h i st or y s u dh i r h a z a r e e s i n g h
Free Radicals Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750–1790
By Jonathan I Israel (Oxford University Press 1066pp £30)
One of the major works of the later Enlightenment was the Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes, edited by Guillaume-Thomas Raynal. First published in six volumes in 1770, it had gone through over forty French editions by 1788, ranking high on the chart of forbidden bestsellers. There were also over twenty English editions (including several in Ireland and the United States), two rival German versions, as well as translations into Danish, Italian, Spanish and Polish. ‘Raynal’, as the collection was commonly known, also found a significant readership among educated elites in India and the Dutch Indies, in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Its ostensible theme, Europe’s global expansion from the founding of the Iberian settlements onwards, provided the setting for an indictment of colonialism: its exploitation and barbaric subjugation of native peoples and its rapacious perversion of the principles of commercialism. Nonetheless this behemoth had made the world into a single arena and thus demonstrated the universality of human aspirations for freedom and happiness. Shaped by the contributions of the most radical thinkers of the age (notably Denis Diderot), the underlying message of the Histoire philosophique represented a sharp revolutionary turn in the Enlightenment’s trajectory. After loftily celebrating reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge in the Encyclopédie, its leading figures were now advocating the extermination of tyranny across the world
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email@example.com and the creation of a society founded on the collective good. The ‘French madness’, as Catherine the Great called it, soon spread everywhere: the Histoire philosophique was one of the inspirations behind a global democratic challenge to autocratic rule in the final decades of the eighteenth century, from Radishchev’s radicalism in imperial Russia to the Túpac Amaru revolt in Peru, culminating in the rebellion in the American colonies and the French Revolution of 1789.
In its monumentalism and its encyclopedic coverage of its subject, as well as in the scale of its ambitions, Jonathan Israel’s own oeuvre echoes the Histoire philosophique. Democratic Enlightenment, the third and final instalment of his comprehensive intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is a prodigious undertaking. Over 1,000 pages long, this compendious volume is all at once a celebration of the Enlightenment against its conservative and postmodern critics, a global intellectual history of the dissemination of its core ideas in the later eighteenth century, a conceptual exegesis of the shift from moderation to philosophical radicalism, a defence of a particular strand – materialist, rationalist and secular – within that radical tradition and a revisionist account of the origins of the French Revolution. While the book ultimately fails to deliver in the latter respects, its first three goals are generally achieved. Democratic Enlightenment’s greatest accomplishment, grounded in Israel’s erudition, is the panoramic view it offers of Enlightenment thinking: a magnificent perspective that begins with the publication of the Encyclopédie in the 1750s and 1760s and the serious internecine conflicts among the philosophes which accompanied it. Through a methodical analysis of the disputes among the Encyclopédie’s leading contributors, Israel establishes that this landmark publication was much less coherent and intellectually unified than is commonly believed.
The second part of Democratic Enlightenment explores the range and depth of Enlightenment thinking across Scotland, Central Europe, Italy and Spain. Israel’s key point is that the emphasis placed on national variants of the Enlightenment is fundamentally mistaken, and that patterns
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