Mind over matter

It’s impossible not to be impressed by Jonathan Israel’s 3,000-page Enlightenment trilogy, but its central argument remains unconvincing
July 20, 2011
Democratic Enlightenmentby Jonathan Israel (OUP, £30)

It is finished: no one for 40 years had tried to narrate the entire history of the Enlightenment and now Jonathan Israel, delivering the third part of his triptych, has done it. With astonishing speed, he has told a tale of monumental scope (and forbidding length). In his massive volumes beginning in 2001, Israel, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has probably written more and with greater erudition than anyone in living memory; like its predecessor, this one tops 1,000 pages.

You can’t write this much in so short a time and polish each sentence, and Israel’s are frequently as baroque as the ancien régime he hates. But the gist is clear. Israel pushes the clock of the Enlightenment back to the 17th century, so as to organise it around the philosophical breakthrough of a single hero: the excommunicated Jew Benedict de Spinoza. When Democratic Enlightenment begins, Spinoza is long dead, but his claim that there is only one substance in the universe is being taken to what Israel sees as its necessarily revolutionary consequences. Spinoza’s theory of monism rules out traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of God and, Israel insists over and over, from it follows everything good, including democracy and human rights, and nothing bad, except perhaps a bit of justified contempt towards those who fail to agree with you.

Introducing his new book with a conspectus of his position (and a ferocious riposte to his critics, of whom I have been one), Israel comes clean. Though Spinoza probably rejected revolution personally, Israel thinks he caused the most important one, the French revolution of 1789, from beyond the grave. The force of Spinoza’s one substance doctrine somehow generated of itself a drive to human emancipation and world revolution. Israel contends, in fact, that it toppled the ancien régime of kings and priests, providing an opening at least for human liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Israel’s project is impressive but he fails to nail the landing. One reason is that his ambition to survey the late 18th-century scene leads him to a huge variety of places. Having quailed to enter this edifice at the door, I opened the book in the middle and found luminous encyclopedic entries on Asian colonialism from Bengal to Nagasaki. Besides almost everywhere in Europe, Israel travels to North America (whose revolution in 1776, Israel now admits, Spinoza did not cause) as well as South America, where he pays special attention to indigenous peoples. In these best parts of the book, Israel ornaments his globetrotting with criticisms of empire by Enlightenment philosophers, but he is not really advancing his argument.

This global approach also postpones the main event, until even Israel has run out of room to make his drive to 1789 convincing. His chief problem, it becomes clear, is how to connect ideas to events, since the ones don’t cause the others automatically. Just because ideas are good philosophically never guarantees that they cause political change. But aside from a short chapter on how many people might have read the books Israel considers crucial, there is not much of an account of how ideas prompted change, although Israel acknowledges he needs one. Simply citing how frequently the revolution’s leaders invoked Spinoza and others—and how often its enemies chalked the derailment up to “philosophy,” which Israel knows is a code word for monism—isn’t enough either.

Anything besides the Spinozist legacy “was entirely secondary, in fact tertiary, in shaping the revolutionary outcome,” Israel writes. The French revolution has been at the centre of the historical enterprise for decades, and provided some of the most creative scholars with a chance to experiment methodologically, testing claims about a nobility in revolt, new economic thinking, and a transformed political culture, to name just a few. Israel largely ignores whatever doesn’t fit his case. But no matter: this is not a tome one reads for judicious integration. Rather it is ultimately a heartfelt, indeed in the final pages moving, plea to rescue the Enlightenment cause from the revolution’s descent into violence.

As you enter his universe, you acquire a taste for Israel’s idées fixes, which are more enjoyable for being advanced so monomaniacally. If you trawled through the library of the 18th century recording every instance in which someone denounced monarchy, or colonialism, or injustice of any kind, you would have much of the cited evidence in the book. As for Spinoza, Israel remains sufficiently and endearingly obsessed with him to allow Democratic Enlightenment to be a kind of reception history of his thought—especially when people denounce his icon, since Israel thinks such rejections are evidence of how legitimately afraid of his thought Europe was.

Israel’s take-no-prisoners attitude towards his intellectual opponents is forgiveable, even if it does nothing to improve his arguments. With their “giant delusions” and “gigantic red herrings,” other historians are wasting their time, as “whole generations” turn out to be “totally wrong.” Israel himself, however, is only partly right about some things. But anyone who has achieved so much in the study of this momentous era would still deserve to boast.