Radicalising the Enlightenment
Jonathan Israel on the vital importance of those who dared to know.
Over the past two decades, Jonathan Israel, now professor emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era with which it is entwined.
In a series of monumental books, from Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750, published in 2001, to last year’s The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 – studies as richly detailed and scholarly as they are impassioned and readable – Israel has drawn out the hitherto obscured importance of a ‘Radical Enlightenment’ tradition. This has cut against the grain of traditional historical conceptions of the Enlightenment, which have tended to situate the Enlightenment proper – the High Enlightenment – in the second half of the 18th century, with a focus on France and a nod to Britain, especially Scotland. But Israel changes the emphasis, and brings out the importance of an earlier constellation of ideas – republican and tolerant in tendency; materialist and atheistic in spirit; and self-grounding and governing in impulse.
These ideas emerged initially in the Dutch Republic around the work of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), but, as, a tradition of thought, and a direction of engagement with contemporary social and political institutions, they were to be taken up by radical-minded thinkers, largely in opposition to what Israel identifies as the mainstream ‘Moderate Enlightenment’, which supported reason and free inquiry but only within certain limits, circumscribed by extant religious and political authority. And it is in this conflict, suggests Israel, that one can glimpse nothing less than the matrix of the modern world.
So to explore the Radical Enlightenment and the role of Spinoza, and to find out why the area we now call the Netherlands was so central to its growth, we decided to put a few questions to Israel himself.
spiked review: While you note the international nature of the Enlightenment, why does the Dutch Republic, in particular its urban, commercial centres such as Amsterdam, play such a key role in the early Enlightenment? After all, Descartes himself heads there in the 1620s, and Cartesianism really takes off first in the republic. And later, of course, there’s Spinoza himself. What was it about the 17th-century Dutch states that was so conducive to the development and explosion of Enlightenment thought?
Jonathan Israel: Admittedly, it is no part of the traditional historiography of the Enlightenment to assign any particularly prominent place to the Netherlands in explaining the Western Enlightenment’s origins. But when one considers that the Dutch Republic was a unique society in the early modern Western world in several key respects one might expect to be closely connected with the Enlightenment’s origins, not least being the society with the largest and freest publishing industry in the 17th century, the conclusion that it was soon turns out to be an eminently logical one.
Firstly, toleration, freedom of expression and a willingness to consider different viewpoints were indisputably central features of the Enlightenment. But before the Glorious Revolution in Britain and parliament passing the Toleration Act (1689), every contemporary commentator agreed the Dutch Republic offered the most extensive and defined toleration available in Europe as a matter of policy, and the freest in allowing different religious (and irreligious) viewpoints to be published. It also had, as a matter of fact, the widest range of organised, established and recognised religious creeds, which some observers liked to compare and contrast – Calvinist, Lutheran, Catholic, Mennonite, Socinian, Collegiant, Jewish and Remonstrant – to be found in any European country, definitely eclipsing Britain in this respect at that time. Likewise, it offered an exceptionally broad freedom to philosophise. It was hardly an accident that Descartes and later Pierre Bayle chose to reside in the Netherlands and that John Locke did so, too, for several years while he was under a shadow in England, prior to 1688.
Secondly, because the Dutch Republic had the largest ‘carrying’ merchant fleet before the 18th century, and the largest volume of trade with Asia and Africa, familiarity with distant parts of the globe and the taste for collecting ‘rarities’, artefacts, manuscripts, coins, art objects, exotic plants and antiquities from distant parts provided a stronger, more obvious base than could be found in France, Italy or Germany, for example, for establishing private collections and museums functioning as a spur to early efforts in ethnography, anthropology, botany, geology and other social and exact sciences.
Thirdly, the hierarchical character of European society, placing nearly all higher positions in the hands of the aristocracy and courtiers, or else clergy, generally lent a socially enclosed, rather narrow character to political and social debate, as did the primacy of the crown and court. Being a republic with a relatively free press, that afforded more access to office-holding, diplomatic roles, and political life for non-nobles than other Western countries offered before 1789, tended to allow more scope than one found elsewhere for different points of view and for wide-ranging social and political criticism, including of monarchy, aristocracy and ecclesiastical authority.
review: Did the Dutch Revolt (1568–1648) and the subsequent establishment of a Republic provide an example and an inspiration for the English revolutionaries of the 1640s?
Israel: It seems to me that although there was a widespread awareness elsewhere in Europe of the exceptional character of Dutch toleration, nevertheless, during the 17th century, most contemporaries were not particularly positive, and often thoroughly scornful, of this aspect of the Dutch Republic. Emphatic and enthusiastic foreign appreciations of Dutch toleration, such as we find, for example, in the work of the Italian freethinker Gregorio Leti (1630-1701), who was expelled from England in the mid-1680s for offending King Charles II and most of whose works were placed on the papal Index, or the English philosopher and political writer, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), do not seem to occur before the 1680s and 1690s, especially around the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688-9).
review: What was Spinoza’s relationship to the Dutch Republic? As you say, he, like many others you mention, must have enjoyed the ‘exceptionally broad freedom to philosophise’ that existed there, yet, at the same time, did this relative freedom, as Spinoza encountered its limits (for example, the anti-Socinian laws, against those sects denying the divinity of Christ, of the 1650s), almost create a demand for more freedom?
Israel: Spinoza certainly appreciated the exceptional degree of toleration and freedom of expression that prevailed in the Dutch Republic as compared with the rest of Europe, but at the same time did not believe the celebrated freedoms prevailing in the Dutch cities were by any means all that they professed to be. He was clearly worried that the Stadholders in alliance with the Reformed Church had managed to narrow these freedoms and had succeeded in banning too many books and penalising too many authors. One of the contemporary free-thinkers who figured in the free-thinking circle historians today call the ‘cercle Spinoziste’, during the 1660s, Adriaen Koerbagh (1632-69), had both his main texts suppressed by the Dutch political authorities and died in prison after being sentenced for publishing religiously subversive ideas.
review: What was Spinoza’s relationship to Cartesian philosophy, which was largely ascendant in Dutch universities by the 1650s, despite a push-back from Gisbertus Voetius, a theology professor at Utrecht University, and his followers? Spinoza’s first published book is on Descartes, but was this, as you suggest in The Dutch Republic, less a tribute from a committed Cartesian than a strategic decision on the part of Spinoza to test the water, before pushing out his own more radical ideas?
Israel: Spinoza’s personal early philosophical development, and that of his friends and later circle, was undoubtedly heavily immersed in the predominantly Cartesian thought-world of Dutch intellectual and academic life of the 1650s and 1660s. He first made his name with the only book he ever openly published under his own name, Principles of Cartesian Philosophy: with Metaphysical Thoughts (1663), as a commentator on, and expounder of, Descartes’ philosophy. While developing his central concepts in philosophy, it was natural for Spinoza to define his positions in conscious contradistinction to Descartes’ corresponding positions. But in addition, given the illicit nature of Spinoza’s conflating God with Nature and body with mind (eliminating the separateness and immortality of the soul), and the generally subversive implications of his standpoint, it made good sense to expound his views as it they were modifications or points following on from widely accepted Cartesian positions. That said, there were definitely aspects of Cartesianism, its stress on ‘reason’ as the criterion of truth and verification, and its concern with mathematical precision, that Spinoza believed dramatically separated the post-Cartesian philosophical world from (most) ancient and medieval philosophy.
review: In Radical Enlightenment you quote the Genoese patrician Paolo Mattia Doria (1662-1746), who, while he considered John Locke dangerous, Cartesianism damaging, and Pierre Bayle ‘perniciosissimo‘, thought they were as nothing compared to the threat to Church and society posed by the ‘Spinosisti‘. It seems to have been a typical response to Spinoza from the authorities across Europe, who banned his books, and imprisoned those inspired by him. Why did he and his followers prompt such a fierce reaction from secular and ecclesiastical authorities for so long?
Israel: While developing their respective philosophies, both Descartes and Locke took care to make clear their submission to the fundamentals of Christianity, to the basic principles of a revealed religion declaring immortality of the soul, and redemption or damnation in the hereafter, a religion sent among men by a knowing, benevolent Creator God who rewards and punishes believers and unbelievers in different ways. There was no other way to publish one’s philosophy openly and legally. It was much less clear that Pierre Bayle was equally submissive to the law, and religious authority, but he followed a conscious strategy of concealing his basic philosophical viewpoints behind a massive fog of verbiage and baffling lines of argument, often leading the reader round and round in circles, making it hard to know exactly what he did think about religion and politics, though certainly there were influential contemporaries who accused him of ‘atheism’.
But Spinoza’s case was different. No one could dispute that he intertwined his philosophy with a far-reaching Bible criticism that had the effect of denying the principle of Revelation, denying that Scripture is divinely given, or that it reflects any valid religious truth, apart from some elements of moral truth, at all. Equally, Spinoza’s metaphysics conflates God and nature in such a way that divine intention, providence and divine creation of man and species are all erased, making theology in the accepted sense an impossibility.
This also had important implications for social and political philosophy, too, since morality now has no other source than the benefit or lack of benefit a human trait, or aspect of behaviour, or given law or institution, has for society as a whole. His general philosophy undeviatingly vests political sovereignty exclusively in the ‘common good’, so that all societies are democratic in the sense that upholding the security, good and best interest of all is the only conceivable basis of political power and legitimacy. This means that all claims to dynastic legitimacy, divine appointment and tradition are automatically totally negated. Although Spinoza wrote only in Latin and dressed up his texts in a certain amount of technical philosophical terminology, what in the Enlightenment era was regularly denounced as his ‘atheism’, impiety, anti-Scripturalism, moral naturalism, and democratic tendency were sufficiently obvious to get his writings and thought banned practically everywhere and to mean that, prior to the High Enlightenment, after 1750, propagation of his ideas could transpire only underground, through illicit publications, in a more or less clandestine fashion.
review: Spinoza’s thought is certainly radically materialist — ‘body and soul, matter and mind’, as you write in A Revolution of the Mind, ‘are not [for Spinoza] distinct substances but rather one single substance viewed under different aspects’. Yet at times, the materialism, the argument that ‘the laws and rules of Nature… are always and everywhere the same’, and that goes for human nature, too, can seem almost determinist, almost a block on freedom, as if we can do no other. So how did Spinoza conceive of our freedom? He famously advocated a high degree of free speech and thought, but how did he think of freedom more generally? Was it something closer to the idea of the freedom to act and think according to our nature? Or something else?
Israel: Many philosophers adhere to compatibilism, reconciling practical freedom and moral responsibility with determinism. And Spinoza appears to think that although we cannot escape our natures, emotions and drives, the simultaneous coinciding of many different factors enables us to express or restrain different parts of ourselves so as to make the most of our strengths and curb our weaknesses.
In the end, ‘freedom’ is just the expression of the necessary impulses within us, but we have the ability to steer, repress and refine those impulses in various ways — for example by using one emotion, fear translated into caution, to check anger leading to excessive boldness. Everyone wants to be ‘happy’ and seeks his own interest, but by increasing our knowledge and understanding we pursue our essential goals much better than we do when stuck in the state of ignorance, or when gripped by destructive prejudices and fanaticism.
review: It is often assumed you argue that Spinoza’s work forms the backbone of the radical Enlightenment, that strain of philosophical, political thought and action – dominated by ‘radical democratic and, in metaphysics, materialist-determinist’ ideas – that defies the limits placed on reason by faith and tradition, limits supported by propagators of the moderate Enlightenment. Who would you say are the principal 18th-century advocates of radical Enlightenment and to what extent is their debt to Spinoza acknowledged?
Israel: Yes, many (mainly hostile) critics say that I argue that Spinoza’s work forms the backbone of the radical enlightenment. But this is not strictly correct. What I say, rather, is that the first group of writers who combine democratic republicanism with rejecting all religious authority are the Dutch group active in the 1660s and 1670s that I label the ‘cercle Spinoziste‘, among whom Spinoza formulated the basic position more coherently and effectively than the others (Van den Enden, Meyer, Koerbagh, etc) which is something rather different. ‘Spinozism’, I then argue, became an intellectual tradition.
The best-known champion of hostile critique, Antoine Lilti, is a leading proponent of postmodernist deconstruction, instability of meanings, signification slippage and deep ambiguity, who wholly embraced Daniel Roche’s contention that in the 18th century Spinoza was interpreted in a bewildering variety of ways, rendering it impossible to see 18th-century ‘Spinozism’ as any kind of coherent tradition. Rather than a ‘theoretical corpus’, Spinozism, contend Roche and Lilti, is just ‘un scandale, la figure extreme de l’herotoxie‘. As you know, this is hugely applauded and lots of scholars agree. But as with the hostile critique more generally, it is hard to maintain that it makes any sense.
This contention is in fact Lilti’s chief argument against the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ thesis and fulfils a key function in the ‘negative critique’, so the reader should observe with care that no matter how enamoured with instability of meanings and signification slippage one may be, absolutely nothing can possibly make Spinozisme as employed in Diderot’s Promenade d’un sceptique (1747; published 1830) and the Encyclopedie, or in Enlightenment literature generally, compatible with Revelation, religious authority, deism, mysticism, fideism, eclecticism, Aristotelian substances, Platonic ideals, Prisca theologia (natural religion), Cartesian dualism, Lockean dualism based on supra rationem, double truth, fixity of species, Epicurean swerves, La Mettrie’s materialism, and especially not any skepticism.
Contrary to Roche and Lilti, it makes no difference whether, as with Diderot’s specific usage in his Promenade, a writer has vague or exact knowledge of Spinoza’s texts. Spinozisme wherever used during the Enlightenment cannot in any context ever signify anything else but conflating body and soul into one, God and Nature into one, and the laws of physics and rules of mathematics into one unified body of doctrine whereby all reality, the entire universe, is governed by one single invariable set of unalterable laws of nature with no reserved area outside it, and scepticism and religion banished. Roche’s and Lilti’s point may be widely echoed, but that does not mean it is a tenable position. It has no validity whatever.
Lilti and Roche simply got everything confused and this is as true regarding Voltaire’s repeated, specific and clear usage of the term Spinozisme, as of those of Diderot, Lessing, Goethe, Herder, indeed every case that matters. If Spinoza’s way of presenting his arguments, his ‘geometric method’, appeared ‘terribly archaic’ to Diderot and the new Spinozists of the 1750s, all these other figures, as Lilti himself (seemingly unwittingly) concedes at one point, nevertheless intended ‘to follow [Spinoza]’ in the ‘consequences’ of his ‘system’. The key Radical Enlightenment thinkers in this specific sense were Toland, Tindal, Diderot, d’Holbach, Condorcet, Lessing, Volney, Destutt de Tracy, Wollstonecraft, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson and Bentham.
review: And finally, your recent work has focused on the origin and impact of the French and American revolutions, moments that, in large part, owe their emergence and shape to the tensions and ambitions of competing strains of Enlightenment thought. Are you planning on going beyond 1848? And to what extent do you feel the radical Enlightenment still has a critical role to play today? Is its promise still to be fulfilled?
Israel: No, I shall not go further than 1848 but I do think the topic retains its relevance today. The Radical Enlightenment contended that the world would work better and be less prone to wars and conflict, and human life would be happier and fairer if all states were democratic republics, if universal and equal rights applied, and no religions exercised sway over societies and politics. The claim seems as valid (and as unfulfilled) today as it was in 1670.
Jonathan Israel is professor emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study. He is the author, most recently, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, published by Princeton University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)