Skip to content

Response to Review of The Enlightenment as modernity: Jonathan Israel’s interpretation across two decades

I would like to thank Thomas Munck for his thoughtful and careful critique and acknowledge the justice and value of many of his critical as well as positive judgments about my series on the Enlightenment and the revolutionary era. Much of what he writes about the role of newspapers in the French Revolution and the history of the press more generally in the 18th century is undoubtedly justified and I hope others will soon, where they have not already done so, improve on the gaps and inadequacies of my treatment and provide a fuller, richer picture. However, I also feel several of his more general remarks and judgments give only a partial or incomplete impression of key strands of my wider argument and that it might be of use for the general reader, and for scholarly evaluation of the debate, if I try to clarify these.

Firstly, a comment about the question of scale and the Radical Enlightenment’s general implications. Munck states that I set a ‘small group of radicals (advocating wholly new egalitarian and anti-religious views) against the great majority of moderate writers who sought gradual change and reform’. This seems to me not entirely accurate. During the late 17th and early 18th century, I argue, the Radical Enlightenment did indeed comprise small groups, often clandestine networks, propagating what the vast majority deemed illicit ideas while much of the time concealing their doctrines, writings and activities from mainstream public life and notice. But from the 1770s onwards the groups become both larger and more overt and from 1789 onwards the number of journalists, literary men and women, professionals, professors, students, army officers and teachers (supplemented by small numbers of others) that shared in this still generally considered illicit way of thinking became substantial in all parts of Europe and the Americas and remained large down to the 1848 revolutions from when I see the radical democratic Enlightenment phenomenon I am describing as being largely displaced by socialism, which rejected the existing order from a strikingly different perspective.        

From the 1770s onwards, the radical enlighteners were a large group, if predominantly confined to literary, intellectual and educational and professional circles, and these highly literate subversive circles exerted a decisive influence on all the greater and smaller revolutions of the revolutionary era. The Enlightenment itself, consequently, became deeply divided, in America and Britain no less than continental Europe, and split into bitterly warring political factions that proved unrelenting in denouncing each other. It was at this point that the Radical Enlightenment came to comprise essentially those who championed universal and equal rights while the moderate Enlightenment continued to be characterized essentially by its commitment – even if in modified form – to the social hierarchies and political systems of the ancien regime. According to Munck, ‘the introduction to the fourth volume, Revolutionary Ideas, makes clear that Israel wants a “big narrative” to replace what he describes as a series of failed interpretations of the [French] Revolution based on class, social tension, economic disarray, failures of government and lack of effective leadership. With characteristic boldness, Israel asserts that an approach based on the history of ideas can indeed provide a durable new interpretation’. However, as I keep insisting, mine is not an approach based on a ‘history of ideas’ but rather on a theory of how conflicting social and political forces come to express themselves ideologically that underpins this ‘big narrative’.

‘We note’, comments Munck, criticizing Revolutionary Ideas, ‘that universal male suffrage was soon declared as a new core principle in line with fundamental human rights – though precisely where this idea came from remains unclear’. It does not seem to me that this claim that the intellectual roots remain unclear is at all justified. On the contrary, speaking as they frequently do of the ‘rights of mankind’, while denying the validity of all social hierarchy, all privilege and all ecclesiastical right to direct men, the principal ‘radicals’ of the 1770s and 1780s, Diderot, d’Holbach, Raynal, Condorcet, Mirabeau, Sieyes, and Volney – and in Britain and America, Paine, Price, Priestley and Jefferson – could not avoid asserting absolute individual autonomy, the equal right of all men to pursue happiness in their own way, and hence the equal right of all to have their universal and equal rights protected by government. This was then also the message of the Virginia ‘Bill of Rights’ of 1776 and Jefferson’ text for the Declaration of Independence. Only radicals embrace universal and equal rights; by definition moderates and Counter-Enlightenment reactionaries – without exception – never do.

The French radicals got there first but the Americans expressed the idea more publicly and powerfully. Franklin’s arrival in France, in 1776, further spurred the ardent enthusiasm for the American Revolution manifested in French radical intellectual circles since 1774–5, especially among those associated with the Histoire philosophique and with Turgot and Condorcet. This point needs emphasizing because, as a rule, both French and American historians tend greatly to underestimate the strength of crypto-republican and anti-aristocratic tendency in French thought prior to 1789.(1a)

Condorcet, like other radical enlighteners, viewed the Enlightenment as the chief step in human progress since the rise of sedentary agriculture and the most essential for freeing the human mind, setting modern science on its path, and achieving liberty. It was in building on the new principles of the Enlightenment that the United States preceded Europe, becoming a land ‘where the rights of man are respected’. America’s impact on the wider world, averred Condorcet in 1781, would prove immense.(2a) The Revolution would quickly reach Europe, and the likeliest place for its first trans-Atlantic incursion was France. But if America would determine ‘whether the human race is destined by nature for liberty or slavery’, as Mirabeau, put it in 1784, we must bear in mind that it was exclusively the democratic tendency – initially associated with Franklin and the 1776 ‘democratic’ Pennsylvania constitution – that French radical philosophes admired. Radicals wholly disdained the Anglophile ‘moderate’ American Revolution of the ‘aristocrats’, denouncing the conservative tendencies venerating Montesquieu, forging checks and balances, restricting the male suffrage, and maintaining religious tests, the model characteristic of most American state legislatures, as well as failure to end black slavery. Like Diderot, d’Holbach, Rousseau and others, they preferred to see just one legitimate source of political authority, the ‘general will’, as Diderot was first to call it, a single chamber armed with legislative supremacy presiding over both executive and judiciary, as in the recently recast 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, of which they, like Price, wholeheartedly approved.      

When the Americans commenced their Revolution, they had convened their representatives in a Congress, averred Condorcet in avowedly republican mode in 1788, permitting no distinctions between orders, no ecclesiastical presence, and no hereditary privileges.(3a) The effectiveness of Congress during the American revolutionary war sufficiently proved that numerous heads representing the people could act more forcefully and decisively than a single head, or a small aristocratic group, and that it is a fallacy to suppose monarchy or aristocracy functions more efficiently than a democratic republic.(4a) All distinctions between French society’s three orders – clergy, nobility, and Third Estate – must be erased by the forthcoming meeting of the Estates-General and the privileged orders merged with the Third to create a ‘national assembly’. Where liberty of the expression in England was constantly infringed by strict libel laws, corrupting journalists, strict theatre censorship and the ‘practice of circumventing, with often ridiculous subtleties’, American-style genuine press freedom, held Condorcet, was a great asset: ‘we have seen in America that information, easily and quickly disseminated throughout an immense country by the printing press, gave the government, in difficult circumstances, a weapon often more powerful than the laws’.(5a)        

‘Universal and equal rights’ was a defining feature of the Radical Enlightenment from the 1770s and its roots lay in pre-1770 French, and before that Dutch-Huguenot philosophy. While this ‘big narrative’ emerging before 1789 is by no means really mine (since it was already sketched by several authors in outline long before the 1990s when I began my Enlightenment series), it is nevertheless an appreciably bigger ‘narrative’ than Munck indicates. He leaves out major dimensions, saying nothing, for example, about the close parallelism of the American and French revolutions that I emphasize and which Henry May already outlined in 1976. May showed that the ‘Radical Enlightenment’, as he already then called it in an article of that year, resulted from the intermixing of (mostly French but also British) intellectual trends with pre-existing political and social tensions converting the American Revolution into a conflict between two rival sets of American values at the heart of which was the clash between democratic republicanism and aristocratic republicanism.

According to May – and since him a succession of historians, including Garry Nash, Seth Cotlar, Matthew Stewart and only finally myself – one group of Founding Fathers, headed by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Gouverneur Morris, venerated Locke and Montesquieu, opposed democracy and strove to justify republican government by informal aristocracy dominated by the great landowning and mercantile families of Virginia, Massachusetts and New York, while another group headed by Benjamin Franklin (6a), Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, and including Thomas Young, Ethan Allen, Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, Elihu Palmer and, briefly, Benjamin Rush, nurtured a Condorcet-style universal rights-based ideology tending towards democracy which clashed with the former during the American Revolution itself and for decades afterwards, reaching a pitch of ideological fury in the 1790s with the venomous clashes between the ‘Federalists’ and Jefferson’s ‘republicans’. My new sequel to the Enlightenment series – The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World (1775–1848) (7a) – seeks to develop further this underlying parallelism of the American and French revolutions with both revolutions being presented as essentially conflicts between Radical Enlightenment and ‘moderate Enlightenment’ ideologies and concepts.

Munck’s perspective then is simply too narrow. Another urgent correction concerns the question of ‘influence’ and that of Spinoza in particular. ‘When we are dealing with the transmission of ideas’, affirms Munck, ‘it is notoriously difficult to demonstrate specific influences, except in the rare instances where the recipient explicitly cites sources’. True. However, many critics express the same reservation, more cuttingly (as they suppose) implying or assuming that my chief concern has been to demonstrate Spinoza’s ‘influence’ on a large range of writers. That has indeed been a by-product of my endeavours in many instances but, important and controversial though it is, it remains a relatively marginal one. For the most part, I am not trying to demonstrate ‘influence’ but examine the incidence of democratic republicanism linked to rejecting religious authority the two main ingredients that make up what I call ‘Radical Enlightenment’ and suggest that this coupling is crucially important to the forging of Western modernity. Where writers derived this combination from is indeed often not easy to establish but also entirely secondary. Thus, for example, it doesn’t really matter whether Toland derived the underlying philosophy, the main argument and detailed critique of ‘priestcraft’, ceremonies and religious doctrine in Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) directly from Spinoza, as Ian Leaske has recently argued, and I have been intimating since the 1990s, or not. Much more important, I contend, is to register that he is deliberately undermining Locke and adopting Spinoza’s basic system: this wholly overturns previous assumptions about the early English Enlightenment. It shows that the special emphasis Margaret Jacob laid on Toland’s alleged republican originality was wholly misplaced. But it is the complex structure of Toland’s entirely unoriginal (Dutch) argument that counts here even if Toland got it at third- or fourth-hand and even if one likes to suppose he never gave Spinoza a single moment’s thought.

In other words, here Munck is being reductive and reflecting a wider critical tendency to be seriously ‘reductive’ when describing the role of Spinoza in my analysis. Munck especially supports the frequently urged charge of ‘reductionism’ when he states: ‘Condorcet, for example, would certainly have known some of Spinoza's writings, but one might question whether his great proposals for educational reform, say, or his real interest in gender equality, can be traced back, at all convincingly, to any one originator. He and his wife were both extraordinarily creative thinkers, and their lively interaction [ …] surely defies reductionism’. But nowhere do I cite any one ‘originator’. I have never claimed the Radical Enlightenment ‘originated with Spinoza’ as Wikipedia used to express this absurdly reductive construct. My claims about Spinoza’s ‘influence’ in the late 18th century are more than peripherally connected with the question of why the ideas of Condorcet, or Diderot, d’Holbach or Helvetius, proved central to the Radical Enlightenment – but are not the main reason why they were ‘radical’ or why they mattered. Indeed, the supposition that my thesis rests principally on the claim that Spinoza ‘influenced’ a host of subsequent writers I count among the weakest parts of the overall critique offered by ‘our reductionists’, an appellation I apply to them with a highly ironic flourish, certainly, but mainly because it is eminently fitting given the great frequency and extreme fragility of this species of objection. In my view, no single great philosopher was, or could have been, the ‘originator’ of the Radical Enlightenment, or gave rise to the radical tendency within the Enlightenment.

There is no better example of the ‘reductionism’ that I object to than the supposedly cutting comments of Keith Michael Baker (which Munch echoes here in his remarks about Condorcet). Baker asserts in our exchange in H-France Forum (8a) that Spinoza, d’Holbach, and Helvétius are not cited by name in Condorcet’s last book, the Esquisse d’un Tableau historique (1795) (9a), as if this shows that Spinoza was not a major influence and consequently that Condorcet was not part of my ‘Radical Enlightenment’ – a piece of blatant ‘reductionism’. For what makes Condorcet’s text a major manifestation of Radical Enlightenment has nothing necessarily to do with Spinoza at all and is precisely what Baker leaves unmentioned: Condorcet’s emphatic reversal, so characteristic of Diderot and d’Holbach, of Montesquieu’s relativism, his insisting bad laws and government had everywhere ruined the ‘happiness’ of the people, while the churches prevented the people from grasping true morality. Urging the need comprehensively to renew the whole existing framework of laws and institutions together with the entire moral order, Condorcet sees humanity’s revolutionary breakthrough to emancipation, freedom, and its ‘happiness’ as due to the progress of ‘philosophy’. Entirely characteristic of the ‘Radical Enlightenment’, Condorcet contends that it was ‘philosophy’ that had opened the door to overthrowing the ‘absurdities’ of the theologians and the entire existing system of institutions with these twin goals presented as tightly linked: Baker failed to see that Condorcet in fact perfectly expresses the very essence of my Radical Enlightenment thesis.

Our ‘reductionists’ scornfully dismiss my account of the French Revolution as highly implausible. Baker asks: ‘Did none of the factors that undermined and eventually destroyed the Old Regime shape the character of the Revolution that was the outcome of the Old Regime’s collapse?’ In fact, the main factors that undermined the French ancien régime – chronic financial crisis, major strains resulting from international rivalry, and deep ecclesiastical divisions – had practically no influence at all on shaping the revolutionary outcome. Nor is this at all surprising. Many historians of the English Revolution of 1642–52 – not least my former colleague at University College London, Conrad Russell – and scholars of the Russian Revolution of 1917 expressly recognize that the factors that caused the break-down of the status quo, the revolutionary crisis, provide virtually no indication whatever as to the revolutionary outcome. For that one must look to the consciously subversive groups in each case seeking revolutionary change.

In other words while accusing me of being ‘reductive’ the harshest critics – Wright, Baker, Bell, Popkin, Hunt, Jacob, Thomson etc – have themselves been ridiculously reductive – and despite his being more courteous than the others that is true also of Munck. He nowhere explains my argument that subversive intellectual traditions evincing a capacity to harden into enduring ideological legacies that exert a major impact on society, originate in basic structural conflicts in politics and society. Such friction whether caused by long-term dissatisfaction over the distribution of political power, clashing theologies, or by chronic economic inequalities can – as classically in 18th-century Ireland – generate social and political tension for long periods of time, I argue, without producing any intellectual response, or ideology, capable of realistically summing up the social structural problems and providing a convincing rationale as to how to solve them. Where such a comprehensive formula does emerge, however, it will gather powerful support from organized and unorganized dissatisfied groups and become a major ideological challenge to the status quo even though sharply divergent ideologies that explain everything differently, or explain nothing at all, can easily remain or become even more popular.

To be specific, the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ began in Holland in the mid-17th century, I maintain, not because Spinoza lived there then, but because unlike 17th-century England where there was certainly a major tradition of radicalism both religious and republican but where the rejection of monarchy and aristocracy as well as ecclesiastical direction was never very clearly spelt out, in Holland the split between democratic republicanism and aristocratic republicanism later to engulf the whole Western world became hard and fast, explicit and obvious, early on. In the Dutch Republic, the democratic republican tendency (which existed in England but much less articulately) became far more directly linked to attacking religious authority so as to give complete religious liberty to the individual. Spinoza himself did not originate this coupling of democratic republicanism with eliminating ecclesiastical authority. It begins with the Brothers De La Court, Franciscus Van den Enden, Lodewijk Meyer, and Adriaen Koerbagh. However, the true origin of the Dutch Radical Enlightenment does not lie in ideas or philosophical-political theories at all, but in the ongoing struggle of opposed social blocs which almost overthrew the ‘True Freedom’ of the narrow urban oligarchies running the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. Three times in 1618–19, in 1650 and in 1672, the Orangist faction, championing the idea that ‘mixed government’ under a princely head and backed by the public church should govern the state almost overthrew the Republic. This developed into a great historical drama. Oldenbarnevelt was executed in 1618; Grotius was imprisoned; religious dissidents were persecuted sporadically. But it was only in the 1660s that the realization dawned that the Republic could survive – together with the individual liberty and religious toleration it purported to guarantee – only if it managed to broaden support for it, that is democratize, and substantially lessen support for public ‘religion’. Only in the 1660s did there arise the particular linkage, combining democratic republicanism with erasure of all religious authority from politics, the constitution, law, education, gender relations and public life which characterizes the Radical Enlightenment as I define it.

After these two fundamental components, democratic republicanism and rejecting religious authority, were firmly articulated and synthesized for the first time, in the 1660s, the Radical Enlightenment evolved into a powerful underground tradition and eventually a revolutionary ideology. This happened not because Spinoza was a better thinker than others – and not even because Spinoza was part of it at all – but because combining democratic republicanism with eliminating religious authority provided a clearer, infinitely more comprehensive and more convincing recipe for confronting the social and political hierarchies and ecclesiastical supervision besieging the ‘True Freedom’ and buttressing the authoritarian systems infusing the whole of the ancien regime Western world than any alternative. By contrast in British late 17th-century republican and radical thought, in Harrington, Sidney, and Locke alike, as in early and mid-18th-century American thought, the underlying confrontation between democratic republicanism and gentry republicanism was routinely papered over and obscured, and is manifestly far less obvious and dramatic, as was rejection of the principle of monarchy and removing religious authority.

This remained the case all the way down to the American Revolution and the late 18th century. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688–9, which for the first time entrenched Dutch Orangist ‘mixed government’ (and aristocratic dominance) in Britain, for example, the radical tendency was by no means wholly absent but it figured only very marginally through the activities of a few fringe radical republicans like John Wildman. British Radical Enlightenment eventually became one of the most powerful, eloquent and decisive strands of the whole phenomenon I am describing – but that was the accomplishment of Jebb, Price, Priestley, Paine, Wollsonecraft, Godwin, James Mill, the Lake poets (in their youth), Shelley, and (after 1815) Bentham. American ‘Radical Enlightenment’, through Franklin, Paine and Jefferson especially, also became a major force but, again, only from the 1770s.

When I refer to ‘Spinozism’ in the 18th century, then, I am not talking about any ‘influence’ that Spinoza may or may not have exerted but about combining one-substance materialism and determinism (including the Priestleyan version of Unitarianism) that eliminates all supernaturalia , all revelation and ecclesiastical authority while simultaneously attacking monarchy and aristocracy along with every single species of republicanism – Venetian, Genoese, Swiss, Polish, Dutch or 17th-century English, that champions or encourages aristocratic or oligarchic control. Radical Enlightenment was therefore something very specific and concrete, entirely new, lacking any precedent before 1650, in no way British in origin, and comprehensively subversive overthrowing every dimension of ancien regime society all at once. This approach postulates a Radical Enlightenment that firmly excludes Locke, La Mettrie, Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith, and also Goethe even though the latter was hugely ‘influenced’ in certain respects by Spinoza.

I accept that not all of the Radical Enlightenment was altogether ‘Spinozist’ in this precise and carefully defined sense. Participants in the Radical Enlightenment could sometimes combine the two key components less closely, without trying to seal them together in any exacting philosophical fashion; consequently, I reserve the term ‘Spinozism’, as I believe many contemporaries also did, to cover the ideas of those radicals who did strive to weld their democratic republicanism unremittingly and systematically to rejection of religious authority. One of the chief objections of ‘our reductionists’ is their insistence that there is no necessary connection between democratic republicanism and rejecting religious authority. This is doubtless true in general terms; but the radicals I group under ‘Radical Enlightenment’ either believed there was an absolutely necessary connection or else tried to combine democratic republicanism with religious commitment coherently but failed philosophically in such a way as to leave the door wide open to thinkers welding them more rigorously together.

Catharine Macaulay, Price and Priestley, for example, were undoubtedly political and social radicals, but radicals who did not share the ‘Spinozist’ view that there is no knowing, benevolent divine governance of the course of human affairs. Their stance is certainly an important manifestation of the radical tendency in its own right but at the same time presented followers and acolytes aiming to build on their teaching with an insuperable problem – a seeming contradiction that did not embarrass Spinozists: if their more religious perspective was correct why did the benevolent and omnipotent God they worshipped and who, they believed, guides human destiny toward democracy, equality and general amelioration based on freedom, leave most of humanity, for so many centuries, languishing under oppression, tyranny, aristocracy and darkness, and apparently still did in and after 1815? The radical feminist historian and political commentator Catharine Macaulay (1731–91) proclaimed equality, including gender equality, under the ‘protection of an all-perfect and omnipotent Being’ who guides men and women in pursuing virtue and a better world. God, she believed, intended men and women to secure happiness in this life and a ‘more enlarged and a more permanent state of happiness in the life to come’.(10a) The great drawback of this approach was that it blatantly contradicted experience, or seemed to, as Bayle, d’Holbach and others had indefatigably reiterated, and, as Voltaire emphasized in relation to the appallingl tragedy of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

Institutionalized forms of economic and social oppression, moreover, seemingly generated even more deprivation and misery than natural disasters. For radical enlighteners, the whole fabric of conventional ‘truth’, or what the Swedish radical poet and Spinozist, Thomas Thorild (1759–1808), called ‘this grand show, this proud and magnificent abuse of all that is divine and most sacred’, including all dualist philosophy and existing church-sanctioned education, was comprehensively false, based on bogus systems foisted on humanity by the ‘men of great places and little souls’. The clergy in particular were deemed by radical enlighteners to be purveyors of organized deception and imposture sanctioning false social hierarchies and political systems while leaving ‘no more upon earth any great effect of truth’.(11a) Far-reaching amelioration seemed impossible without first erasing this ‘false consciousness’. Macaulay’s and Price’s stance could thus readily be made to look self-contradictory and inexplicable unless one fell back on Rousseau’s traditionalist claim that the ways of divine providence are mysterious and unknown to us. Hence, ultimately, the Priestleyan Unitarian stance required a considerable leap of faith, thereby blatantly contradicting the unbending rationalism and naturalism which – as Leo Strauss in particular stressed – more generally characterized ‘Spinozist’ Radical Enlightenment thought.

Radical enlighteners held that a better, more equal and tolerant society is possible, along with a better, more representative political system. Inevitably, this included some attempt to correct social injustice. A few, like Freneau and Thorild contended that poverty and misery are unnecessary in the world and could be wholly eliminated by society, that the ‘earth as easily could feed ten mankinds’.(12a) Brissot and Condorcet repeatedly warned against excessive wealth inequality. For Brissot and Condorcet, enlightened reform meant, as in d’Holbach and the Histoire philosophique, comprehensively replacing the existing framework of laws and institutions, and this included economic reforms such as ending entails and primogeniture and adopting progressive taxation obliging the rich to pay proportionately more to the general interest than the poor, a scheme designed to redistribute wealth.(13a) In contrast, though, to the early socialists of the 1830s and 1840s, who believed breaking the chains of economic oppression suffices to liberate the underclass from capitalist oppression, for radical enlighteners down to 1848, even though, for them too, far-reaching economic reform seemed necessary, the economic question was never uppermost. For the philosophical radicals of my ‘long Enlightenment’ down to 1848 emancipating mankind meant changing how the masses think, and eradicating religious authority, rather than capturing and changing the economic system.

My final correction is this: the concept ‘Radical Enlightenment’ is far from being a novelty in historical studies. Margaret Jacob certainly figures among the noteworthy predecessors and I have no wish to belittle her role, but like nearly all ‘our reductionists’ in this debate Munck mentions her as if she is the only significant predecessor. Why? Surely there are more important contributions to this discussion, some of which were submitted earlier – by Leo Strauss in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, when he first coined the term ‘Radikale Aufklärung’, and argued that there was a ‘moderate Enlightenment locked in constant strife with the radical tendency’, or by Henry May in The Enlightenment in America (14a) as well as by Günter Mühlpfordt (15a), Giuseppe Ricuperati , Silvia Berti, Winfried Schroder, Martin Mulsow, and Wim Klever. As depicted by Strauss, Radical Enlightenment preceded the ‘moderate Enlightenment chronologically and outlived it. From the late 17th century onwards, ‘moderate Enlightenment’ was the primary reforming project as far as governments, churches and educators were concerned, but beneath the surface, held Strauss, the radical impulse turned out to be philosophically and culturally, the ‘real’ or main Enlightenment, ultimately shaping the Enlightenment’s troubled legacy, the intellectual paradoxes and dilemmas of post-1800 modernity. Radikale Aufklärung Strauss classified as the real, veritable Enlightenment while construing Locke, Voltaire, Moses Mendelssohn and other committed ‘moderates’ as cautious compromisers devising unworkable philosophical ‘fixes’ in their quest for an ultimately untenable harmony of Enlightenment with religion.        

I would like to close by incipiently answering Munck’s question: ‘Can the history of ideas provide a satisfactory new overall synthesis to displace what Israel dismissed at the start as the failed interpretations of existing scholarship?’ My answer is that the Radical Enlightenment thesis is not an exercise in history of ideas but an exercise in social and political history arguing, in contrast to Marxist and Marxisant historians claiming social groups and classes in conflict move in response in some fixed and predetermined fashion that the dissatisfied and aggrieved move in all sorts of wildly contradictory ways. The aggrieved can readily, like nine-tenths of the British populace in the 1790s and first years of the 19th century, aggressively support ‘Church and King’ and give their all to bolster aristocracy. History is not a story of social forces at work causing groups to move in logical directions but of social forces at work causing groups to become vulnerable to capture by a wide range of beliefs and ideas most of which have very little to do with promoting their real interests. To that extent at least the radical enlighteners were surely right.

And a final remark about ‘our reductionists’. Most historians and philosophers still resist the ‘binary’ splitting of the Enlightenment into two irreconcilable and warring tendencies. The general feeling is that this is sensible. But is it? The split between Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, Madison, Barlow and their ‘republican’ supporters on the one side and John Adams, Morris, Jay, Hamilton and their Federalist adherents on the other led by the 1790s to a ferocious clash of republican ideologies, democratic versus republican, with the latter denouncing the former as ‘American Jacobins’. One can stalwartly deny that this dichotomy reflects a basic division in the Enlightenment – but only at a very high price. If one refuses to accept the basic split then one must speak, as Caroline Winterer does, in her recent book (16a), not just of diverse ‘American enlightenments’ but of ‘the ambiguity of enlightenment’, concluding that the salient point about the American Enlightenment is the profound ‘ambivalence felt by intellectuals in the United States during the first eighty years of nationhood about the republican path to enlightenment’. This latter option seems to me not just an inadequate and inaccurate way of describing the deep division among, and passionate sense of commitment felt by, American enlighteners at this time but profoundly unhelpful to researchers, students and readers generally. The price of ignoring the binary ‘moderate Enlightenment/ Radical Enlightenment’, I argue, is unacceptably high.       

 

Notes

  1. Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, pp. 14–29, 36–49; Israel, ‘Response to Jeremy Popkin’, in H France Forum, 15, 67 (May 2015), 4–6.Back to (1a)
  2. Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Réflexions sur la Révolution de 1688, et celle du 10 août 1792 (n.p., n.d. [Paris], 1792).Back to (2a)
  3. Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, ‘Sentiments d’un républicain ; sur les Assemblées Provinciales et les États Généraux’ in Suite des Lettres d’Un Citoyen des États –Unis à un Français, sur les affaires présentes (‘Philadelphie’ [Paris ?], 1788), pp. 4–5, 8, 18–19.Back to (3a)
  4. Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Seconde Lettre d’un citoyen des États-Unis à un Français (n.p.n.d. [Paris, 1788]), pp. 21–2.Back to (4a)
  5. Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Writings on the United States, ed. Guillaume Ansart (University Park, PA, 2012), pp. 26–8.Back to (5a)
  6. For Franklin’s Radical Enlightenment views, see Matthew Stewart, Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York, NY, 2014), pp. 184–8, 197–9, 285–6; and Kerry Walters, Revolutionary Deists. Early America’s Rational Infidels (Amherst, NY, 2011), pp. 51–85.Back to (6a)
  7. Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World (1775–1848) (Princeton, NJ, 2017).Back to (7a)
  8. H-France Forum, 9, 1 (winter 2014).Back to (8a)
  9. Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, ed. A. Pons (Paris, 1988).Back to (9a)
  10. Sarah Hutton, ‘Liberty, equality, and God: the religious roots of Catharine Macaulay’s feminism’, in Women, Gender, and Enlightenment, ed. S. Knott and B. Taylor (Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 546–8;  Karen Green, A History of Women's Political Thought in Europe, 1700-1800 (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 174–5, 178–80.Back to (10a)
  11. [Thomas Thorild], The Sermon of Sermons on the Impiety of Priests and the Fall of Religion (London, 1789), pp. iii, 8, 15–18, 26–7.Back to (11a)
  12. [Thorild], The Sermon of Sermons, p. 15.Back to (12a)
  13. Jean-Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain: projets, esquisse, fragments et notes (1772–94), ed. J. P.Schandeler and P. Crépel (Paris, 2004), pp. 351–86.Back to (13a)
  14. Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford, 1976).Back to (14a)
  15. For a collection of republished articles of Mühlpfortdt’s from the 1970s and 1980s, see Günter Mühlpfordt , Halle-Leipziger Aufklärung. Kernstuck der Mitteldeutschen Aufklärung (Halle, 2011).Back to (15a)
  16. Caroline Winterer, American Enlightenments. Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (New Haven, CT, 2016).Back to (16a)