Jonathan Israel is Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a leading historian of early modern Europe. His most recent book is Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre.
Jonathan Israel is Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and a leading historian of early modern Europe. His most recent book is Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre.
The first book you’ve chosen, Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680-1715 is not only much the earliest of the books you’ve chosen — it was published in 1935 — it’s also written in a style that’s different from most academic studies. It’s packed with learning but it’s also sometimes florid, and not afraid of using exclamation marks. It’s quite conversational, and has reached a wider audience than the history of ideas usually does. Why do you think this book is so popular, and what do you like about it?
The book has shown an ability to endure, which is very unusual in any kind of history book, not just in the world of intellectual history. It’s remarkable that it made the impact that it did at the time and has continued to do so, consistently, over decades. Its durability is perhaps its most impressive feature — although actually the main reason I chose it is that I designed my Five Books in such a way as to be comprehensive and cover the Enlightenment in all its aspects in an exciting, but also a thorough, way. There’s a tendency for most surveys to be rather weak, especially on the early period, and to focus too much on the second half of the 18th century — giving the reader the impression that what happened earlier was a mere preface. Hazard’s book gives a lively and dramatic picture of the early Enlightenment period and the intellectual crisis that it entailed, not just in one European country, but right across the Western world. In that respect it’s excellent and still unmatched. It would be hard to compete with its account of the crisis of the European mind in that early period.
The book has a precise thesis which you alluded to: Hazard says the revolutionary ideas which were around in the late 18th century were already current in 1680. Do you think he establishes that?
I have some difficulties with his starting point in 1680. There’s quite a lot in the book that I agree with, but, as one might expect, there are other things I do not agree with. Choosing 1680 is perhaps a rather French perspective: it’s when Bayle and Malebranche and other key figures writing in French are really developing their thoughts and their ideas. But, as I see it, the Dutch Republic plays a crucial role, not just in the history of the Enlightenment, but in creating the framework of basic ideas which shaped and generated controversy throughout the whole history of the Enlightenment. If one were to accept that, then 1680 becomes rather problematic. The Dutch crisis of reaction to the challenge thrown down by Descartes and Hobbes and Spinoza is really in the period between 1650 and 1680. It’s in the 1650s the Descartes makes his first really big impact in the Netherlands. So one would need to take the period between 1650 and 1680 as the first stage of this crisis — which in every other respect, Hazard describes for us very, very effectively — and the period between 1680 and 1720 as the second phase of the Enlightenment. This is very heavily dominated by French writing, although — and Hazard in no way understates this — the link with Holland is still there. The Huguenot diaspora, which played such an important part in intellectual life all over Western Europe, had as its pivot, its central point, the Dutch Republic. Holland had the largest of the Huguenot émigré communities, but also the largest group among the intelligentsia, prominent figures in the republic of letters at that time. On learned subjects the Dutch publishing industry was the freest and the biggest in terms of quantity of publishing, especially for French and Latin.
Which of the thinkers before 1680 do you think he should have paid more attention to?
Bayle, Malebranche, Jean Le Clerc and other Huguenot and French and French- speaking Swiss scholars who were central to the debates that formed Hazard’s crisis in the closing decades of the 17th century and opening decades of the 18th century, were carrying on and responding to intellectual challenges which had already been set out by a number of scholars in the Dutch context. Spinoza is much the most famous of these, but the intellectual crisis was actually a much wider phenomenon than simply Spinoza and the response to Spinoza. It began, really, as a response to Descartes and to Hobbes. Hobbes had a very major impact at an early stage in Holland, and both the theological and the philosophical response was rather wide-ranging — perhaps more so than in any other European country. One major reason for that was the religious complexity of the scene in the Dutch Republic. There was a relative tolerance — not by any means a complete tolerance — which was important for publishing, as I mentioned. Another very important reason in explaining the intensity and complexity of intellectual crisis in the second half of the 17th century is that none of the churches were able to establish real domination. There was one particular church — the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist church, which had the title of being the public church and was privileged by the state. But it’s doubtful whether more than half the population subscribed to it. In practice it would not be inaccurate to say that all the churches were minorities in the Netherlands. There were the various dissenting churches, of which the Lutherans were a very large group. The Mennonites played a very major role. Also, the Catholic community in the Dutch Republic was considerably larger than it was in England, possibly as large as 40%, certainly at least a third of the population. The Jewish community was also larger than in Britain in the 17th or 18th centuries. So all the churches had a minority status and were forced to compete with each other in a more obvious way than was the case in any other European country. This combination of a freer press and a more divided religious framework explains why a philosophical innovation which poses, in principle, a serious challenge to the philosophical establishment of the day — which Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza all did in their different ways — was likely to resound both in a more complex and in a more worrying way — and perhaps more quickly in the Dutch context.
Hazard talked about the “revolutionary ideas” which were around then. Could you just tell us what some of those key ideas are?
The Enlightenment, as I understand it, was revolutionary in multiple ways. In the early period, the emphasis is on the challenge that philosophy posed to the dominance of theology, revelation, miracles, and religious authority as the main guide in social theory and politics. Here I agree entirely with Hazard — there is a challenge which is partly a skeptical challenge. It begins with Descartes and Hobbes but becomes much wider than that, and leads to — of course Richard Popkin was perhaps the intellectual historian who was most famous for stressing this aspect, but there’s a lot of it already in Hazard — a skeptical challenge which is a major feature of the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. There were two ways of responding to this crisis. (This way of seeing it is related to a theory which I’ve tried to construct over the years, a workable framework, as I see it — though there are many critics who don’t see it as a workable framework — for the Enlightenment as a whole.) One is to pick up the pieces, so to speak, and try to forge a workable compromise, a reconciliation between reason and faith, between reason and revelation, which will be robust enough to be teachable in universities, and to provide a plausible explanation of reality and of how it is that the laws of nature work in conjunction with revelation and religious authority. That was the great challenge of the era. I think most theologians and philosophers were preoccupied with it, including the greatest scientists of the period, such as Newton who, for Hazard, stood absolutely at the centre of all these processes.
There had to be new ways of explaining the relations between science and religion, there had to be a whole new rhetoric, whole new lines of thought, whole new philosophical techniques which would facilitate and make convincing this reconciliation of philosophical reason and scientific reason with revelation and religious authority. At the same time, there was a semi-clandestine, philosophical underground, that I call the Radical Enlightenment. The French have been interested in this phenomenon since before World War II, but English and American scholars were not interested in it until quite recently. The age of Bayle and of the Huguenot diaspora was also a time when atheistic and near-atheistic texts — rejecting religious authority and revelation — were circulating. Perhaps the most famous example of these clandestine texts, which was circulating from the 1670s, though the first printed version was in 1719, was The Treatise of the Three Impostors or Le Traite des Trois Imposteurs. But there were dozens of others, some of which were circulating on only a very small scale and others of which were actually quite widely diffused in various European countries, often in manuscript form. If they did appear in print those printed versions were suppressed rather harshly by the authorities, so in many cases only small quantities circulated and very small numbers survive today.
Do you think these texts are correctly described as atheist in the modern sense? Almost anything critical of religion would have been called atheist at the time; do you think there were people sincerely believing there was no God?
There are several things to be said about that. Is an unknowing god, who is not benevolent, but is, as it were, the totality of nature, a Spinozistic view of God, in other words, atheism or not? Whether Spinoza is an atheist or not is still a moot point amongst philosophers. It depends what you mean by atheism. But for the 17th and 18th centuries, where God plays such a central role in society and politics because he knows, because his divine providence guides what happens, and because divine authority is the basis of the moral order, a Spinozistic conception of God, whether the philosopher today calls it atheism or not, must count as atheism in 17th or 18th century terms. There’s a wonderful democratic republican pamphlet by Camille Desmoulins which was published at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 where he discusses this very point. He says the real issue, if you’re talking about revolution and turning everything upside down, what really counts in the 18th century, is not atheism as such, but the rejection of divine providence and religious authority. That’s what we’re really talking about. If there is no divine providence guiding the course of history, if there is no divine direction in the way things happen, this means that the existing social order – for instance the fact that most of the properties are owned by the aristocracy – can’t be part of the divine plan, or can’t be sanctioned by religious authority.
Religious authority doesn’t have that kind of connection with divine providence that it claims to have, and therefore it doesn’t have the legitimacy that many people imagine that it does. This is deeply subversive, and is the connection between being revolutionary in religious matters and being revolutionary in social and political matters. That is one of the most important things to grasp about the Enlightenment. Lots of historians have said — sometimes in criticism of myself — that there is no necessary connection between atheism and the anti-aristocratic, democratic tendency in politics in the 18th century. Personally, I’m quite convinced that’s totally wrong. And not only that, I don’t think one can possibly hold that position, unless one has little grasp of the role religion plays in social theory and in all forms of political and legitimation in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Let’s move on to your second book, The Enlightenment in America by Henry May. The author divides the European Enlightenment into four categories which he calls moderate, skeptical, revolutionary and didactic. He thinks these four things affected America in roughly chronological order. Can you tell us something about each of those categories?
This, again, is part of my idea to choose Five Books which would cover the main dimensions of the Enlightenment in an interesting and comprehensive way. Europeans often tag America on, as an interesting supplement coming late in the day to the Enlightenment and to 18th century history. Actually the American Enlightenment is much more fundamental than that. It’s terribly important because the American Revolution and the American Constitution and what America is today was shaped to a considerable degree by the Enlightenment. Also, there’s a lot about the European Enlightenment that one can understand better through knowing the American Enlightenment. So I think a good overview of the Enlightenment requires one to have a more detailed view of what is happening in America. And I think many scholars would agree that although it came out in 1976, Henry May’s survey of the American Enlightenment is the best overview that there is. No one has matched it.
In the humanities, like in the sciences, we need basic categories. Categories are terribly important, not just for philosophers, but for everyone. Historians sometimes forget this and try to operate without categories, but I don’t think that’s a very good way of pursuing historical studies. So Henry May divided the American Enlightenment into four categories. He saw the first of those, what he calls the American moderate Enlightenment, as being essentially British. The English Enlightenment in the 18th century was predominantly conservative politically and socially and, like the Enlightenment overall, divided on the religious issue. I mentioned before this split between a mainstream, moderate Enlightenment which is trying to reconcile religion with philosophical reason and a radical tendency. The English Enlightenment had this too. There was a very strong tradition starting with Toland and Collins at the beginning of the 18th century — and recent research has confirmed this, though I got into a lot of trouble for stressing it — that they were borrowing an awful lot from Spinoza and the circle around him, as well as from Bayle and the Huguenot diaspora. There was also Thomas Gordon who is rather overlooked and quite a lot of other interesting English, Scottish and Irish figures. Bolingbroke is another important one. This whole world of radicalism developed in England and was the other part of the English Enlightenment. It’s terribly important as well, although in the case of Bolingbroke and Collins it was not particularly subversive politically. If anything it was on the conservative side, and certainly very supportive of the legacy of the 1688 Revolution. It was radical more in the religious sense — although there are aspects in there which are republican and could potentially develop in a more democratic direction.
I think May doesn’t give quite enough emphasis to the radical tendency in the early period in America, because it’s obviously quite strong in the middle years of the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, when he was a student at William and Mary College was very strongly influenced by Bolingbroke, perhaps, especially. This clearly fed into the rather democratic, radical, republican direction his thinking took later. But May is right that his first category, the English Enlightenment, was predominantly aiming at that reconciliation, often through physico-theology and ‘the argument from design’ –that something as wondrously complex as the universe can only have been created by a knowing and benevolent creator. In the wake of Newton and Newtonianism the argument from design was one of the most powerful arguments for belief and for religion, but also for welding together science and faith. This played a dominant role. There was also a rather complacent attitude about the 1688 Revolution that Britain had struck a wonderful compromise — mixed government as it was often called — combining monarchy, aristocracy and a little bit of democracy. This was perfection itself, supposedly. Many people in the 18th century firmly believed that it was impossible to improve on British mixed government, that it was not just the best political system that existed but a kind of universal model. This was profoundly influential everywhere, but outside of Europe especially in the American colonies. So May is very correct about his first category.
Now the French Enlightenment, or at least the mainstream French Enlightenment, he tended to put, on the whole, in the second category, the Skeptical Enlightenment. His fourth category was a kind of Scottish didactic Enlightenment which could be distinguished both from the Skeptical Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Personally I think there is a much deeper division between those three and his third category, what he calls the Revolutionary Enlightenment (rather than Radical Enlightenment). May should be noted as the only important historian in the 20th century who has, especially in the English language, really developed this point: that if you want to understand the American Revolution, you’d better get down to the fact that there’s a serious divergence between a radical and a moderate tendency. If you’re not willing to accept that — and many scholars still won’t accept that — you’re not going to understand anything about the American Revolution. May was 100% correct about that; he was spot on, though he wasn’t the first to develop this point.
It goes back much earlier in German writing, to Leo Strauss, who in the 1920s is already using the term “radikale Aufklärung.” It plays quite an important part in the way he views Hobbes and Spinoza and Bayle. So the distinction goes back at least to the 1920s. But in May it’s fundamental because he sees that to correctly understand the relationship between the American Revolution and the American Enlightenment is to see that it is a clash between the moderate Enlightenment and the Revolutionary Enlightenment. This is the key to understanding what’s happening. And I’m sorry to say most historians haven’t quite grasped that yet. This is why there is an awful lot of confusion in writing about the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary era. If historians paid more attention to philosophy, and to these categories, it would work very much to their profit and advantage. They would get a much clearer feel for what’s really happening. But May grasped it perfectly and it was really a remarkable achievement — especially as many writers complained in the 60s and 70s that although everyone paid lip-service to the American Revolution and American Constitution being fruits of the Enlightenment, for some reason no one ever wrote a general survey of the American Enlightenment. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but Henry May sat down and did it and I think it’s a great work. It is a wonderful book.
Maybe the reason for that is that America didn’t produce any of the best-known thinkers of the Enlightenment. It seems as if America was using and putting into practice ideas of the Enlightenment. For example, I looked through who gets mentioned most in the book, and the Europeans are Locke, Voltaire, Hume and Rousseau — all thinkers who are still read today. The Americans are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. (The only exception is Tom Paine.) It sounds like in May’s version of the story, the Europeans are the thinkers and the Americans the doers.
I don’t think that’s quite correct. For one thing, you don’t have revolutions without ideology and a very important part of the ideology of the American Revolution, as we see from the Declaration of Independence, is the idea of universal human rights. I know the majority of historians at the moment stress the cultural-history explanation. Lynn Hunt’s idea is very popular, that you’ve got to look at slow cultural processes — people were reading novels, they developed more empathy for other people, and in this way universal rights evolved. A good illustration of the point I am trying to make is this recent book of Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts, which I strongly recommend. It’s an important book on what Lynn Hunt called the invention of universal human rights. On the whole historians, with their muddled categories and lack of interest in philosophy have said, “Oh well! John Locke started talking about rights, so these universal human rights must somehow have evolved slowly from Locke.” Lynn Hunt’s idea, because it’s bottom up, it’s slow, it’s nice and simple is terribly popular — lots of people think it’s great. The problem with it is it’s absolutely certain it’s total nonsense. It doesn’t work at all, and for two excellent reasons. One of them is demonstrated by de Bolla, which is that the advent of universal human rights is quite different from the way rights are used in Locke and earlier, and it happens very suddenly in the 1770s. The other is that it can’t have anything to do with cultural processes because of the ferocious divisions over universal human rights. It’s enormously divisive within France and Europe, and within the French Revolution. The majority are strongly against it. There is a small fringe who are pushing it through against tremendous opposition. The emancipation of the Jews is supported by very, very few. This has nothing to do with cultural processes, this is an ideological battle which can only be understood in philosophical terms.
So we have to throw out the cultural processes and we have to look at the suddenness of human rights, and the way the idea of them came about. It is Paine, Jefferson, George Mason and others who engineer the notion in America in the early and mid-1770s, taking it from the French context. It comes in in the Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes, which was the most widely known French book anywhere in the later 18th century, even more than Montesquieu or Rousseau. It was published under the name Raynal, who for a time was very very famous, but we know today it was written by a team, and the hardest hitting parts, the parts that really electrified people, were written by Diderot. The Histoire Philosophique was fundamental for the American and French Revolutions and for everything after. It was a six-volume work on the history of the Europeans in the two Indies and it marks the beginning of anti-colonialism, by saying it’s a horrible story of conquest, exploitation, brutality and arrogance and imposing a religion that was alien to these people, and forms of rule which were quite alien to the peoples that were conquered. So the political and religious sections are very, very important. It was followed by a number of books, of which d’Holbach’s are very important. His political books are ignored and underestimated by historians — books like La Politique Naturelle (1773) and Systeme Sociale (1773). Like Condorcet does in his writing, these books use this concept of universal human rights as one of their main arguments again exploitation and slavery. This is where Paine and the others who are developing this idea in America in the 1770s are getting it from. But I wouldn’t want to say that the French are doing all the thinking, and the Americans are just applying it. That would be a great oversimplification. There is a complex convergence here, creating a powerful new ideology which is then taken further in the French Revolution. But unlike most historians, especially American historians, who love to stress the differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, I’m much keener on seeing them both as children of the Enlightenment. They are much more closely entwined, and closer in their basic characteristics, than historians normally see it. And this question of universal human rights plays a basic part in that, all leading up to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
Franklin and Jefferson and Adams read a great deal, they were very erudite. It wasn’t a hobby, they were passionately committed to the Enlightenment. If you read the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams when they were old men in the 1820s, they say, “We used to be political rivals, but let’s forget all that: we agree about the Enlightenment, and that’s more important than anything.” Still in the 1820s they see it as the biggest and most important thing that has ever happened.
They wouldn’t have spoken it of the Enlightenment though would they? How would they have referred to it?
They would talk about enlightened ways of thinking. They would use ‘enlightened’ as an adjective, enlightened ideas of government, enlightened views of society, and so on.
They would use it in the same sense that Voltaire would?
Oh yes. And of course the term ‘Aufklärung’ was established in the late 18th century. So this idea that they didn’t have the terminology of the Enlightenment that we use is a little bit overdone. It’s very clear reading correspondence like that that they have an extremely vivid conception of what the Enlightenment was, and a much higher view of its importance than we have today. That is something very striking.
I just wanted to finish off by saying May has four categories, but in terms of the American Revolution, and the importance of the American Enlightenment for the rest of the world, it seems to me better to see three of those as forming subcategories of one larger category. After all, the differences between the Scottish Didactic Enlightenment and the British Moderate Enlightenment are not that great, it’s essentially the same views: we want to reconcile revelation and science, and moderation is our watchword. We want to base a social and intellectual system on British mixed government. The Scottish Enlightenment never challenges the domination of British life by the aristocracy, which is one of its most striking features in the 18th and 19th centuries. Adam Smith entirely subscribes to aristocratic domination: he thinks trade should be free, but politics is different. Capitalism might be great for business, but it’s terrible for politics because capitalists only think about their own interests and never give a thought to anyone else’s. So the last people you want to be running the government are capitalists. Who are the best educated, the most generous, the most outward looking group? Well, the aristocracy. The British aristocracy are already running everything, so let them carry on running it. That’s the best solution.
Your third book is by Louis Dupré, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture.
He says in his preface that his aim is to analyze some of the guiding principles of the Enlightenment, in particular those that have been instrumental in shaping our assumptions, attitudes and values. One of the reasons I find this a very hard book to follow is that he doesn’t quite get around to defining precisely what he means by the Enlightenment. Do you think that’s a problem, or am I being unfair?
I don’t think you’re being unfair. It’s a book which I don’t altogether like. I began by being rather hostile to it, though I feel more friendly towards it now. It’s by a scholar who is part Catholic theologian and is not particularly well disposed towards the Enlightenment, and especially not toward what I would call the Radical Enlightenment. If you read his sections on D’Holbach and Condorcet, although it’s quite interesting what he says about them, he’s fairly dismissive and not very positive. The closer you get to bringing faith and philosophy together, the more Dupré seems to warm up. He’s quite keen on Jacobi, for instance, one of the great critics of Spinoza — because Jacobi’s leap of faith and his insistence that philosophy only works if you make that leap of faith and combine it with religion is obviously a position to which Dupré is very sympathetic. Personally I’m not particularly sympathetic to that way of looking at things. But Dupré has a very vivid sense of the Enlightenment as an upheaval which transformed every aspect of intellectual life and culture. Historians have gone a long way from seeing the Enlightenment as part of the history of philosophy, that if we are talking about the Enlightenment we are talking about the way the entire intellectual, scientific, high cultural world is turned upside down. Dupré has a sense of how history writing is revolutionized, art criticism is revolutionized, philosophy is revolutionized. In this book, he sets it out in sections that contribute to my schema with these Five Books which is to show the Enlightenment in all its dimensions. This book shows how profoundly the Enlightenment upset and transformed all these different areas — and other areas which perhaps he doesn’t discuss in detail like economics.
I agree with you, though, that Dupré hasn’t fully reconciled himself to the Enlightenment. He has a very vivid sense of the conflict between the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, and of the tension between the Enlightenment and religion. As an illustration of the continuing relevance of that today, Dupré is a very interesting study. I also find him quite important as a warning to those who have settled their view about some aspects of the Enlightenment — and I mean that as a criticism of myself. One is always in danger of thinking about something, making up your mind about it, and then not being critical enough in your thinking on that topic subsequently. So, for instance, when Dupré dismisses Condorcet’s conception of history and history writing, there is a challenge there to a secularist. He would say, “Supposing you’ve rejected faith and belief and have a secular view, so that everything that happens in history is caused purely by natural laws and circumstances. By removing the miraculous and the supernatural entirely from history, you’ve created the basic arena of modern history writing. You decide there must be a direction or a story to be told and you become so preoccupied with trying to look at the overall story of progress that firstly, you lose respect for detail. Secondly you reconcile yourself too easily to the idea that there have been centuries of superstition and of benightedness and in the future we’re going to have not just a much better understanding, but a much better and happier society, because it’s going to be based on better principles. But what about all those centuries that went before? Does that count for nothing? Even if some socialist program were to be marvelously successful, isn’t there something deeply disturbing about the fact that generations and generations and generations missed out on that and had miserable lives? Why should some other group have happier lives later, when there have been all these miserable generations? There is this moral problem attached to this way of thinking and Dupré is very good at making you consider it.
One of the claims that he makes that is perhaps critical of the influence of the Enlightenment is that it often led to “unwarranted intellectual confidence.” Do you think he’s right in that?
No. I think a man of religion would feel that the secularists are too confident, but if there is no religious authority, no revelation and no guidance to rely on beyond science and philosophy then we’d better get the best science and philosophy we can. You wrote this marvelous article on how prone science and scientists are to mistakes. All of us are prone to mistakes. Still, some ways of looking at politics and society are better than others, we can all agree on that, at least. We’d better try to get the best outcomes that we can.
Consider universal human rights, the need to emancipate the blacks from slavery and integrate them into society. There was an urgent need to correct a fundamental injustice and there were also many other injustices that needed correcting. Today we can still see that having less censorship and having more freedom of expression and freedom of thought is good — we know what societies run on the basis of censorship, what that implies. But we’ve forgotten many things. We don’t know really what it was like to live in an ancien régime, in an aristocratic society where the individual has no rights, where an aristocrat is so much more privileged and powerful than you are, that the ordinary solider or sailor or employee in a firm simply doesn’t have any protection against a person in a position of superiority. We have forgotten what that means.
Another of his criticisms is that colonization, technical advances and economic power enabled the West to restructure other societies on a Western pattern. He says these developments were direct consequences of the Enlightenment’s concept of reason. Do you think that’s fair?
Is that an accusation, do you think? I can imagine that in Dupré it is, to some extent. But I don’t think the Enlightenment thought of itself as devising and imposing a European system on the rest of the world. It thought of itself as rejecting tradition and the existing status quo in Europe.
The Enlightenment tried to look at the whole history of thought. It’s quite interesting, actually, to see the discussions about China and about Islam. You may say that they had oversimplified ideas, but they were well aware that all kinds of thinkers had developed important ideas that contributed to this advance of l’esprit humain, of human reason, and the making of a better society. At least the Radical Enlightenment did — and I must insist here on the distinction between the two kinds of Enlightenment, because universal human rights is not the invention of the Enlightenment as a whole but of the Radical Enlightenment.
The idea of the essential unity of mankind and of democracy were radical ideas not subscribed to by Voltaire or Hume, nor Montesquieu, nor indeed most of the famous names of the Enlightenment. They were not interested in these ways of thinking. But, as is nowhere more clearly illustrated that in the American and French Revolutions, they were nevertheless a very, very powerful aspect of the Enlightenment which in the long-run had a bigger impact on the future than the Voltaires and Montesquieus had. It’s this stress on the unity of mankind, on the equivalence of each individual’s interests and happiness — whether they’re Chinese or Arabs or Europeans — which made it easier for these radical Enlighteners to see the history of philosophy as a global phenomenon in which all cultures had contributed. There’s no sense of Europe imposing something on the rest. Universal human rights had to begin somewhere and it happened to begin in Europe. It doesn’t mean that universal human rights is European, if it equalizes the status of everyone and works to the benefit of everyone. We should regard it not as being specifically European but global.
Your fourth book is David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment. This takes aim at the very common representation of the Enlightenment as “a quintessentially secular phenomenon.” Sorkin argues that the Enlightenment was instead not only compatible with religious belief, but conducive to it. He does this mainly by examining the work of six religious writers of the Enlightenment, most of them not particularly well known outside religious studies. Do you have a favorite one or two out of these six?
I find Adrienne Lamourette, the last of the six he deals with, in some ways the most interesting because on the whole we tend to think of the Enlightenment as being anti-Catholic. I think Sorkin is absolutely right to say that we haven’t gone far enough in demonstrating that the religious Enlightenment was not just Protestant but also Catholic and Jewish. Going back to my theme of Five Books that cover all the major dimensions of the Enlightenment, this is really the first one to look at the transformation in religious thought and practice and of thinking about religion’s role in politics, philosophy and society. In that respect it’s a very interesting and important book and a very useful survey. No one else before Sorkin makes this claim, but I think he’s right. He shows that all the religions produce a very strong Enlightened tendency. At the same time he also demonstrates that there was a great deal of resistance to these changes within the churches, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. There are one or two other figures like Lamourette in the French Revolution. Henri Grégoire is perhaps the most famous, Claude Fauchet is another, very important, example. This is a Catholic theologian, a churchman, who is very serious about his religion and about his Catholicism, but in most respects fits into what I call the Radical Enlightenment because he totally rejects the political and social status quo. He accepts the democratic and universal human rights goals of the Revolution. He insists that, whatever the Pope might say (and it’s a big problem for them that the Pope of course condemned universal human rights and the French Revolution and most books of philosophy — but they thought he had made a mistake and that it would be rectified somehow at a later stage) the French Revolution was right and that philosophy and religion have to be married together and that the outcome will be democracy. The Church itself needs drastic reform — Lamourette accepted that — and if it lost its property, so much the better, because the Church shouldn’t be a big landowner. So he’s very radical in lots of ways.
Sorkin is right about that, through he doesn’t given enough emphasis to the fact that this kind of position didn’t work, either intellectually — that there were really serious problems in reconciling the Catholic stance with this radical viewpoint — or on a personal level. Fauchet and Lamourette had big problems with all these atheists and deists and, in the end, got so angry with them that they had to split away and became very isolated in the last months of their lives. Both were guillotined by the Montagnards later in the Revolution. The Church and the Papacy would not accept what they were doing and rejected it, so that they became isolated theologically as well as in all those other respects. So ultimately, although I think it’s an enormously interesting aspect of the Enlightenment, it was an unviable, unworkable direction. Catholicism couldn’t be combined with the Radical Enlightenment, at least not for any length of time on a viable basis. But it was conceivable, and it was attempted by these interesting individuals.
It struck me that there is another way Sorkin could have made his case against the idea that the Enlightenment as quintessentially secular. Instead of looking at the six religious writers he could have gone through some of the best known figures in the Enlightenment — Hobbes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Tom Paine — and talked about their religious beliefs. Most of these people believed in a God and would count as religious by modern standards.
That is true of Rousseau; I’m not sure about Montesquieu, actually, or Hume. I’m not sure there’s much sign of belief in Montesquieu.
But it is certainly true of Voltaire and Tom Paine, two of the best known critics of religion, and arguably of Hobbes. It’s worth remembering they believed in God.
Yes, they did. And there’s an even better reason for linking Voltaire with the moderate Enlightenment which was that he thought that even if people like him didn’t need religion, most people did. It’s this idea that religion is indispensable for the majority of society.
That’s also Spinoza’s view, essentially.
No, I think I see a difference between Spinoza and Voltaire. Both of them believe that most people can’t be enlightened and that you’ve got to find some way of coping with this fact. But Voltaire wants to preserve the privileges and powers of kings, aristocrats and the Church over most people. He sees the enlightened as a kind of emancipated group at the fringes of society. I see Spinoza as much more subversive than that. He’s really trying to emasculate religious authority in politics and democratize politics and society. It’s true that he’s very suspicious of the masses, but he wants to weaken the hold of the churches over the masses and neutralize it. That’s why he introduces his civil religion. It’s not a very strong argument which is a big problem for Spinoza. But it does seem to me a different strategy from Voltaire.
It’s a different strategy, but Spinoza would have left the people with their religion, wouldn’t he?
No, I think Spinoza would have preferred them not to have had their religion, but he couldn’t see that as a practical possibility. So since you can’t remove religious fanaticism from people, let’s weaken religious authority as much as we can. Voltaire wanted to ridicule superstition and intolerance and injustice in politics, but I don’t think he’s attacking religous authority in the same comprehensive way, and especially not in his last years when he’s worried about the growth of atheism. And he certainly isn’t praising democracy as Spinoza is.
But coming back to Sorkin, I do think it’s a very important book because it brings out the importance of the religious Enlightenment. It also shows that we need to get away from a certain style of writing about 18th century French thought. Do you know Darrin McMahon’s book on the Counter-Enlightenment, where more or less anything that’s Catholic gets shoved into the Counter-Enlightenment? I think that book is fundamentally wrong. It confuses Catholic Enlightenment with Counter-Enlightenment and lumps them together. There certainly is a Catholic Counter-Enlightenment but it needs to be distinguished very sharply from this Catholic Enlightenment. In that respect Sorkin is a much better guide
Lastly, we’ve come to your fifth book, which is your own Democratic Enlightenment. This is the third volume of a trilogy, which took ten years to write and adds up to just short of 3,000 pages. The trilogy isn’t exactly chronological, so perhaps we could start by your saying where this book fits in.
First of all I should apologize for mentioning one of my own books. It’s not that I’m interested in self-promotion, but sticking to my formula that I wanted to give Five Books that would provide a comprehensive overview of the main dimensions of the Enlightenment, the Radical Enlightenment seems to me absolutely fundamental. It’s the key to understanding universal human rights and the American and the French Revolutions and the way the Enlightenment relates to everything that happens afterwards. Yet it’s not really been recognized or accepted or studied. It’s more or less ignored in Anthony Pagden’s recent book on The Enlightenment, where there’s not much about it. I think that’s disastrous. You can’t write about the Enlightenment like that because there’s a very deep split. Once the French Revolution begins, the whole Enlightenment becomes completely divided between supporters of the Revolution and opponents. There is this fundamental division that you see at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century between a Burkean Enlightenment — that says never mind all that overconfident theorizing about society and human rights, what we want is a society run by aristocrats and kings and the existing legal systems — and all those who reject that, which is most of the Enlightenment intelligentsia. I just want to be clear about this: every important Enlightener always condemns Robespierre and Montagne. You won’t find any Enlightener who says, “oh they’ve got the right idea.” Every Enlightener thinks Robespierre is an absolutely terrible, bloodthirsty dictator who is not marking the culmination of the Revolution but is the destruction of it. There’s no exception to that. All the Germans and the British and the Tom Paines and Mary Wollstonecrafts and Benthams and all the Italians and all the Dutch and the great Swedish radical, Thorild. They’re all mad keen on the French Revolution, but they condemn Robespierre and the Montagne faction.
Historians, with their weakness in philosophy, haven’t quite cottoned onto this. We’ve been given a terribly distorted view of the French Revolution through this intellectual failure to see the collision between democratic republicanism — which is the real radicalism — and the populist authoritarianism of the Revolution. But eventually people will get a better grasp of this, I believe. And whether our historians get a better grasp of this or not — and perhaps they won’t, perhaps they’ll say, “No, we refuse to accept this,” — nevertheless it is still the view of all the Enlighteners in the 1790s. It may be that Napoleon backtracked a lot — I see him as a kind of militarized embodiment of the moderate Enlightenment — but in Spain, in France, in Europe generally there’s still this tremendous conflict between reaction and Enlightenment which goes on and on.
It’s still the same story in the 1830 Revolutions. You can’t just see the Enlightenment as something that disappears. We mentioned the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson in the 1820s. For many thoughtful political leaders, including Lafayette — who is still around till the early 1830s — all these fundamental issues of the Enlightenment are still very real in the early 19th century.
Some people say, “Oh well, that happens after 1789 but that’s not how it was before.” Furet thought the conflicting ideologies just jumped up out of nowhere, as part of the Revolutionary process, but I don’t think ideologies can be explained like that. Some commentators say Furet is very good at restoring the emphasis to ideology but I think he is actually very bad at it, because he doesn’t give us the pre-1789 background. But I think that unless you are willing to say that the lines on which the entire the Enlightenment divided after 1789 is purely haphazard and without any pattern to it, then you have to ask yourself what it is in the ideas of enlighteners in the 1790s that divides them. And that relates to pre-1789 debates. It seems, to me, there are some pretty big divisions over politics and society and religion and that these correspond in important ways to the divisions we see after 1789.
But I thought that Democratic Enlightenment would be better to include than Radical Enlightenment [another volume in the trilogy] because we’ve already got Hazard dealing with the early Enlightenment and none of the other of the five brings together the Enlightenment and the revolutionary impulse, the revolutionary era and the importance of the Radical Enlightenment. I really don’t think that’s been done, but that’s what I tried to do in my book.
Interview by Anthony Gottlieb
November 28, 2014
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