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Democratic Enlightenment

Justin Champion follows the ideological battles of the Enlightenment

Published: December 5, 2011 at 12:50 pm
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Reviewed by: Justin Champion
Author: Jonathan Israel
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £30


Jonathan Israel is a brave, ambitious historian. Democratic Enlightenment concludes his three-volume account of the ‘revolution of the mind’, which happened in the western world between 1650 and 1800.

His first two, Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested, described the origins and rise of the battle of ideas between a radical position – advancing a profound philosophical materialism against the prejudices and traditions of established kings and priests – and a more ‘moderate’ Enlightenment, which tried to incorporate the less threatening advances of reason and science, while preserving organised religion and most of the inequalities of social hierarchy.

These works attracted major plaudits, and some serious oppositions, from general readers and specialist historians. Yet all agree that they have marshalled an impressive and unparalleled erudition.

This final volume shows both the optimism and the vision of the combined works in the presentation of an argument that claims a profound connection between the philosophical innovations of Enlightenment men like Denis Diderot and Baron d’Holbach, and the age of democratic revolution in the Americas, in Holland, and most dramatically in France after 1789.

That the violence of the revolutionaries in France destroyed much of the opportunity for rational progress is one of the tragedies Israel invokes.

Israel explores the diffusion of Enlightenment thought, and the counter-moves of the anti-philosophes throughout Europe. Whereas the early Radical Enlightenment involved the clandestine distribution of heterodox writings among secret societies, after 1750s the printing press became a powerful tool for confronting the tyranny of the old order.

What animates Israel’s work is his humanism and absolute conviction that the arguments contrived by the radicals were right.

In a range of studies, which explore the publications, their arguments and their (very often) hostile reception among both moderates and conservatives, Israel establishes the contours of democratic Enlightenment thought. Prominent are the profound contributions of Diderot in the massive Encyclopédie, which presented the achievements of human reason to the public, and major works of the Baron d’Holbach, which in their naturalism challenged the iniquities of all organised religion.

Democratic Enlightenment was not just reason enthroned, but a powerful assault upon intellectual, social and political tyranny. Kings, priests, masters, husbands were challenged and condemned; the injustice of poverty and social inequality; the wickedness of empire, slavery and colonial exploitation exposed and refuted.

Israel opens the book with a chapter on earthquakes. Devastating eruptions in Jamaica, Peru and Lisbon presented a challenge to the mindset of European society: what did such catastrophic disruptions of the ordinary course of nature mean?

For the 18th-century religious mind, floods and quakes were signs from God, divine interventions offering punishment and commanding repentance. Some moderate minds, perhaps impressed by the discoveries of natural philosophers but still immersed in the traditional world of miracles and wonder, attempted to distinguish between the natural and the God-sent.

As a starting point for exploring the clash between Enlightenment and tradition, Israel has found a way of dramatising the debates and attitudes which eventually lay the foundations for something we can call modernity.

Israel has provided a handbook which in his words describes “a democratic Enlightenment based on liberty, equality and the ‘general good”’. It may have been defeated in the 18th century, but its principles and ambitions still proffer serious commentary on the world we live in today.

Professor Justin Champion, Royal Holloway, University of London

See also...


Justin Champion reviews Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe by Craig Koslofsky


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