"Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750 -- 1790" is the final volume of a massive trilogy of intellectual history discussing the nature and impact of the Enlightenment. The author, Jonathan Israel, finds that the Enlightenment began in approximately 1680 and concluded by about 1800, after which it was followed by a lengthy period of reaction. The two earlier volumes in the trilogy are "Radical Enlightenment" which deals primarily with Spinoza as the key Enlightenment figure, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750
and "Enlightenment Contested" Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752
I have read the former book but have not yet read the latter. Jonathan Israel is Professor of Modern European History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.
Israel describes the Enlightenment as "the single most important topic, internationally in modern historical studies, and one of crucial significance also in our politics, cultural studies and philosophy". (p. 1) His books go far to validate that strong claim. This book is not for the casual reader. It consists of 950 pages of dense and difficult text covering both ideas and history. It demands close, slow reading. I had to pause many times after reading only a small number of pages to reflect upon what I had just read. The writing style is lively, passionate, and informed but not especially graceful. Sentences are long and interspersed with many passages from a variety of languages. Most of these passages are translated with the exception of the many important quotations in French which are given only in the original.
Israel offers a complex, multi-threaded account of the Enlightenment which, he realizes, resists easy summarization. An important theme of the book is the role of ideas in moving human behavior and of the objective, universal character of the nature of truth. Both these themes run against a good deal of contemporary relativism and postmodernism. In the lengthy 35 page introduction with which "Democratic Enlightenment" begins, Israel tries to summarize his project and the direction of the book. Among the first things Israel does is to explain what "Enlightenment" is. It is best to rely on Israel's own descriptions rather that to paraphrase:
"Enlightenment, then, is defined here as a partly unitary phenomenon operative on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually everywhere, consciously committed to the notion of bettering humanity in this world through a fundamental, revolutionary transformation, discarding the ideas, habits, and traditions of the past either wholly or partially, this last point being bitterly contested among enlighteners. Enlightenment operated usually by revolutionizing ideas and constitutional principles, first, and society afterwards, but sometimes by proceeding in reverse order, uncovering and making better known the principles of a great 'revolution' that had already happened. All Enlightenment by definition is closely linked to revolution." (p.7)
"Enlightenment is, hence, best characterized as the quest for human amelioration occurring between 1680 and 1800, driven principally by 'philosophy', that is, what we would term philosophy, science, and political and social science including the new science of economics lumped together, leading to revolutions in ideas and attitudes first, and actual practical revolutions second, or else the other way around, both sets of revolutions seeking universal recipes for all mankind and ultimately, in its radical manifestation, laying the foundations for modern basic human rights and freedoms and representative democracy." (p. 7)
Throughout his study, Israel distinguishes between "radical" and "moderate" Enlightenment. The former has its source in Spinoza and begins with a single-substance metaphysics, the rejection of teleology, providence, miracles, revelation, and religion in favor of reliance on reason as a guide to human affairs. The latter "moderate" enlightenment has its source in a number of individuals, including John Locke, David Hume, Newton, and Leibniz. It tends to seek compromises and to give weight to both reason and religion (either deism or revealed religion) in understanding and in conduct. Radical Enlightenment, for Israel, was the underlying source of the American and particularly the French Revolutions of the late 18th Century. These revolutions were founded on the destruction of arbitrary privilege, on the fundamental equality of all persons, and on the belief that government was made to serve the people rather than the rulers and to promote individual happiness. Moderate enlightenment tended towards skepticism and towards caution against drastic changes. It was willing to temporize with aristocracy and monarchy which it saw as leading to Enlightened despotism. Moderate enlightenment drew a distinction between doctrines appropriate for the learned, which may have approached the teachings of radical enlightment, and doctrines understandable by the large majority of people, which tended towards support for religion and supernaturalism. Moderate enlightenment produced some reforms, on Israel's account, but ultimately useless in leading to fundamental change. Israel's mind and heart lie clearly with the "radical" form of the Enlightenment project, as exemplified in Spinoza, French philosophes such as Diderot and D'Holbach, Lessing, and others.
In the long ensuing text of the book, Israel compares and contrasts radical and moderate enlightenment thought in a variety of places and conditions. The book is extraordinarily learned and richly-textured. Israel begins with a discussion of responses to a series of earthquakes, culmination in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Responses to the cause of this disaster varied from the purely natural, with no teleology, (radical enlightenment), to viewing earthquakes as manifesting divine displeasure with humanity (counter-enlightenment) to a view stating that some (most) earthquakes could be explained naturalistically but, perhaps, some could not fully be so explained (moderate enlightenment). These divisions in thought might, without a great deal of modification, track easily to the present day.
There are five large parts to the book and many detailed subchapters. Part I, "The Radical Challenge" begins with the Lisbon earthquake and offers a detailed introduction to competing views of Enlightenment. Part II, "Rationalizing the Ancien Regime" begins with a perceptive, and somewhat unusual account of the skepticism of Hume viewed as a critique of radical enlightenment thinkers. Israel discusses the "Scotch" Enlightenment, and early attempts at moderate enlightenment in Germany, Italy, and Spain, among other things.
Part III of the book, "Europe and the Remaking of the World" discusses the American revolution, by, among other things, contrasting the views of John Adams and Tom Paine. Israel discusses enlightenment in Spain's American colonies, which he views as more influenced by radical thinkers than by the example of the thirteen colonies. He offers extended historical treatment of enlightenment ideas as they spread to India and the East through colonization and to Russia.
Part IV "Spinoza Controversies in the Later Enlightenment" was the part of the book of greatest interest to me. Israel discusses the different ways in which German thinkers such as Lessing, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and Jacobi read and attempted to make use of Spinoza. Israel offers a long discussion of Kant's critical philosophy, in metaphysics, ethics and politics, which he views as a moderate enlightenment programme directed primarily against Spinozism. Kant usually is seen as the seminal figure of modern philosophy. Israel argues as against Kant for the virtues of Spinoza's approach which rejects theology, embraces naturalism, and insists upon the primacy of human reason.
The final part of the book, "Revolution" consists of a study of the French Revolution and of the sources of radical enlightenment influence. In this section, as elswhere, Israel traces the surreptitious spread of radical enlightenment ideas. Israel's understanding of the Revolution is complex, as he admits that few of the participants had knowledge of philosophy or of the ideas of the philosophes. Yet, Israel argues that the ideas were there when they mattered and influenced fundamentally the course of the revolution's leaders. Israel argues, somewhat briefly, that the Terror, with Robespierre, constituted a rejection of the ideals of the French Revolution of reason, liberty, equality and constituted a return to a theological, particularistic, and sentimental manner of thinking that grew and persisted until, perhaps, the end of WW II. Israel is committed to the view that it is reason and equality that remains the salvation of humanity, rather than supernaturalism or relativism.
Israel has written a masterful challenging book, and trilogy, about the nature of Enlightenment as a period of history and as an ideal of human thought. Readers with patience and with a serious interest in the life of the mind will benefit from this wonderful study.