Jonathan Israel “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy”

I have just finished reading a book drawn from Cosma Shalizi‘s recommendations: “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy” by Jonathan Israel. About 200-odd book is a an introduction, or rather a summary, to the grand, three volume history of the Radical Enlightenment that is currently in production. The author is a historian who, apart from Enlightenment, studied e.g. European Jews and the history of Netherlands (the latter is covered in a 1200 pages long tome “The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806”, which I once almost borrowed).

The main thesis of the book concerns the role that Radical Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that emerged from the French encyclopaedist group, including philosophers such as Holbach, Diderot and several less known thinkers, played in the intellectual and political life of the 18th century Europe. Emphasis is put on the impact of “revolutionary” philosophical writings that paved the road for “liberal” revolutions at the end of century – American, French and Dutch. However, the focus is not on revolutions or any particular economic and political events, treated in a rather cursory way, but on dichotomy between Enlightenment’s “mainstream” – the works of Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Montesqieu, Burke and Adam Smith, virtually all important philosophers and writers – and radical “subversives and troublemakers” (Holbach, Diderot, Thomas Paine). Calling these gentlemen “saboteurs” is not an exaggeration – their writings were at best semi-legal and their doctrine, as politically, morally and religiously dangerous, was fought by monarchs, led by the “Enlightened king” Frederick the Great, and ancien regime’s intellectual henchmen, with Voltaire as ringleader, blistering the radicals for amorality and atheism (Voltaire himself subscribed to a variant of deism which today would be termed “intelligent design”).

I found quite surprising that ideas we usually associate with “Enlightenment values” – democracy and abolishment of monarchy, repealing class privileges, equality before law, religious tolerance, personal freedom, restraining monarchs’ powers, anticlericalism, pacifism, ethical universalism – were clung to in their full extent only by a small bunch of thinkers who were considered dangerous radicals. Most intellectualists, including individuals as acclaimed as Voltaire and Kant, were content with the “soft version” of Enlightenment, i.e. appealing for more religious equality, restricted democracy and regulating international affairs, but with the political and economical system left intact (including class inequalities, dominance of aristocracy and clergy etc.) A thoroughly conservative position. Only a few subversives – outside France gathered in underground secret societies (e.g. the Illuminati in Germany) – urged to oppose the marriage of throne and altar, censorship and religious discrimination, vowed for democratization of public life. Ideas we now take to be the foundation of democratic society were treated by almost all rulers and intellectualists (including fathers of modern economy – Adam Smith and Anne Turgot) as perilous and subversive.

As interesting as the content is, the book suffers from verbosity and at times wanders off into generalities. Nonetheless, it presents an interesting angle on history of ideas we now take for granted, and of course provides lots of “to read/learn” fodder (the French Revolution, history of 18th century America and Netherlands).

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