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A treat, not a trick

October 31, 2011


israelIt is done.  Jonathan I. Israel (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) has finally completed his 3,263 page dual history of the “radical enlightenment” (think Spinoza, Diderot, and d’Holbach) and “moderate enlightenment” (think Descartes, Locke, Voltaire and Kant).  (I was already in awe of Israel’s 1300 page history of the golden age of Netherlands, which is even deeper and more persuasive than Simon Schama’s excellent history.)

Israel is a particular expert in enlightenment history, Dutch history, and Jewish history.  His history consists of three volumes of continuous narrative together with a fourth volume summarizing his views as given in a lecture series:

Israel denies Kant’s famous assertion:

If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.

He counters Kant because Kant’s age was an age of competing enlightenments:  the Radical Enlightenment, the Moderate Enlightenment, and the conservative reaction Counter Enlightenment.

The Radicals (Spinoza) put forward a monist philosophical system (the universe is composed of one substance: “nature,” or if you wish “God.” ) On the one hand, the Moderates (Descartes) put forward a dualist philosophical system that was compatible with traditional Judeo-Christian conceptions of God.  Finally, the Counters argued for traditional views of religion and monarchy.

We have learned to trace our intellectual pedigree to the Moderates, and thus we have the belief that the eighteenth century democratic movements were primarily influenced by Moderates with a few Counters thrown in for good measure.  While this is part true (e.g., some of the American “Founding Fathers” were deists [Moderate], while others were unitarian [Radical]),  Israel points out that democracy originated from the philosophy of the Radicals, who consistently argued that all men (and in the case of many Radical philosophers, women) were capable of reason.  In contrast, the Moderates took what frankly must be admitted to be elitist point of view (e.g., Voltaire’s statement that “nine-tenths of mankind do not deserve to be enlightened.”)

Moderate philosophy sought to reform religious and government abuse, but did not seek to overthrow mixed religio-political government or class-based society; unlike the Radicals who sought a purely secular, democratic government.

To the extent that one buys into Israel’s thesis (which is brilliantly presented) one cannot but help wince at the American Christian-Patriotic movement, as represented for instance by that paradox of a book, the NKJV American Patriot’s Bible.  Secular democracy is not based on Christian Origins at all.  (For a lively discussion of the American Christian-Patriot movement, I can recommend The Annointed).

Israel’s work reminds me of Gibbon’s work in its length magisterial scope, although Israel’s work is focused more on the history of ideas than Gibbon’s and considers a considerably narrower (although no less interesting) range of time.  Like Gibbon, Israel is eminently readable – so just as I wish to reread Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire every few years, I believe I will want to reread Israel as well. 

SpinozaIn many ways, Spinoza is the hero of Israel’s quartet, and this series will have interest for anyone who wants to deeply explore the implications of the consequences of Spinoza’s thought.  (As long as I am mentioning Spinoza, let me express my delight with the wonderful Hackett anthology of his collected writings in English translation, which clearly combines his works in a single, highly readable volume.)

I do agree with the Christian-Patriot’s insistence that the intellectual origin of our democratic system matters.  A conservative populist, Glenn Beck, has written a series of works in which he puts forward an alternate intellectual history of the origins of United States’ democracy.  Beck’s vision is not compelling, though – while Israel’s is firmly documented and convincing.  Even those who find themselves disagreeing with Israel are likely to feel challenged by his writing and in determining where they disagree with his premises.

If you have a few days of leisure, and want to embark on an intellectual adventure, I can highly recommend Israel’s quartet of books to you.  And if your time is more limited, then I think you will find his shorter Revolution of the Mind engaging (although I suspect that after finishing it, you will be filled with an overwhelming desire to dive into the longer trilogy of books.)

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