It’s impossible not to be impressed by Jonathan Israel’s 3,000-page Enlightenment trilogy, but its central argument remains unconvincingby Samuel Moyn / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Democratic Enlightenment by 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,…