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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firstname.lastname@example.org 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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of thinking were consistently moulded by transnational influences (this is especially well documented with respect to the Catholic critics of the Enlightenment). This internationalism is illustrated in the third section of the book, an epic journey across the Enlightenment galaxy, highlighting the influence (and limits) of radical thinking on the founding fathers of the American Revolution, Francisco de Miranda and the struggle for Latin American independence, the fight for sovereignty and freedom in Poland and Russia, and the first European attempts to conceptualise the Asiatic societies of China and Japan. One of the intriguing insights here is that the work of Enlightenment thinkers was often first disseminated by the polemical writings of its adversaries (mostly religious conservatives) – evidence that Reason’s ways can be mysterious.
One of the leitmotifs of Democratic Enlightenment is the emergence of an ideological rift between the moderate and radical Enlightenments. The former approach, typified by the likes of Voltaire, David Hume and Kant, was sceptical and rationalist but deferential to existing political and social hierarchies, and careful not to challenge the idea of divinity (as distinct from established religion); indeed Voltaire’s entire political strategy was predicated on cultivating enlightened despots such as Frederick the Great, in the hope that greater freedom would ensue.
This complacent approach brought few dividends and so was increasingly contested from the 1770s by a more radical strand, typified by the Histoire philosophique and by the writings of Diderot, Helvétius, d’Holbach, Mercier and their younger disciples such as Naigeon. These men portrayed all existing societies as plagued by superstition, corruption and despotism; their alternative was grounded in principles that were materialist, democratic and secular. Men would never be free, Diderot claimed, until the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Israel illustrates this philosophical turn towards republican radicalism in a chapter on the emergence of a purely materialist interpretation of natural catastrophes, and in the growing body of works by pamphleteers in France, Italy (the work of Giuseppe Gorani) and America (notably Tom Paine’s Common Sense). This revolutionary surge also brought republican regimes briefly to power in Corsica, the Netherlands and Naples. Richly illustrated in Mozart’s later operas, this egalitarian, fraternal spirit, fundamentally at odds with the aristocratic order of the ancien régime, pervaded European culture in the later years of the Enlightenment and accomplished the ‘revolution of the mind’ which led directly to the fall of the Bastille in July 1789.
So far, so good – even though Israel considerably overplays the ideological coherence of his ‘radical’ Enlightenment. Recent scholarship has shown that the Histoire philosophique is much more of a patchwork of texts. Furthermore, the credentials of some ‘radicals’ are eminently suspect, in particular Herder, one of the ideological founders of German nationalism, who was later gushingly celebrated in Nazi textbooks. It would have been preferable if Democratic Enlightenment had ended here, for a downward spiral begins in the fourth section, when Israel attempts to isolate the philosophical distinctiveness of his ‘radical’ republican strand. He does so by seeking to relativise the impact of Rousseau on the Enlightenment, pointing instead to the ‘incomparable cogency’ of the Dutch materialist and atheistic philosopher Spinoza. This section is unconvincing, not least because of Israel’s eccentric fixation with crediting Spinoza, who died a century earlier, with every major philosophical and political advance in the later Enlightenment. Demonised as the ‘supreme patriarch’ of materialism by the anti-philosophes, Israel’s Spinoza swoops in to arbitrate the dispute between Kant and the German Counter-Enlightenment. He is even responsible for causing the French Revolution – or so a throwaway quote from Necker appears to allege.
Rousseau’s thought presents an awkward problem for Israel’s conceptual distinction, as he combined elements of moderation (his deism) with a radical republican commitment to democratic rule and popular sovereignty. Moreover, in his emphasis on sentiment and tradition, Rousseau’s philosophy overlapped with elements of the Counter-Enlightenment. Rather than amending his tidy schema, Israel responds by attempting to delegitimise Rousseau through repeated swipes at his character and glaring misrepresentations of his ideas. Among the most notable are the contentions that Rousseau was a ‘chauvinist’ and that his system ‘leaves ample room for racism’ (a claim that would have perplexed the long line of radical advocates of racial equality, from Simón Bolívar to Frantz Fanon, inspired by the Genevan philosopher). Israel also asserts that Rousseau’s general will is an empirical proposition, based on the actual wishes of the people – a point explicitly denied in the Contrat social (‘there is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will’). The climax of this verbiage comes in the musing by Israel that ‘it must give pause for thought that an impressive list of honourable men denounced Rousseau’s hypocrisy, contrariness, paradoxes, and bad nature’. Things are clearly getting desperate when an intellectual historian of radicalism has to appeal to the imprimatur of bien-pensant elites to make his case. This kind of reasoning also produces curious moral results. The men – eminently honourable – who led the American Revolution were in favour of slavery: this presumably signifies, if we follow Israel’s logic, that slavery is a good thing.
And so now, considerably damaged,
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