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July 5, 2010 Issue

Amy Traub on bashing public employees, David Bacon on miners' strikes in Mexico and Calvin Trillin on glass ceilings

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Esther Kaplan on indictments of New Orleans police officers in the shooting death of Henry Glover.



Exchange: Spinoza and Vultures and Gnats, Oh My!

Princeton, N.J.   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. As for radical ideas succeeding better than the moderate Enlightenment of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Hume in the 1780s, this is explained by a highly complex historical argument: in a nutshell, the moderate Enlightenment suffered from failure to deliver the toleration, law reforms, emancipation of oppressed groups, or reductions in aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege that many wanted and also from intellectual difficulties in balancing reason with tradition and faith. It was weakened further by the rise of the Counter-Enlightenment, which claimed that faith and authority, not reason, are the true guides of men. Particularly important in explaining the process, in my account, is the fact that the mechanics of late eighteenth-century revolutions (there were revolutions in several other countries as well as America and France) between 1780 and 1800 demonstrate that mostly (albeit not in America) they were led by tiny groups of unrepresentative intellectuals who became spokesmen by using radical ideology as an effective catch-all for expressing the burgeoning discontent of the era. Finally, and again absurdly wrong, Moyn thinks the phase of the French Revolution dominated by the Jacobins was ideologically closer to the "philosophique" revolution of reason I am describing than the Revolution of 1788–92 and was less Rousseauist. Well, first, the evidence shows that the Robespierre phase was far more Rousseauist. Second, it was incontestably less philosophique. Looking back later, Tom Paine, one of the giants of radical ideology, expressed it well: with the Jacobins the "principles of the Revolution, which philosophy had first diffused, had been departed from [and] philosophy rejected. The intolerant spirit of church persecution had transferred itself into politics; the tribunals, styled revolutionary, supplied the place of an Inquisition; and the guillotine of the stake.'' The freedoms of 1789 were explicitly rejected by Robespierre in several speeches. There are bad reviews and bad reviews; but the worst are surely those that fail to give even the faintest clue what the book under review is arguing. Moyn speaks derisively of my being attacked by "so many gnats" that might seem more like vultures. I leave it to the reader to decide whether Moyn counts as a vulture or a gnat. JONATHAN ISRAEL Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton       Moyn Replies   New York City Jonathan Israel answers my demand for an account of non-Spinozist origins simply with a list of other philosophers, which surely misses the point. And then, as his letter reveals, he is tempted to measure their thought against the singular yardstick that Spinoza provided (Israel's books go much further in the same direction). Israel complains that I don't address his new volume. Unfortunately, his invidious classification of the Enlightenment's different factions is his core preoccupation. As for his approach to the causes of the French Revolution, his letter—like his new book—mostly leaves room for improvement. Most troubling of all, Israel still does not seem able to fathom that the goal is not simply to congratulate past thinkers as "consistent" or dispense with them as useless—which would, in any case, be a philosophical judgment that Israel is not terribly qualified to make. Instead, these philosophers always provide funds of jostling contentions that did and could serve a wide variety of purposes, including ones that they did not imagine. And while he rages against some criticisms I collected from others in my review, Israel completely omits the main worry I added for myself. Even were the evil of the Counter-Enlightenment extirpated, and a "moderate" Enlightenment successfully called out as treason in disguise, it would leave the most exciting reason to study the whole era still there: the Enlightenment's multiple possible versions, and therefore its continually problematic character, now and in the future. It is this central feature of Enlightenment—however radical—that means that there are many issues on which the Enlightenment gives no clear answers. As my review stated, I admire Tom Paine too. But—like Spinoza—he is no messiah inspiring blind faith. As for a rhetorical inquisition, it won't help either. SAMUEL MOYN     Clarification: It's a Book World In "The Death and Life of the Book Review" (June 21), John Palattella writes that "The Los Angeles Times Book Review was launched as a twelve-page Sunday tabloid section in 1975. The Washington Post Book World debuted as a Sunday tabloid section in the 1960s; it was folded into the paper in the mid-1970s, only to be resurrected as a stand-alone publication in the early 1980s. (Neither exists today.)" Although Book World no longer exists as a Sunday tabloid section, the Post prints daily book reviews under the Book World rubric, and produces themed tabloid books issues four times a year. Read More



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