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Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre [Hardcover]

Jonathan Israel
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Book Description

21 Mar 2014

Historians of the French Revolution used to take for granted what was also obvious to its contemporary observers--that the Revolution was caused by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Yet in recent decades scholars have argued that the Revolution was brought about by social forces, politics, economics, or culture--almost anything but abstract notions like liberty or equality. In Revolutionary Ideas, one of the world's leading historians of the Enlightenment restores the Revolution's intellectual history to its rightful central role. Drawing widely on primary sources, Jonathan Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed ideological blocs, and how these clashes drove the turning points of the Revolution.

Revolutionary Ideas demonstrates that the Revolution was really three different revolutions vying for supremacy--a conflict between constitutional monarchists such as Lafayette who advocated moderate Enlightenment ideas; democratic republicans allied to Tom Paine who fought for Radical Enlightenment ideas; and authoritarian populists, such as Robespierre, who violently rejected key Enlightenment ideas and should ultimately be seen as Counter-Enlightenment figures. The book tells how the fierce rivalry between these groups shaped the course of the Revolution, from the Declaration of Rights, through liberal monarchism and democratic republicanism, to the Terror and the Post-Thermidor reaction.

In this compelling account, the French Revolution stands once again as a culmination of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. That it ended in the Terror represented a betrayal of those ideas--not their fulfillment.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 888 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (21 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691151725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691151724
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 5.8 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"[A]dvances an erudite and persuasive argument. . . . Israel's categorization of the various revolutionary factions offers fascinating new insights, and his knack for uncovering interesting but neglected individuals and texts is second to none . . . rich and thought provoking book. It is remarkable and significant."--Rachel Hammersley, Times Literary Supplement

"[C]losely argued. . . . Israel can be understood as a historian in the long liberal tradition stretching back to Madame de Stael, who herself witnessed the revolution and saw it as a story of the betrayal of liberty."--Ruth Scurr, Wall Street Journal

"[W]ith typical boldness Israel invites us to reconceptualise our very idea of the Revolution."--Jeremy Jennings, Standpoint

"Overwhelmingly impressive."--Peter Watson, Times

"[P]acked with details . . . [Revolutionary Ideas] is part of Israel's major project to give the Enlightenment, especially the Radical Enlightenment as he calls it, new luster."--NRC Handelsblad

"[M]ajestic."--Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Trinidad and Tobago News

"Israel, a professor of modern European history at Princeton, is a world authority on the 18th-century Enlightenment. Here he constructs a bold and brilliantly argued case that the 1789 French Revolution was propelled by the clash of innovative political doctrines that supported or contested Enlightenment values."--Tony Barber, Financial Times

"Israel, author of the pathbreaking studies on the Dutch Republic, European Jews, and more recently the radical Enlightenment, now turns his attention to the French Revolution, arguing that the underlying cause was ideological--namely, the impact of the radical Enlightenment resulting from the work of philosophers Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvetius, and Paul-Henry Thiry, Baron d'Holbach. . . . Israel takes them at their word, painstakingly poring through voluminous revolutionary newspapers and the archives parlementaires, records of the revolutionary national assemblies. . . . This significant and nuanced study is a major reinterpretation."--Choice

From the Inside Flap

"Combining erudition and verve, Revolutionary Ideas is an exciting, bold, valuable, and courageous book that should have a wide readership. A veritable tour de force, it fundamentally reconceptualizes the French Revolution. Arguing that ideas caused the revolution, propelled it forward, and constituted its essence, Jonathan Israel provides a wealth of detail about the little-known but fascinating characters who made up the radical wing of the revolutionary leadership."--Helena Rosenblatt, the Graduate Center, City University of New York

"There is nothing else quite like this book. It not only crowns one of the major individual history projects of the past century but also serves as a stimulus to fresh debate on the greatest and most fundamentally important of all revolutions."--William Doyle, author of The Oxford History of the French Revolution

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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 3 Oct 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent addition to home collection! Thank you very much seller!
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightenment Rehabilitated 21 July 2014
By H. F. Gibbard - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
In his massive, three-volume study of the Enlightenment (Radical Enlightenment, 2001; Enlightenment Contested, 2009; and Democratic Enlightenment, 2011), Jonathan Israel argued that it was the radical thinkers of the Enlightenment who laid the foundation for our modern values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. Israel identified these radical thinkers by their adherence to three principles: "one-substance monism," (a philosophical idea that the world is composed of a single substance); democracy; and sweeping egalitarian social reform. According to Israel, these radical enlighteners traced their philosophical principles to the Seventeenth-Century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza.
If we accept his idea that the Radical Enlightenment philosophers were heavily involved in bringing about the French Revolution, we encounter a contradiction. Far from leading to democracy, freedom, and human rights, the French Revolution culminated in terror, violence, murder, and intolerance. Counter-Revolutionary thinkers later persuaded most historians and the public that the Terror was a natural outgrowth of Radical Enlightenment philosophy. How to reconcile the theory of the Radical Enlighteners with what actually occurred during the Revolution?
That is the purpose of this book. Israel wants to distance what he calls the "democratic republicans"--those who believed in democratic values and the Radical Enlightenment--from both the royalist elements (ultra-conservative and more moderate constitutional monarchists) and the "authoritarian populists." According to Israel, the authoritarian populists, represented by people like Robespierre and Marat, were responsible for the Terror. They were proto-fascists who never had much use for the Enlightenment values to begin with. Their reign of terror cannot be blamed on the philosophical proponents of radical enlightenment, who opposed it.
This is really an astonishing theory because it turns a lot of conventional wisdom on its head. I'd always been taught, for example, that Robespierre was a good follower of Enlightenment ideals who turned bad because of the pressures the Revolution faced from war, famine and counter-revolution. Not so, says Israel. From the beginning, Robespierre was another kind of leader altogether--more akin to Joseph Stalin than Denis Diderot.
Does Israel make his case? I'm not sure yet. Having just finished this book, my head is still spinning from 700 pages of minutely detailed description concerning the various Revolutionary sects, their evolution and convolutions. One thing is for sure: if you take Israel's thesis seriously, you will never again view the ideological progression of the French Revolution in quite the same way.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars what a marvelous guide to the revolution 6 May 2014
By Joel C. Jacobson - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
what a marvelous guide to the revolution. i have read for years, but never quite followed the intellectual twists and turns that occurred a s the various phases of the revolution progressed. Israel lays them out in a clear , easily understood presentation. i gets a bit turgid at times, and the logic of some of the alliances are not readily apparent, but overall this is the definitive companion to the revolution.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An impressive achievement -- but one that worships its subject. 23 Sep 2014
By k - Published on
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Jonathan Israel's "Revolutionary Ideas" is a sterling example of a type of scholarship that today is a bit out of fashion -- it is what the guild of historians used to call "Intellectual History." What this means is that Israel takes ideas seriously. This approach, one that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, is now a bit passe', what with the current fixation on gender and ethnicity in history along with a generous dollop of low-voltage Marxism. His book reminded me of Perry Miller's epochal work on the Puritans ("The New England Mind") more than seventy years ago for Miller, like Israel, respected the intellectual integrity of the writings with which he dealt and did not see them as mere protective coloration for some deeper motivation of which those involved were unaware but today university-trained historians can detect like bloodhounds.

Israel's thesis is that the leaders of the French Revolution, at least as represented in the various assemblies, did not gradually convert from constitutional monarchism to republicanism but were from the very start republican. Among these men the one he most admires is Jacque-Pierre Brissot, the journalist and man of letters who Robespierre eventually guillotined. Brissot is one of those whose republicanism was rooted, says Israel, in the "radical Enlightenment," a term the author does not define but which may be said to represent European thinking (mostly French) from roughly 1750 until the upheaval of 1789. The values of this radicalism, which Israel clearly admires, included greater economic equality, freedom of the press and speech, secularism and honest elections, without the muddle of the estates, and afterwards open and frank discussion for the common good in representative bodies. Israel tirelessly tells the reader how advanced was the thinking of these late Enlightenment savants and he refers to their political machinations as the "true French Revolution." And, he proves his point with copious documentation and a careful reading of these late eighteenth-century philosophes.

Why, then, did the Revolution become such a gawdawful mess and leave in its wake Napoleon's long dictatorship and constant warfare, followed by a century of French political instability? For Israel the reason for all this is clear -- the Revolution was betrayed. The traitor-in-chief was, of course, Robespierre. The lawyer from Arras abhorred the materialism and detestation of religion that marked the Brissot-like philosophes and from the summer of 1793, until his own guillotining, gutted Enlightenment values and replaced them with his own urge to power and lack of humanity. Israel clearly detests Robespierre every bit as much as he admires Brisson. For the author, the great train of the Revolution had steamed down the rails more or less in a satisfactory manner, moving France ever closer to a truly liberal society, until Robespierre and Marat threw the switch at a critical junction and sent the whole shebang careening down the wrong track and, ultimately, off the rails and into a ditch.

Israel puts together a coherent, if not completely convincing, account of the Revolution. The radical philosophes were,from the very beginning, dedicated republicans. The Revolution was, despite some wobbles now and then, a phenomenal political achievement informed by philosophy that seemed fated to mature into something like the New Deal. Then, Robespierre hijacked the entire business and flew it into a skyscraper. But, on the very last pages of his book, Israel throws a curve ball at the reader when he describes Robespierre's Reign of Terror as "prefiguring modern fascism" -- and this is the point at which the wheels come off.

The author does a good job of defending the philosophes against those historians who assert that the Terror was the logical outcome and fulfillment of the Enlightenment. He shows, convincingly, how the intellectual world of his republicans differed from that of the group of thugs that gathered around Robespierre. But, this distinction is less significant than it first appears and only a few seconds of reflection are needed to understand that the Revolution "prefigured" Marxist revolutions and not fascism.

There is, for one thing, the question of the Popular Will, Rosseau's famous formulation of what governments are established to implement. The savants of 1789, for all their humanity and learning, prefigured something that has tormented the world ever since -- the "Revolutionary Vanguard." For, these men represented no one but themselves. Time after time Israel admits just this: the vast majority of French men and women remained monarchists and Catholic. Time and again, when given the chance, they reverted to these values in local (e.g. Lyons) politics. Israel emphasizes that the radical savants were journalists, political essayists, men of letters and philosophers-at-large. And, because they were "enlightened," these savants were positive that they understood what was best for "the people," an abstraction drawn from Rousseau.

German fascism was abominable but National Socialism was a mass movement. The French Revolution, like the Russian, was in large part an intellectual coup d'etat. Jacques and Marianne, especially outside Paris, did not hate the monarchy and rather loved their local cure. To the philosophes this merely meant that the "people" were unenlightened and that this French Vanguard of History must lead them, will-nilly, into a utopia of human rights.

Robespierre was not the French fascist -- he was the French Stalin. The radical savants were not rooted in popular culture but felt themselves above it. Robespierre and Marat were entitled to feel precisely the same -- and beat the radical republicans at their own game. Meanwhile, Robespierre, monster that he was, understood the common desire to retain religiosity. Then, like Stalin who murdered the Old Bolsheviks, Robespierre murdered Brisson and those like him. In this sense neither Stalin nor Robespierre "betrayed" their respective revolutions -- they simply took those revolutions in different directions using the tools forged by, respectively, the Old Bolshevists and the radical savants. Perhaps Robespierre destroyed the vision of men like Thomas Paine but the latter's vision was no more legitimate, insofar as the majority of the French populace was concerned, then that of Robespierre. To some simple peasant in the Vendee the whole thing probably looked like nothing more than a falling out among thieves.

israel's book is a mine of useful information and subtle interpretation. It is decently written, well-documented and convincingly argues its thesis about the radical republicanism that dominated the Paris assembly from its first days. And, refreshingly, it takes ideas seriously. Israel's enthusiasm for men like Brisson and their political vision of a secular, democratic welfare state -- an ideal that still thrills liberals -- perhaps causes him to place the Revolution in the wrong historical tradition. It was not fascism that eventually emerged from the Revolution. What emerged was, instead, the poisonous idea of a Select Few with a political gnosis that entitles them to lead the "masses" where the masses don't know they wish to go. And, along with that emerged, eventually, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superior survey of the French Revolution 17 Aug 2014
By Phebe - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
To fully appreciate this book, you optimally should have read something on the French Revolution: come on, Americans: at least A Tale of Two Cities! The author expects you to have some French, at least a little. This is reasonable: he apparently assumed that anyone interested enough to read an 800 page book on the philosophical underpinnings of the French Revolution has probably taken some French in school, at least. The pages are salted liberally with French phrases and even French words used interchangeably with English, but they are words and phrases so similar to English usage, that you are hardly slowed down at all, and the interlingual text has tremendous immediacy.The salting of French throughout books written mainly in English on the French Revolution is common: see Thompson’s “Robespierre” for an example, though Thompson italicizes his plentiful French, conventionally, whereas Israel does not. Israel breaks with some convention: for example the expression normally given in English as “freedom of religion” is throughout the book rendered “liberty of cult,” which is rather startling, as “cult” is a negative word in English, meaning small and popularly disapproved religious groups. I wondered if this reflected a bias of the author’s against religion generally. The religious history of the French Revolution is explored fully.
A rule of history exemplified twice in the French Revolution is that violent Revolutions always end with strongman dictatorships, and always kill their creators. The French Revolution had an embarras de richesses of potential or actual dictators: Danton, who was often bruited as a possible dictator, Robespierre, whose dictatorship lasted a year during which time he killed as many people as he possibly could arrange, and finally the war-hungry Napoleon, who was so successful at dictatorship that he crowned himself Emperor: one looks at the famous portrait of Napoleon swathed in ermine and may think, so much for Libertee, Egalitee, Fraternitee, and for the Revolution, which lasted only five years (1789-1794), and failed in a welter of dictatorships far worse for France than the original monarchy had been.
“Revolutionary Ideas” says that Enlightenment philosophic changes were really responsible for the French Revolution, and that the whole struggle of the French people was a war of contrary ideas about how societies should be organized. That it was about ideas rather than about the food shortages, the oppression by aristos, or the misbehavior of Louis XVI. It is important and interesting how much of France – and indeed, the majority of the National Convention, the revolutionary legislature, were conservative, being monarchists in the beginning and centrists later. The majority were monarchists or centrists, but the radical minority won.
The author makes the point that revolutions are driven by radicals, who are a small minority, but very loud and very persistent, and by dint of perseverence and determination, they end up convincing enough of the population to tolerate their changes to keep moving ahead and pushing the majority further and further along the way the radicals want people to go. This was clearly true in the French Revolution, and perhaps the reader can see analogues in modern American issues, in which social positions wholly unacceptable 25 years ago are pushed relentlessly by radicals until the majority accepts them, grudgingly at first, then as a new norm. Margaret Mead spoke to this issue when she said, “"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Whether they change the world for the better or much for the worse is another question. If they change the world suddenly and violently, their own survival is unlikely: it’s a case of riding a tiger -- you can’t safely get off. That is what happened to most of the French revolutionaries.
I'm some twenty books into a private study of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and this is the best study of the Revolution I've seen yet. It is easy to read and exciting, with hour-by-hour accounts of crucial episodes, such as the Robespierre putsch in 1793.
I recommend Revolutionary Ideas strongly.
12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Revolution in the making 2 May 2014
By Oma L Rose - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was excited to have a chance to read this author's account of a too distant past event that had such monumental affects on history. However, one had better be well educated in the references used by this author to illustrate his depth of meaning. This book is very, very scholarly - it is not for the casual reader or even one who wants to be better informed. The information is there but it is a difficult read. It is not just a story - it is a treatise. Put on your history geek glasses to read this one! It will take me several months (years?) to get through it and I am a history buff, especially about the U.S. Revolution. Funny but I have been able to read in it some like sentiments and events happening in our America today!
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