.

1 Cohen, 'Eighteenth-Century Origins', 258; Zagorin, 'Prolegomena', 169–70; with respect to the
English Revolution, see Sharpe, 'An Image Doting Rabble', 54–6.

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