Humanity lived in darkness—until He came. In the beginning only a few rallied to his cause. It was too enigmatic to arouse much popular support, and political opposition forced its champions underground. But a coterie of apostles resolved to spread a simplified version of his good news against stiff-necked enemies who often made martyrs of them. Then something remarkable happened. Thanks to a collection of gospels about his morality, the zealous devotion of followers and, of course, the obvious truth of his good news, his call for emancipation spread far beyond his native land and eventually set the world on fire.
This is how Jonathan Israel describes the message, and preaches the story, of a renegade Jew—the philosopher Benedict Spinoza. The creed Spinoza defended was the Enlightenment, with its devotion to reason, not faith, and its vision of secular liberation leading to the establishment of a society based on the collective good rather than the authority of kings and the tradition of priests. Yes, it’s true that several centuries on, the Enlightenment has not yet succeeded in either breaking the shackles of outworn creeds or lifting the yoke of scandalous oppression across the globe. But this is no reason to surrender. More preaching of the gospel of Enlightenment is all that’s required.
A historian of Spanish imperialism, Dutch republicanism and Jewish commercialism, Jonathan Israel has entered the study of the Enlightenment in an uncommonly bold way. Radical Enlightenment (2001), the first installment of a projected three-volume history, ran to more than 800 pages; the second volume, Enlightenment Contested (2006), was even longer; the third, which aims to take the story through the French Revolution, is in preparation. Israel’s new book, A Revolution of the Mind, is an interlude. It offers an essayistic overview of the trilogy’s principal theses for the faint of heart, focused on the all-important last act, during which the key themes of what Israel calls "Radical Enlightenment" became politically explosive and the French Revolution loomed.
After a number of years of stunned silence, critics have begun to circle Israel’s colossus, even as he finishes the extraordinary task of raising it to completion. (Did you know that Spinoza caused the French Revolution?) It is easy to see these critics as so many gnats, not least because there is no gainsaying the scope of Israel’s achievement, with his massive compendiums of information now augmented by an accessible preview of the story’s end. In the face of Israel’s breathtaking account of the far-flung itinerary of Spinoza’s thought, which spread across the European continent through thickets of underground intellectual circles, it is hard to offer anything besides applause.
On second glance, however, the gnats seem more like vultures. Their gnawing at the flesh of Israel’s creation, even before it has a chance to stride the earth, suggests that it offers the wrong way to think about the Enlightenment both in the past and as a bequest to the present and future.
What was the Enlightenment, and what is its relevance today? For Israel, the answers are simple. Conceived by Spinoza and spread by a range of mostly derivative followers—the Huguenot skeptic Pierre Bayle, the Encyclopédist Denis Diderot and the materialist libertine Paul-Henri Thiry, known as the Baron d’Holbach—the "Radical Enlightenment" is reducible to a set of core values. They are, Israel writes, "democracy, racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state." As such, the Enlightenment, or at least this radical version, is simply those principles deemed worthy of rescuing from the past and protecting today.