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An excellent introduction to the Radical enlightenment influence on our modern political values
on 29 March 2012
The author a foremost authority on the Enlightenment, has published a large corpus of work offering a groundbreaking perspective on the centrality of the Radical Enlightenment ideas in the formation of the political and cultural values of the modern western world.This book is by far the most accessible of his work and provides the reader with a succinct and cogent presentation of his theses.
We owe it to Margaret Jacob, the first historian to coin the term "Radical enlightenment" in her 1981 book,the conceptual distinction between the two main streams of the Enlightenment.On the one hand the moderate stream which was deistic,positively providential,Newtonian and supportive of the hierarchical order of Society.On the other hand the Radical stream which propounded pantheist materialistic views of the world derived from Spinoza and was politically radical stressing the essential equality of humans,and showing an unbending commitment to representative democracy,the rights of the individual and wide toleration with the full separation of state and church. The two streams divided on the question of the primacy of human reason in human affairs. The main stream advocated that reason had to be limited by faith and tradition.
Jonathan Israel has elaborated and enriched the original thesis on a massive encyclopaedic scale.He has created a pantheon of cultural heroes, where the most venerable place is assigned to Spinoza, followed by Bayle and the materialist French "Philosophes" of the 18th Century namely Diderot, Helvetius and d'Holbach.In this book he allows prominent place as well to the three English radical P's Paine,Price and Priestley.He is scathingly critical of the other icons of the French Enlightenment particularly of Voltaire, Turgot and Rousseau as well as their Scottish contemporaries Hume, Ferguson and Adam Smith.
The subversive nature of the Radical Enlightenment teachings about religion and politics is highlighted ,in particular the doctrines of the gentle Spinoza, who was the most feared and hated philosopher in Europe.Ironically these radical notions which were repudiated by the more established figures of the Enlightenment, proved crucially instrumental in inspiring and giving expression to the aims of the American and the French Revolutionaries at the end of the 18th Century. The author places the geographical fulcrum of radicalism in 17th century Dutch Calvinistic Society with it's enlightened cosmopolitan milieu of western Sephardic Jews, French Huguenots ,Dutch Republicans and Polish-German Socinians. He explains how the intellectual roots of secular liberalism and democracy were derived from the one substance monism of Spinoza, that privileges reason as the sole guide of human life in it's moral and political aspects. It would be difficult in a short review to summarise the wealth of the philosophical and historical material he has dug out in support of this extraordinary but convincing thesis.His work represents a definite milestone for the History of the Enlightenment and the origins of our modern liberal political system.