By Stan Persky | June 12, 2002

Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001)

For better than a hundred and fifty debate-charged years, beginning around 1650, the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment changed Europe’s mind about almost everything worth thinking about. As Princeton historian Jonathan Israel says in Radical Enlightenment, his massive new account of "the making of modernity," that upheaval not only produced remarkable–and, many thought, dangerous–new ideas about God, the nature of the universe, and the very ways in which we think, but also sought to "demolish all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality and democracy."

Through the Middle Ages, right on down to the mid-17th century, "western civilization was based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition, and authority." It was a civilization, says Israel, "in which almost no one challenged the essentials of Christianity or the basic premises of what was taken to be a divinely ordained system of aristocracy, monarchy,
land-ownership" and church authority.

By contrast, after 1650, "everything was questioned in the light of philosophical reason and frequently challenged or replaced by startlingly different concepts generated by the new philosophy." Nothing in the preceding movements of the Renaissance and the Reformation so thoroughly resulted, as the title of one 17th century English pamphlet aptly put it, in a "world turned upside down."

Most standard histories of the ideas of the period, such as Norman Hampson’s concise The Enlightenment (Penguin, 1968), focus on what Israel calls the "moderate mainstream." This was the Enlightenment, he says, "which aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish toleration, and revolutionize ideas… but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged essential elements of the older structures, effecting a viable synthesis of old and new, and of reason and faith." Its principal figures were Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton and John Locke.

Israel’s focus, however, is on that part of the tide of new concepts which "were of a distinctly radical character, that is, totally incompatible with the fundamentals of traditional authority, thought, and belief."

The surprising protagonist of Radical Enlightenment is a Dutch thinker of Portuguese-Jewish descent, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77), a younger contemporary of Descartes. The son of a middling Amsterdam merchant family, Spinoza was excommunicated from the local Jewish community for his unorthodox views while still in his mid-twenties. He spent the remainder of his brief life working as a lens-grinder in small Dutch towns, hanging out with dissident Protestant thinkers, and writing books that were quickly and crushingly banned by those severe-looking Calvinist theologians and
merchants one sees in the paintings of Dutch masters. Censors notwithstanding, Spinoza’s influence, Israel persuasively argues, was enduring.

Jonathan Israel isn’t the first historian to recognize Spinoza’s importance, but he is the first to place him at the centre of modern European intellectual history. In the last two decades, there’s been a surge of scholarly interest in the ideas of this overlooked democratic deist. Canadian philosopher Jonathan Bennett’s A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (Hackett, 1984), and British philosopher Roger Scruton’s Spinoza (Oxford, 1986) were harbingers of this revival, and more recent important works include Steven Smith’s Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity (Yale, 1997), and Steven Nadler’s Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999), the first complete biography in English. Israel makes the case that Spinoza was the main impetus of a century-long subversive intellectual assault on organized religion and monarchic forms of government, and was regarded by his theologically-minded contemporaries as a raging atheist.

So, what did Spinoza believe or, perhaps more importantly, what did his acolytes and outraged opponents think that Spinoza believed? One early 18th century list of the fundamentals of Spinozaism that Israel cities includes his "identification of God with the universe, the rejection of organized religion, the abolition of Heaven and Hell, together with reward and punishment in the hereafter, a morality of individual happiness in the here and now, and the doctrine that there is no reality beyond the unalterable laws of Nature and, consequently, no Revelation, miracles or prophecy."

Spinoza called what he believed "God," but to most contemporaries it looked like godless Nature. Well before English deists such as John Toland and Anthony Collins challenged the traditional Christian concept of God, Spinoza had, if not deconstructed, at least redistributed the idea of a god into the laws and substance of the natural world. Every subsequent thinker who seemed the least bit sympathetic to any of Spinoza’s ideas–whether Biblical critics of a historicist bent or local pastors who doubted miracles–was sure to be accused of Spinozaism, which was the 18th century’s shorthand term for outright atheism. While Spinoza also favoured a democratic, commercial republic, something resembling the one in which he lived (but minus the theologians), it’s clear that much of the ensuing uproar was, and perhaps still is, really about religion.

To get some idea of Spinoza’s radicalism, one only has to compare his ideas to those of Descartes, who, a few years before Spinoza, also warmed his hands around a Dutch stove and wondered what the philosophical consequences would be of doubting everything he thought he knew. Although Descartes’ mind-bending contemplation of human consciousness in his narrative Meditations was unprecedented, Descartes’ investigations are nonetheless predicated upon an a priori acceptance of the conventional existence of God. Whether Descartes’ God was a feint in favour of political and theological prudence rather than a real belief is a matter of speculation, but Spinoza is distinguished by no such inhibitions. Descartes works from God and gets to the human mind. Spinoza starts with Nature, thus subsuming the supernatural from the beginning. Therein lies the radical shift in perspective, whether seen with the naked eye or through those Dutch lenses, variously ground to produce microscopes, spectacles, and telescopes.

Israel’s book traces a triangular battle of ideas between two wings of the early Enlightenment, mainstream and radical, and their implacably conservative theological opposition. The reason that all this matters is because "what was ultimately at stake was what kind of belief-system should prevail in Europe’s politics, social order, and institutions, as well as in high culture and, no less, in popular attitudes."

Although it is a commonplace to say that the Enlightenment eventually won out, leaving us the modern secular world, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in our own times ought to give us pause. As Stephen Smith rightly says in justifying the relevance of his recent book about Spinoza, "The religious issue that was hotly debated at the onset of modernity has once again acquired urgency. The rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and other quarters of the globe has created problems that would not have seemed possible even a generation ago."

Israel’s book provides a general introduction to radical enlightenment thought, an extensive summary of Spinoza’s own thinking, and then it gets down to cases and details. The "details," as the imposing size of this volume suggests, are numerous and weighty. Israel canvasses ideas and debates that involved dozens of now obscure philosophers and theologians across the Continent for the better part of a century, from the "Death of the Devil" Dutch debates of the 1690s to Julien de la Mettrie’s stark notion of "Man, the Machine" in mid-18th century France. Although Israel suggests a sweeping agenda that ranges from delegitimizing monarchy to suggestions for the improved status of women, the impression that emerges from his survey of case histories is that the debate is mainly about the supernatural. Further, it has less to do with the sort of grand theorizing imputed to Spinoza and more to do with obscure, sincere, local pastors trying to make sense of the invisible world, often naively working their way to some logical conclusion about the impossibility of, say, miracles, only to find themselves in theological hot water with their local religious councils.

Radical Enlightenment is clearly aimed at a limited audience of historians, other scholars, and students interested in intellectual history, but it poses considerable problems for a general readership. Simply at the practical level, Israel’s 300,000-word tome crammed onto more than 800 closely-printed pages is a work that requires readers to make use of one of those lenses Spinoza ground in order to earn a living. What’s more, the literally hundreds of quotations in French go untranslated (a style favoured by Oxford University Press), at times giving the book the appearance of a publication mandated by Bilingualism Canada.

Israel, whose previous opus is an equally authoritative and sizable volume, The Dutch Republic, here provides a fascinating account of how the battle of ideas actually played out a quarter-millennium ago. However, any hopes of reaching a broader audience with this story will likely require something like a 250-page popularised version of Radical Enlightenment along the lines of Hampson’s Enlightenment, which is overdue for an update anyway. That would improve the prospect of more of us becoming aware that fire and brimstone fundamentalism didn’t begin with TV evangelists or suicide-bomber terrorists. It would also serve as a reminder of the long roots of the "freedom to philosophize" debate upon which modernity is founded.

Bangkok, June 2002. A briefer version of this review first appeared in
the Winter 2002 issue of Books in Canada.
1558 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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