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Mind the Enlightenment | The Nation

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Mind the Enlightenment

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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.

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Samuel Moyn
Samuel Moyn teaches history at Columbia University. His Human Rights and the Uses of History, a book collecting...

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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.

Spinoza was born into a community founded mainly by former Marranos, the Iberian Jews who had pretended to convert to Catholicism to escape persecution and, after 1492, expulsion. Some of them moved to Amsterdam, where they could practice Judaism openly. Born in 1632, Spinoza was excommunicated in 1656, almost certainly for his libertine beliefs and failure to follow Jewish law. While vilified from the beginning of his career as a philosopher, Spinoza has attracted followers in every century. Liberal secularists (notably Jews among them) have a long tradition of lionizing him; Lewis Feuer's Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism appeared more than a half-century ago. Israel inherits the view of Spinoza as the founder of liberal secularism; by casting God aside in favor of a philosophy of naturalism, Spinoza paved the way for responsible politics today.

With its sly interpretations of Scripture against the traditional God, Spinoza's classic Theologico-Political Treatise of 1670 marks the breakthrough to his central principle: there can be no divinity in the world incompatible with nature. The universe, he insisted, is composed of one material "substance"; there is no God, no human soul. If miracles appear to have occurred, it is simply because their observers do not understand how to interpret the laws of nature. Spinoza's complicated Ethics openly advances his monistic principle that if God exists, it is simply another word for nature: deus sive natura. In turn, his politics are based on natural rights that, in a departure from the social contract tradition, are preserved by individuals rather than surrendered to a sovereign. Spinoza hoped for a democratic republic in which untrammeled freedom of thought—what he called libertas philosophandi—would be preserved for those gifted and learned enough to make use of it.

Spinoza's radicalism was certainly frightening in its time, and Israel has valuably if aggressively opened the question of its influence on the Enlightenment and the era of revolution. The traditional practice has been to cast the Enlightenment not only as a movement that crystallized decades after Spinoza's lifetime but also as one both more diverse and more unified than Israel is willing to allow. It was composed, for most observers, of considerable variegation, with national and denominational differences. Some observers, notably Gertrude Himmelfarb, J.G.A. Pocock and the late Roy Porter, emphasized that each country had its own Enlightenment; while the pioneering historian David Sorkin has recently suggested that alongside the better-known atheistic or deist Enlightenments there were powerful, and even dominant, attempts by the religious to make faith and reason compatible. Despite this emphasis on variation, however, most persist in casting the Enlightenment as a single movement. For Peter Gay, Israel's most obvious predecessor in the attempt to offer an overall picture, the movement was championed by a "flock" of philosophers.

Wrong, Israel says. In truth, he writes, there were only two kinds of Enlightenment that really mattered, the true and the treasonous, and one must still choose between them. With delight in unmasking rival claimants to Enlightenment as frauds or fence-straddlers, Israel insists that only a small coterie of "radical" figures really cared about the core values. Meanwhile, those typically considered the luminaries of the age—from John Locke through Voltaire, and from Jean-Jacques Rousseau through Immanuel Kant—sought only "marginal reform" and cravenly sacrificed the core values to their misbegotten flattery of existing clerical and political authorities.

For Israel, Spinoza's true heirs have enemies everywhere, including those whose lesser version of Enlightenment betrays the principles it purports to advance. Don't pretend that there wasn't a fundamental choice to be made about the very meaning of Enlightenment and modernity, Israel insists repeatedly. You could choose some halfway house that left the old order standing—notably the romance of American liberty (twinned with black slavery) or English liberties (which fell in with social and religious conservatism). Or you could embrace Enlightenment freedom in its unadulterated form, even if that entailed demolishing the corrupt old order and starting anew. Allegiance to the true gospel of Spinoza left no other viable choice, either intellectually or politically.

Israel's monomaniacal Spinoza worship is amusing and exasperating by turns. For a start, his insistence that Spinoza was the singular font of the Enlightenment leaves him without a story of the Enlightenment's intellectual or cultural origins. Every historian has to begin somewhere, but the fact that Israel begins with Spinoza, and then reduces most of what follows the philosopher to a footnote, leaves his account of the Enlightenment founded on something like immaculate conception.

Israel is surely right that Spinoza's influence in the eighteenth century has been neglected, even if the proper response is not to overstate it, and even if this influence could itself take many different forms. One of Israel's most astute critics, the French historian Antoine Lilti, argues that the clandestine movements that sometimes claimed Spinoza's legacy were themselves various, and "Spinozism" became more of a battle cry for its opponents than a detailed and coherent intellectual position. In any case, it strains credulity to organize what was a massive and century-long cultural phenomenon around the philosophical breakthrough of a single thinker.

If Israel thinks otherwise, it is because he mixes his own sense of philosophical superiority with the very different problem of historical effects. He is on firm ground, for example, when he insists that his hero defended a much more robust version of freedom of thought than that of Locke and others, who were most interested in enabling a compromise of Christian denominations to avoid the specter of religious war. (Locke, for example, drew the line of tolerance at atheism, which he was happy to see suppressed violently by the state.) It is another matter, however, whether Spinoza or his clandestine followers were chiefly responsible for the rise of wider toleration of speech and opinion. The experience of limited toleration, and raucous city life, may well have led to more inclusion of previously stigmatized groups like atheists than Spinoza's arguments about freedom of thought did, even if they were better.

Yet now, as his history approaches the era of breakthrough revolution, Israel goes further, crediting the invention of political democracy in the current sense to Spinoza's genius. Even if the idiosyncratic thinker's defense of rule by the people was unprecedented in the annals of thought, he was contemptuous of the intellectual abilities of most people, and endorsed democracy primarily because he thought it the form of government most likely to preserve a space for the kind of elite knowledge he offered in his philosophy books. Essential elements of democratic rule like representationalism and constitutionalism, each of which requires detailed theories, are simply absent from Spinoza's thought. The rise of modern democracy is the phenomenon Israel most wants to explain, but his reliance on Spinoza makes him a poor guide.

A faulty premise drives these conclusions. Israel is tempted to think that a philosophy of naturalism and liberal-democratic politics are inextricably linked. For him, Spinoza's proclamation of the former forced the rise of the latter, as a conceptual and historical matter alike. Spinoza indeed argued that the universe was only one substance—if God did exist, it was not as transcendent creator, extraordinary miracle-worker or authoritative lawgiver but rather simply as nature itself. This "liberation" from God, Israel seems to think, could not help but topple false principles of social and political organization. Deus sive natura knocked the legs out from under priests and kings alike, and liberalism appears to him as the inevitable outcome of their fall. This is the crucial leitmotif of Israel's works.

This stance, however, leads Israel to avoid or excuse figures whose conclusions about naturalism are not identical to his own. Thomas Hobbes, most obviously, declared a politics likewise based on viewing man and the universe as nothing more than matter in motion. In Hobbes's Leviathan, written a generation before Spinoza's works, human passion and reason result from wholly natural processes: the body is an engine of endlessly disruptive wants, and it drives a vain search for superiority that, as Hobbes remarked, "ceaseth only in death." For Hobbes, the point of politics is to displace the anarchic democracy of natural bodies with an artificial body: the state. It is thanks to the state alone that peace is available. Natural rights—an idea Hobbes helped to forge before Spinoza came on the intellectual scene—are surrendered to a powerful sovereign in the name of safety rather than preserved as insurance against abuse (see Corey Robin, "The First Counter-revolutionary," Oct. 19, 2009). Nowhere, however, does Israel acknowledge what Hobbes's case makes plain: that the connection between metaphysics and politics is neither direct nor necessary.

Even worse, the political planks that Israel joins were hardly a unified set on their own. Throughout his books, Israel finds various figures hewing incompletely to his list of radical principles, and he inevitably faces the choice of forcing them into his Procrustean bed or explaining them away. As you read along for page after page, Israel's basic procedure in confronting a new figure—the Neapolitan magus Giambattista Vico, to pick one at random—is first to decide whether he is an heir of Spinoza or a holdout to truth, and then to mount an argument for the classification. What anyone thought, how he argued for it, and why are unfailingly subordinate to assessing his proximity to a philosophical position almost no one in fact held full-fledged. (Israel deems Vico an heir.)

For this reason, one of Israel's most trenchant critics, Anthony LaVopa, has alleged that the central mistake of Israel's Enlightenment project is a "package logic." As Israel himself says in A Revolution of the Mind, "the core ideas of modern Western secularism interconnect and function together socially and culturally as a set." Yet the result of evaluating a century's worth of thought according to how closely it conforms to a checklist is strange history, and arguably not history at all. Israel refuses to see legitimate debate in riotous diversity. Thinkers who do not adhere to his particular definition of Radical Enlightenment, he implies, were simply sops to the old order. Instead of allowing for different journeys from metaphysics to politics, or distinctive sets of essential principles, Israel's checklist is in effect a litmus test. To fail it is to have sold out the truth, either out of discreditable cowardice or because you were paid off, as Voltaire was by his patron Frederick the Great.

In The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, Zeev Sternhell also sees the Enlightenment as an all-or-nothing package of living truths. This premise leads, similarly, to repetitive exercises in classification; but revealingly, Israel and Sternhell disagree completely about who goes where. Sternhell thinks Voltaire and Kant—whom Israel condemns for backsliding and compromising—were the central icons; and given Rousseau's prominence in France and the debt of the great sage of Königsberg to him, Sternhell goes so far as to define the true Enlightenment as "Franco-Kantian." Meanwhile, Israel—who also excludes Rousseau from Radical Enlightenment—lionizes Johann Gottfried Herder, the German biblical critic and linguist, because he liked Spinoza and condemned colonialism, even as Sternhell denounces him as the spiritual father of fascism.

What has gone wrong in both cases is the enforcement of categories that were not in circulation at the time of the Enlightenment. It is one thing to treat the notion of radical versus moderate Enlightenment (Israel) or Franco-Kantian versus anti-Enlightenment traditions (Sternhell) as useful heuristic devices. But it is another to allow those devices to acquire the tenor of reality, for then the crucial task becomes to determine in which category the thinkers fit. That task accomplished, the categories themselves are then put in contention. Boldly, Israel insists that "there were and could be only two Enlightenments," the radical and anything else.

Ultimately, the trouble is not simply that Israel treats his checklist as a package but that he claims its principles are not themselves part of the history he is supposed to narrate. Israel treats his necessarily linked values as eternal truths rather than historical inventions with different possible versions and alternative implications. At one point, Israel claims that the principles of Radical Enlightenment possess "an absolute quality in terms of reason which places them above any possible alternative." It is a remarkable statement, and has the dogmatic ring of a profession of faith.

And Israel's way of writing history shows he believes. If you know in advance that you are chronicling the adventures of confirmed truths, then the messiness of actual history melts away. Instead, you will produce a story of the annunciation of eternal truth followed by episodes of ragtag advocates repelling malign forces on the road to eventual supremacy. In his books Israel constantly slips into renditions of past thinkers that sound like entreaties to finish the job now: "Only by enlightening all of humanity can men finally topple...senseless usages, vicious fanaticism...and absurd forms of vanity that everywhere blights mankind." Scholarship and sermonizing merge into a church history of secularism. No wonder another critic, J.B. Shank, mischievously says Israel's works breathe the spirit of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

"God is not great," however, is not a historical argument. Leaving aside its emergence and contents, Israel's theory of how the "Radical Enlightenment" made its way into the heart of European politics is perhaps the result of another aspect of his church history. Ever since the French Revolution, the traditional argument has been that reckless philosophers caused it: la faute à Voltaire, went the old thesis, or la faute à Rousseau. Even as he portrays these old prophets of modernity as quislings, awarding le crédit à Spinoza instead, Israel self-consciously revives an old claim—books made a revolution. There was a "revolution of the mind," Israel says, which paved the way for the revolution of politics.

Against the views of Robert Darnton and other historians who have shown that philosophical books were only one of many kinds of texts published and read during the Enlightenment, Israel persuasively worries that scholarship focused on the circulation of books ignores or downplays the actual ideas in them. At the same time, Israel is happy to appeal to such arguments when explaining how Spinoza's ideas were disseminated. But in the end, Israel's creditable attempt to emphasize the role of ideas in history goes off the rails because he does not offer a new approach to studying it.

Israel forthrightly acknowledges that, absent a theory of social change, it is too simple to argue that the triumph of powerful ideas is ineluctable: "it was not ideas on their own that did the work." At a tantalizing moment, Israel cites "the interaction of social forces and ideas" that drove the Enlightenment toward revolution. Ultimately, however, Israel relies on the dim notion that under the old order a populace with festering grievances was mobilized by Spinoza's new ideas, even as the latter's partisans were driven to further radicalism in various controversies. But as an explanation for historical events, appeals to festering grievances are not especially powerful: simmering discontent usually just keeps on simmering, and Israel does nothing else to lend his idealistic account social depth.

As a result, Israel ends up with no explanation for why his package of emancipatory values succeeded, except that they are true. They were what society needed, and always needs, and they caused a revolution. But this is no explanation at all—or at least not a historical one. Perhaps not by coincidence, it is much like saying Christianity succeeded because Jesus was the savior; but Spinoza is not supposed to be a messiah who triumphs because he knows the truth that sets you free. Secular history is very often the story of bad ideas winning and good ideas losing; ideas themselves don't explain why they succeed or fail. Despite his hardheaded empiricism—he never allows himself to get bogged down in the details of his texts—Israel gives even less attention to the wider context, his justification being the romantic but unpersuasive assumption that once discovered, Radical Enlightenment could not help but conquer all.

Israel is tempted to cast those with alternative views as enemies not of his argument but of the Enlightenment itself. That may be true in some cases, but even then it is not at all an enlightened response. Yet Israel is certainly right to find in the later eighteenth century some philosophical and moral breakthrough that progressives need to claim as their own. The question is how. Now that Israel's story has reached the central political breakthrough of the era, the French Revolution, the stakes of his argument are at their highest.

As a general matter, Israel is so set on condemning a series of false or "moderate" liberations of the era that he entirely skirts the difficult problem of how to define "radical" liberation. Who on the left today could fail to sympathize with Tom Paine and his denunciation not only of the British aristocracy but also the American revolutionary solution he inspired and then criticized for establishing tenacious new hierarchies of race and wealth? By the same token, who on the left could deny that the Enlightenment didn't get very far in explaining how to create a free and equal society, and that its radicalism was shot through with promising starts and difficult choices? Is the Enlightenment best understood as a checklist, or a new set of problems? Israel is most disappointing when he celebrates the Enlightenment as if it had all the answers, when in fact its legacy is a rich and burdensome quandary that remains to be solved.

The biggest worry with Israel's story, therefore, is his belief that the moral horizon of today's partisans of Radical Enlightenment is crystal clear. Nothing could be further from the truth. Israel's Radical Enlightenment, explosive in its time, turns out to be not that radical according to the standards of today, and in fact did not get very far on crucial issues. In his new book, for example, Israel has two interesting chapters on radical dissents to the rise of laissez-faire economics and Enlightenment militarism; but these chapters show mainly that the search for both the proper organization of the economy and the achievement of a just world order barely began in the era, even as a matter of theory. Most disconcerting, Israel seems to have no interest in the possibility that radicalism itself, including Spinozism, could take many different current and future forms. Moses Hess, a founder of communism in the nineteenth century, who also anticipated Zionism, fawned over Spinoza but reached rather different political conclusions.

The profound ambiguity of radicalism, and indeed of fervent commitment to the Enlightenment, is the subject Dan Edelstein's remarkable study The Terror of Natural Right. It is one of the most memorable and absorbing books on the era I have ever read, precisely because it refuses simple answers, and does so with considerable style.

Edelstein, a professor of French literature, is also interested in naturalism, and especially in what Enlightenment and revolutionary figures thought it might mean to establish a society in conformity with natural law and natural rights. Somehow Edelstein fails to mention Spinoza, in part because he traces the utopia of nature to many different sources, including literary ones. As Edelstein knows, most French political thinkers spent the Enlightenment proposing ways to repair the monarchy, and indeed the first years of the revolution were devoted to exactly this task. Throughout the eighteenth century, however, literary depictions of an idyllic golden age were preparing a "cult of nature." These images and stories were little more than a collection of distant fantasies until the failure of constitutional monarchy midway through the revolution provided an unexpected and indeed unsought opportunity to bring into being not a reconstructed rule of kings but the absolute reign of nature.

Contrary to Israel, Edelstein argues that Enlightenment naturalism turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs. Edelstein wants to know how the Jacobins, whom he rightly credits with some of the most progressive and egalitarian aims any political movement has ever professed (notably the invention of social rights to work and education), ended up orchestrating a reign of terror. Against interpretations that simply blame circumstances, Edelstein too insists that ideas mattered. But the most provocative argument in his book is that the ideas that made the revolution spiral out of control were the cult of nature and the belief in natural rights.

When Israel takes up the problem, he relentlessly and remorselessly criticizes Rousseau, and it is clear he is preparing the familiar argument that when the French Revolution went awry on the Jacobins' watch, it was because Rousseau's baleful notions of citizen virtue and "the general will" triumphed. The good parts of the revolution were Spinoza's doing, in Israel's view, but the bad parts were not his fault: "the darker side...was chiefly inspired by the Rousseauist tendency." Edelstein shows that, if anything, the reverse was true. It was early in the French Revolution that Rousseau's hopes to remodel politics along the lines of classical republics like Athens and Sparta reigned; once in power the Jacobins rejected these schemes so as to let nature rule.

To craft his argument, Edelstein combines a long-range depiction of Enlightenment fantasies of a polity based on nature alone with an intrepid study of what happened beginning in 1792–93, when Louis XVI was tried and executed—an event that set the stage for the Jacobins to come to power later. Edelstein grippingly shows that because the earlier tradition of "natural law" allowed for the identification and destruction of nature's enemies, it was tempting for Jacobins building a natural society to deem threats real and imagined inimical not to themselves alone but to humanity in general—outlaws of nature to be put to death.

The category of the hostis humani generis, or foe of the human race, has been much discussed lately, not least because of the "war on terror." It is most frequently associated with the way the law of nations treated pirates, who were so deplored by civilization as to be the first subjects of universal criminal jurisdiction. Edelstein shows that the idea of an "enemy of humanity" drew on classical ideas as well as theological ones: the phrase was once attached to the Devil, and remained associated with diabolical malignancy. Over centuries the idea expanded, especially in early international law, so that along with pirates, savages abroad were sometimes viewed as so far beyond redemption as to fall outside the pale of humanity, a status that earned them the just enmity and violent punishment of anyone and everyone. Tyrants were also occasionally placed outside the law. Israel himself cites Diderot, one of his heroes, promising to "exterminate" tyrants. He excuses what he calls the Enlightenment's "almost frightening militancy," but for Edelstein it takes center stage.

The Terror of 1793–94 commenced when the Jacobins began treating their foes as enemies of humanity and legitimate victims. Brilliantly, Edelstein demonstrates that a politics of nature, though democratic and compatible with the will of the people for some, was imagined by key Jacobins as a warrant for scuttling or at least postponing democracy. (If only they had known that naturalism and liberalism were inseparable!) After proposing a notably egalitarian constitution in 1793, the Jacobins allowed it to go missing as they gravitated toward a new religion of nature. God may not have been great, but nature was.

For Edelstein's favorite political thinker and actor, Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, there was no need for further laws than the principles of natural right, and social harmony simply depended on their inculcation—and, when necessary, their bloody enforcement. "No one can govern innocently," Saint-Just wrote blithely and chillingly. "Natural right," Edelstein concludes, "could lead the revolutionaries to become Terrorists in good Enlightenment faith (which, of course, is not to say the Enlightenment inevitably led to the Terror)." If Edelstein is right, calling for Enlightenment redemption, and the saving truth of nature, is never going to be enough on its own.

Edelstein thinks his central lesson, in the wake of George W. Bush's war against all enemies foreign and domestic, is that ordinary law should be made to anticipate extraordinary times so as to prevent the frightening category of "outlawry" from being invoked to sanction the worst abuses. Perhaps. Read alongside Israel, Edelstein is also saying that the Enlightenment is not simply an "absolute," nonnegotiable bequest to reactivate again and again. Even were its "radical" path possible to isolate, it branched out immediately, for good and for ill, and to this day some of its branches have not yet been traveled to the end.

God knows, progressive secularism needs a lift today; but reassurance won at the price of intellectual complacency is not the right kind. Israel criticizes those who see diverse Enlightenments in the eighteenth century, but the real need is to acknowledge that the Enlightenment had many rival futures from the outset, and could still have many possible versions to come. The Enlightenment's legacy for contemporary politics is there to revive, but not by mindlessly putting aside the complexity of historical origins and the problem of alternative outcomes. It is neither cowardice nor betrayal to insist that the Enlightenment's main lesson is to be mindful of how much it has left its inheritors to figure out.

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