A Revolution of the Mind because of Jonathan Israel’s thesis, that while the idea of revolutionary change that began in the Enlightenment has waned—after producing not only the American Revolution but subsequent revolutions in France and, a century later, in Russia—the actual ideals of Radical Enlightenment have become far more pervasive internationally than most people realize. The problem is, that isn’t his thesis at all. Israel is an authority on the Enlightenment, having written a number of books on the subject, this one based on a series of lectures given at Oxford in 2008. Unfortunately, the book is a challenge to read. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the scholarship. In fact, Israel’s command of the thinkers of the period and their ideas is impressive. What seems to be lacking is a coherent narrative, with similar ideas and expressions scattered throughout the book rather than dealt with individually and for a specific purpose. It’s still compelling reading, but repeated elucidation of the same ideas—sometimes by the same writers—feels redundant at times. The other negative is that many of his sentences are tortuous in execution and take some real work to tease out their true meaning. In re-reading them they appear much clearer, but in many instances they can hardly be said to flow. Ultimately the book seems to be less about the influence of the Enlightenment on later centuries and more about the differences between the two competing factions of thought at the time. And that, it turns out, is an incredibly important idea that has been virtually ignored by historians, and what makes the book itself so important in retrospect.
Israel makes a distinction right away between the moderate ideas of the Enlightenment period in history, which tended to advocate slow and gradual change over time, and what he calls Radical Enlightenment, “an originally clandestine movement of ideas, almost entirely hidden from public view during its earliest phase (the late seventeenth century).
Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy;
racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression and the
press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separa-
tion of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promo-
ting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing
control of the legislative process. It’s chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights,
and status. (vii-viii)
All of this hardly seems radical today, but that is just Israel’s point. While in one sense the history of the United States can be viewed as a long, slow, steady decline from the ratifying of the Constitution in 1789, with religion, racism, sexism, intolerance for free speech, intrusion into personal lifestyle all trying to claw their way back to prominence in American political life—and with some success—there are still a majority of people in this country who hold dear those ideals that were promoted over three hundred years ago with only one thought in mind: to make people’s lives better. Surprisingly, according to Israel, “the history of this process—the gradual advance of the ideas underpinning democratic Enlightenment in the modern era—remains very little studied or known. Indeed, there exists scarcely any historical accounts that analyze and narrate the story of the origins and rise of modern equality, democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of thought in their intellectual, social, and political context” (ix).
Israel’s goals are ambitious and laudable. The unconscious nature of Western ideals means that they are vulnerable to being undermined by “long-dormant monarchical, aristocratic, and religious ideologies, privileged oligarchies and elites,” as well as “various Counter-Enlightenment popular movements that so resolutely and vehemently combat egalitarian and democratic values” around the world—and that includes the United States. (x-xi) “The risk,” he claims, “in considering our core values as purely abstract concepts,” is that they “remain only weakly embedded in education, the media, and in many people’s minds.” The paradox, here, in terms of American culture, is that an abstract idea of what the United States is was necessary for the cohesion of a population that had little else to bind it. This became especially crucial as immigration, expansion, and the Civil War threatened to destroy the tenuous bonds that existed between citizens of widely differing backgrounds. Authors Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance make this clear in their book, Democracy’s Literature:
Because of the continental expanse of the American system, such identification with the whole
increasingly required a philosophic frame of mind. Devotion was not to “land” or place as such,
but to the idea of America. We were a people devoted to a proposition, according to Lincoln, not
to a particular piece of land in which generations of our ancestors were buried. America presented
a unique challenge: how to cultivate a generalized philosophic disposition in the citizenry of such a
sprawling and “abstract” nation . . . America was faced with a challenge—seemingly insurmountable—
of making philosophy sufficiently accessible and broad yet sufficiently profound to forge a democratic
seemingly insurmountable—citizenry on a mass scale. (Deneen 3).
For Israel, those necessarily abstract notions of America tend to lose their meaning in isolation, and for citizens to truly appreciate the kind of egalitarian principles that this country was founded on it requires that “Not only scholars but the general reading, debating, and voting public need some awareness of the tremendous difficulty, struggle, and cost involved in propagating our core ideas” (x, xii). In terms of the specific importance of this understanding for Americans, Israel makes clear what have been the two most dangerous enemies of freedom in this country for the last fifty years: anti-intellectualism and the capitalist oligarchy.
Who can doubt that ignorance and credulity, identified by the eighteenth-century radical enlighteners
as the prime cause of human degradation and oppression, remain still the foremost foes of democracy,
equality, and personal freedom; or that an informal aristocracy, like that which arose in America,
eventually nurturing vast inequality of wealth, can endanger equality and individual liberty as much as
any formal nobility based on lineage, rank, and legally anchored privilege? (xii)
The book proper starts, rightly, with the great minds of the late seventeenth century, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle, chief among them Spinoza. What Israel stresses is the theoretical nature of their thought, and the immense challenges that lay ahead of them for implementing the kinds of change they believed possible in order to make life better for all of humanity. Their pessimism, however, was borne out of a sense of the practical rather than the possible. “The notion, still widespread today,” says Israel, “that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naïve belief in man’s perfectability seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars, unsympathetic to its claims” (3). Writers like Voltaire, Kant, Turgot and Hume, while expressing the Enlightenment belief in the ability of the mind to ennoble humanity, did not embrace the kind of egalitarianism that Israel is talking about. This, of course, is in direct opposition to someone like Thomas Paine, who advocated for nothing less than the wholesale reformation of European society. Many of the moderate thinkers simply couldn’t see what Paine did, from his vantage point of the successful American Revolution. For them, it was all well and good that the British in North America had thrown off their colonial yoke from three thousand miles away, but historically monarchical Europe was a different world. And the French Revolution only seemed to prove their point. Again, practical considerations tended to limit the scope of imagination in mainstream Enlightened thought. While Paine advocated something on the order of early suggestions during the Space Race—namely landing a man on the moon and worrying about how to get him back later—many thinkers of the day were not willing to take that kind of risk to achieve their aims. Hume, reflecting the views of many, “urged extreme caution—though admittedly not outright conservatism—when evaluating plans for the future depending on any ‘derangement in the only scenes with which we are acquainted’” (15).
Eclipse of Reason, renamed these two elemental ways of thinking as “objective reason” and “subjective reason.”
Objective reason aspires to replace traditional religion with methodical
philosophical thought and insight to become a source of tradition all by itself . . .
Subjective reason . . . is inclined to abandon the fight with religion by setting
up two different brackets, one for science and philosophy, and one for
institutionalized mythology, thus recognizing both of them. (Horkheimer 12)
Unfortunately the modern mind does not recognize both of them equally. Objective reason has not been a strong enough truth to dislodge mythology from the minds of religious believers; it has not been allowed to become a “source of tradition” but simply another stream of truth in the believer’s mind that, when faced with a choice between the two, will almost always take the path of irrationality, like atheists in foxholes who then pray for salvation. Israel makes it clear, however, that “it is essential to avoid simply equating the split with the difference between theists and atheists” (19). At the time the split was far more along political and philosophical lines, while today Horkheimer’s subjective rationalism does center primarily on religion. But in the eighteenth century there was also another way of thinking that was embodied by the “Counter-Enlightenment, a system of ideas that rejected both kinds of Enlightenment, insisting on the primacy of faith and tradition, not reason, as the chief guides in human existence” (34-35).
What makes the book so meaningful for today is that the United States seems to be dealing with exactly the same issues, all of which can be understood historically. The reason that the French Revolution takes such a prominent place in the revolutionary history of the period, rather than the earlier and successful American Revolution, is that the United States failed to abolish slavery, thus rendering it an incomplete revolution. The other failing of the American Revolution from the perspective of radical Enlightenment thinkers was the retention of an American aristocracy, again, another vestige of the past that continues to haunt the country to this day in the form of a capitalist oligarchy. In the words of French philosopher Denis Diderot, written shortly after the Declaration, he warned the colonists to “fear a too unequal division of wealth resulting in a small number of opulent citizens and a multitude of citizens living in misery, from which there arises the arrogance of the one and the abasement of the other” (45). One explanation for the failure of the American Revolution to fully exploit radical Enlightenment ideals is the relative stability and comfort enjoyed by the former British colonists. “European writers visiting America in the 1780s and 1790s . . . noted that practically everyone in the United States enjoyed at least a modicum of dignity and prosperity, as well as liberty, whereas most men and women in Europe eked out their lives in hardship and destitution” (51).
The great irony here is that many of the European poor, while their lives were arguably worse than Americans of the same station, were the least likely to advocate for a kind of radical change that might makes some meaningful difference in their lives, and instead supported a gradual approach that was far less likely to institute change in their lifetimes. They did this for the simple fact that moderate ideas carried with them the perception of the possible. In their minds, radical ideas were doomed to be quashed and ignored, while moderate ideas stood at least a chance of being implemented.
It is worth noting that in Britain the bulk of the lower and middle orders of society proved entirely
willing to unite under crown and Parliament in decrying radical activity and seditious writings.
But this was because, behind the scenes, democratic and egalitarian ideas were gaining ground
and a fierce defensiveness, even signs of desperation were taking hold of the ancien régime’s
Barron d’Holbach refused to blame this timidity on the people, however, and put the responsibility where it belonged, on the nobility that had all but turned its backs on the people. “‘A morally blind politics,’ proclaimed d’Holbach, ‘guided by interests contrary to those of society does not allow men to become enlightened either about their own rights, or their true duties, or about the true ends of the association which it continually subverts’” (57-58). The answer to this problem—and others posed by a tyranny of the majority in a direct democracy, or the siren song of the tyrant himself—was representative democracy of the kind eventually adopted by the United States. On this point the radical thinkers were all in agreement.
Another interesting division between the two competing modes of though is the emphasis on the proper place of the individual in society. For the moderate thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others like him, the average man had no need for social interaction, and best performed his function in society as an individual. For the radicals, however, nothing could be further from the truth, and renouncing society, according to d’Holbach, was “wholly misconceived and immoral” (57). The radicals, it turns out, were correct in their assumptions, something author Tim Blanning points out in his book on the period, in emphasizing what he considers one of the major factors in the successes of the revolutionary period.
Whatever their social complexion, all European states had to come to terms with the emergence of
a new kind of cultural space—the public sphere . . . a forum in which previously isolated individuals
could come together to exchange information, ideas and criticism. Whether communicating with
each other at long range by subscribing to the same periodicals, or meeting face to face in a coffee-
house or in one of the new voluntary associations, such as a reading club or Masonic lodge, the public
acquired a collective weight far greater than the sum of its individual members. (Blanning xxiv)
In modern times the ability of the majority to communicate with each other has been obliterated by providing the citizenry with far more information than they can possibly be expected to sift through. As a result, people tend to communicate only with like-minded individuals, resulting in the same kind of isolation that people face in the early seventeenth-century.
Economic divisions are tackled next, as the more moderate thinkers advocated for unlimited free trade. While at first this seems a far left position—and it is even called liberal economic theory—one can see why the radicals disliked it. Those with money already, the nobility, the clergy, the landed classes, were able to use their wealth to invest and finance, and could afford to take losses once in a while. Those who had no accumulated wealth, then, were unable to participate fully in the nation’s economic life and were relegated to working for those with capital. It’s easy to see in this position a nascent Marxist theory in which working for wealthy business owners is simply another form of tyranny, this time economic, which was decidedly not in the best interests of the majority of people and in practice almost indistinguishable from current forms of noble privilege. Nevertheless, the radicals did not believe that this kind of future Marxist philosophy would be beneficial to workers either. “While championing egalitarianism, however, Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach firmly disavowed any intention of leveling society or seeking to impose full economic equality, which, they appreciated, would inevitably establish a new form of tyranny” (96-97). Again, the radicals were prescient and one only has to look at the twentieth century attempts at Communism to see their greatest fears at work. Nevertheless, in criticizing the works of free-market economists like Smith and Turgot, “Diderot argues, no one has the right to sanction manipulation of price rises in grain while his fellows succumb to famine” (118). And yet this is precisely the situation that we are faced with today, another task left to this generation to complete.
The next chapter focuses on the ability of the state to make war, and the reality that it is the people who bear the brunt of the consequences, both as soldiers and civilians. But where moderates were able to make arguments that economics and social instability weren’t necessarily the fault of the nobility, the act of making war could be laid nowhere else but at the feet of the monarchy. More than in any other sphere this supports Israel’s assertion of enlightened thought as an either/or proposition. The only way to assure against the caprice and whim of the monarch for war . . . was to remove the monarch. “Moderate Enlightenment, then, and Rousseauism lacked any political strategy that could conceivably produce the kind of structural changes capable of transforming the existing order so as to diminish the likelihood of war” (129). The moderates used a tactic common today among the right wing, arguing that while war is an unfortunate occurrence it would be folly to disarm and fall prey to those who don’t, conveniently sidestepping the issue of who is ultimately to blame for pulling the trigger—pun intended. On one side is Adam Ferguson, asserting that war is “the will of Providence,” and that only in the prosecution of war “the virtues of human nature are its happiest, no less than they are so in reaping the fruits of peace.” For the radicals, though, this idea is as ridiculous as it sounds.
These wars, fought purely in the interests of monarchs, courtiers, aristocratic cliques, financiers,
and merchants, they considered an inherent part of tyranny, an injustice abominably destructive
and irrational caused directly by the system of authority, nobility and princely courts . . . in which
many tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or maimed fighting all across the world for reasons
few had the slightest inkling of, and which bore no relation to the true interests either of the population
or of the soldiers and their families. (131)
The last hundred years of warfare by the United States certainly bear this out with “financiers, and merchants” the only ones who have benefitted, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and the citizen soldiers and their families doing all the suffering. The radicals were also prescient in proposing something like the United Nations, an international body of democratic republics that would be the ultimate arbiter in a world that had no more need for war. The flaw in the modern implementation of this idea is that not enough countries today are democratic republics.
Israel then moves on to deal with morality, the most obvious schism between moderate thinkers still in the thrall of church and king, and the radicals who believed that morality does not need to be imposed from without: “morality is a universal, purely secular system based on a conception of justice wholly separate from, indeed best cultivated without, the influence of any particular religion” (154-155). One of the most fascinating responses to this is by Rousseau who, while disagreeing with the radicals, could actually find no rational argument against them and could therefore only resort to an anti-intellectual rebuttal.
He calls Diderot, d’Holbach and their disciples, “ardent missionaries of atheism,” so intolerant in
practice that they were incapable of not losing patience with anyone thinking differently from them-
selves. Rousseau again admits, though, that . . . he could find no adequate arguments in terms of
reason with which to oppose their contentions. It was his heart, his feelings, he emphasizes, not
reasoning, that told him they were wrong. (159)
In fact, the entire anti-intellectual stance of religion was one that was going to inevitably put moderates in conflict with the radicals, especially where morality was concerned. “Revealed religion, maintained the radical philosophes, fragments rather than consolidates society, undermining true morality by extolling credulity and ignorance and discouraging science” (165). Those who argued that religion was the only way to ensure moral behavior, however, were drawing on a terminally weak hand, for if it did, “we would surely not daily hear of assassination, rapine, and brigandage in Europe’s most devoutly religious lands, such as Spain and Italy” (168). Parallels today are numerous. Just one is that while enlightened countries like Great Britain and Australia have been able to legislate just laws that have reduced gun violence almost completely, we are stuck with a credulous and ignorant electorate that is willing to accept an astronomically absurd number of gun deaths every year in the most “advanced” country in the world.
Israel makes some space here to talk about the Scottish Enlightenment, which for me is easily the most important element of the book. It actually helped to make sense of something that had always been a source of confusion for me. In writing about the Scottish Enlightenment, which is usually held up for praise, especially by those writing about the American Revolution, Israel is more accurately able to place it “within its larger international context.” As “opponents of atheism and materialist ideas,” they decidedly fall into the moderate camp and, as such, are far less impressive in terms of their long-range thinking than the radicals. (177) More than that, however, is the way that these particular Enlightenment ideals have been embraced by the right in the United States, something that never seemed to make sense. But Israel puts it all into clear focus. “Precisely the social conservatism implicit in Scottish moral thought and its emphatic restricting of philosophical reason by means of faith and theology lay at the root of its immense appeal at the time (and subsequently)” (182). Suddenly the vehement embracing of the Enlightenment aspects of American Revolution by those on the right in U.S. politics makes sense—for the reason that it is not enlightened thinking they are celebrating at all. By citing the Christian thinkers from Scotland to the exclusion of the radical thinkers, the U.S. right continues to support the myth of America as a country founded on religion. It’s a tactic that was even used by counter-Enlightenment writers at the time. “A much-cultivated philosophical strategy of the anti-philosophes was to invoke the great Moderate Enlightenment thinkers” in order to discredit the radicals. “By highlighting in this manner the deep chasm between Radical Enlightenment and Deist mainstream while at the same time also sharply criticizing the later, Christian Moderate Enlightenment refined a powerful rhetoric effective for disparaging and discrediting all the philosophical authors it condemned” (174-175). Thus the religious right in this country can have it both ways, claiming to be enlightened by citing Scottish writers, and keeping their anti-intellectual religious beliefs at the same time. As a result, “Scottish moral sense and, most of all, Scottish Common Sense, were destined for a long and glorious career, remaining for decades highly influential in Germany and Scandinavia as well as Britain and North America” (182).
At the end of his lecture series on the founding of the United States, Daniel N. Robinson contrasted the thoughts of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in their reactions to the French Revolution. The final chapter of Israel’s book seemed as if it was going to do something similar, with Voltaire representing the moderates, and Spinoza as the founding thinker for the radicals. But instead it really comes off as more of a rehash of what has gone on before. The idea actually makes for an intriguing missed opportunity, however. One of the online reviews of the book says that Israel takes a lot for granted in terms of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge. Had Israel put this chapter at the beginning of the book and spent some time outlining Spinoza’s influence on the radicals, as well as Voltaire’s desperate response, that might have been a good way to provide some crucial background for the reader. In the end, the primary notion that comes out of the book is that there were really two Enlightenments. The first was geared toward the nobility itself, and of course these moderate thinkers supported and justified the existence of the nobility and the church in order to further their own cause. The radicals, on the other hand, “had no other recourse but to turn philosophy into effective ideology and inundate the reading public with its new revolutionary awareness . . . Ultimately, their aim was to transform the political and social framework of modern life” (223). But by far Israel’s most forceful declaration is, however destitute and abused the French people were by the nobility, that fact alone was not enough to account for the revolution that followed. “Indeed, without referring to Radical Enlightenment nothing about the French Revolution makes the slightest sense or can even begin to be provisionally explained” (224). As a result, any history that fails to take into account the importance of the Radical Enlightenment writings—and Israel claims almost none of them do—is incomplete at best, and highly misleading at worst.
This does not mean that the whole emphasis should be placed on books and ideas. Rather, the
interpretation proposed here envisages revolution as a complex interaction of thought and action
emerging by stages at a particular moment in history. But while great revolutions are always fueled
by pre-existing social grievances, to create genuine revolution these grievances must be articulated
in new, forthright, and much broader terms than previously. (87)
To see a negative example of this effect, one only has to read Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains, to see how the anti-democratic right wing in this country has been attempting to manipulate themselves into complete power for the last fifty years.
It’s difficult to know how to assess Israel’s book. On the one hand there’s a strong sense of abbreviation in the chapters, part and parcel of its original inception as a series of lectures. But at the same time Israel’s other works on the era are gargantuan, in the neighborhood of eight hundred pages or so each. Given that, there’s probably something to be said for the introductory aspect of this book, though it would have been nice if his thesis were clearer in the beginning. What the book is really about is the largely unsung nature of the radical wing of the Enlightenment during the revolutionary era, one that turns out to be more highly influential than historians give it credit for. The big names of the era, Hume, Voltaire, and Locke, it turns out were rather timid and overcautious, while names that I had never really heard of before—as Paine tends to suck the oxygen out of the room in most histories—like Helvétius, Diderot and d’Holbach are given a considerable amount of credit, and deservedly so. The real success of Israel’s book is to place the radical Enlightenment thinkers in their rightful place in the context of the age, especially given some of what passes for scholarship about the era today. It’s easy to miss this because the moderates were the only ones who were able to implement some of their ideas, and so “it has often appeared that they represent the real Enlightenment, the sensible Enlightenment, the Enlightenment that counts . . . But, on closer examination, such an analysis hardly seems plausible” (120). This is the real importance of A Revolution of the Mind, discovering the true thinkers behind the Enlightenment, the true ideas that have gone into creating our own Democracy, and by doing so demonstrating how far we still have to go.