The publication of A Revolution of the Mind is most welcome, if only because it should make Jonathan Israel's ideas about Enlightenment thought more accessible to a broad reading public. His previous two volumes (Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested) total over 1700 pages of dense scholarship, more than enough to intimidate even stalwart generalist readers. Now in only about 250 pages he reviews his principal themes and gives us a précis of what apparently will be the substance of his planned longer third volume, focusing on the latter half of the eighteenth century.
This new work is based on lectures the author delivered at Oxford in 2008 commemorating Isaiah Berlin. Possibly aided by the fact that it was originally prepared to be spoken, it is clear, concise, and digestible.
For those not already familiar with one or both of the previous volumes, Israel has proposed that there was an opposition between "Radical" and "Moderate" Enlightenments. The foundation for the radicals was laid by Spinoza. Numerous others, perhaps most notably Bayle, carried the radical tradition forward, in large part through a clandestine literature, emerging later in the thought of men such as Diderot, d'Holbach, Helvétius, Condorcet, Paine, Priestly, Lessing, and Herder. The moderates in this later period included Voltaire, Montesquieu, Turgot, several Scots (such as Ferguson, Hume, Smith, Kames, and Reid), and Kant, to name just some of those more prominent. The radicals' conception of progress was democratic and materialist-determinist (or, alternatively, Christian-Unitarian), Israel holds, versus the moderates' providential religious or Deist views (Hume excepted) and preferences for monarchical-aristocratic order.
The current book distills the relevant ideas of the key figures and illuminates the nature of the opposition between the two camps. Israel insightfully describes how radicals and moderates thought differently about the essence of tyranny, militarism, equality, and morality, for example. He boldly asserts that there was a "revolution of the mind" in the 1760s and 1770s based on the ideas of the radicals, and that "it was plainly one of the greatest and most decisive shifts in the entire history of humanity."
The Radical Enlightenment is the most important factor in properly understanding why the French Revolution developed as it did, Israel contends. He credits the more positive phases to ideas of the radicals, but the darker Terror in large measure to the views of Rousseau, whom he treats primarily as an anti-philosophe. His analysis here is relatively brief and sure to be controversial with many readers.
So too, he presents several other intriguing observations that he leaves dangling without a great deal of support or elaboration. I will mention just a few. He stresses the international character of the radical ideas -- notably encompassing not only France, but Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and North America -- but he acknowledges that Scottish Common Sense philosophy (in opposition to the radical ideas) continued to reign well into the nineteenth century in Britain and North America. Doesn't this dampen his assertion of the triumph of the Radical Enlightenment, at least in these nations?
He points out that the radicals were skeptical of direct democracy and tended to favor representative systems. Diderot and d'Holbach, for example, thought there were certain citizens best prepared to rule, persons of superior education and wisdom. Israel calls this the "Achilles heel of the radical program," but he stops there without saying much more about it.
Israel offers many other challenges to certain popular interpretations of the Enlightenment and to the historiography of the French Revolution. It would be unreasonable to expect full development of all his views to be encapsulated in the few lectures reflected here. Readers with further interest in such matters can look forward to his forthcoming longer volume, which undoubtedly will fill in many supporting details and, one hopes, tie up many of the loose ends.