Samuel Moyn, in "Mind the Enlightenment" [May 31], finds my "monomaniacal Spinoza worship" both "amusing and exasperating." Well, he is not half so exasperated as I am by his unbelievably inaccurate account of my argument.
He begins by saying that I have no "story of the Enlightenment’s intellectual or cultural origins" other than Spinoza’s genius. This is utter nonsense. Both main volumes published so far give a lengthy account of the Enlightenment’s origins, setting out various social and cultural factors but pivoting on the philosophical revolution of the late seventeenth century with no fewer than six great philosophers extensively contributing to laying the intellectual foundations—Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle and Leibniz.
All helped shape the moderate and radical wings of the Enlightenment. Bayle’s contribution takes thirty pages (in "Enlightenment Contested") to explain. Spinoza is held to have surpassed the others in contributing to the Radical Enlightenment essentially because he goes further in undermining belief in Revelation, divine providence and miracles, and hence ecclesiastical authority, and because he was the first great democratic philosopher. But all contributed, as did dozens of other writers and controversies.
Moyn next pontificates that it is a "faulty premise" to "think that a philosophy of naturalism and liberal-democratic politics are inextricably linked." He cites the example of Hobbes, which he thinks proves his point. Here, his objection is wrong both philosophically and historically. The official Enlightenment presided over by Frederick the Great and other leading rulers vigorously upheld aristocracy, ecclesiastical authority and strict censorship, maintaining that subjects had no right to question the commands of their sovereigns or the divinely given status of the social order they upheld. The only way to break the ancien régime system conceptually—and deliver comprehensive freedom of thought and a democratic politics—was to destroy the notion that the existing order was divinely authorized, directed by divine providence and legitimately presided over by the clergy and monarchy. Hobbes got around this but only by introducing the unwieldy construction of a once and for all, indissoluble political contract canceling out men’s natural rights, the force of which in terms of naturalism is hard to discern. Here, Hobbes was an inconsistent naturalist and Spinoza merely ironing out his inconsistency.
Still more inaccurate, Moyn complains that "Israel ends up with no explanation for why his package of emancipatory values succeeded except that they are true," that my only explanation is that Spinoza was such a surpassing genius that his ideas caused a revolution.
I say nothing of the kind. First, the emancipatory values propagated by the Radical Enlightenment did not succeed. They partially succeeded briefly with the advent of the French Revolution, but from 1793 their achievement was derailed by the Terror and later by Napoleon. The nineteenth century then involved further setbacks for democratic, enlightened values.