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Dale Van Kley


The French Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment

A cautionary lesson for Christian historians.

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One main difference between the classically conservative thesis of a radical Revolution caused by a radical Enlightenment is that while conservatives excoriated both, Israel celebrates both. That a liberal historian of the French Revolution so heavily weights ideas—and in particular, of the Enlightenment—in an account of the origins and direction of the Revolution is of itself a welcome development, as historians sympathetic to the event have tended as a whole to downplay the ideological factor in favor of an emphasis on the Old Regime's many injustices and dysfunctions, perhaps in reaction to conservative historiography's indictment of it. A potential corrective, Peter Gay's two volumes on the Enlightenment culminated in the American Revolution and avoided the French. But in order to restore a modicum of balance, is it necessary to discount all other "causes" and propound a liberalized version of an originally conservative thesis of a philosophic plot?

Besides a positive evaluation of this philosophic plot, the other main difference between Israel's thesis and that of conservative historiography is that while Burke and his successors viewed the Revolution as nothing if not contingent, the totally unnecessary product of the plans and actions of a generation perversely schooled by a "literary cabal," Israel regards it all as inevitable, almost as much so as did the Marxian metanarrative—or at least until at some point in 1793, about which more later. Given a Spinozan "radical" Enlightenment, in his view, it was inevitable that it would prevail over all its enlightened competitors and also erupt in revolution sooner or later, destroying the Old Regime and supporting world view and making straight the highway, not for capitalism, but for cultural "modernity" consisting of radical secularization, total toleration, complete democracy, and comprehensive equality. But whereas for the Marxian metanarrative the engine of inevitability is the socio-economic substructure, for Israel it is ideological "superstructure."

The "philosophic" identity and the inevitability of that French Revolution are therefore this volume's twin theses, and call for examination in that order.

As for the identity of the members of what Israel calls the "real" Revolution's "steering group" or "committee," Israel's only strictly evidential quarrel with Burke is to contest his characterization of them as petty lawyers in favor of Taine's portrait as intellectual or literary loose cannons. In addition to such obvious names as the comte de Mirabeau and the abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, Israel's ever varying list includes from ten to fifteen characters, some as relatively obscure as Jean-Louis Carra, Joseph-Antoine Cerutti, or François-Xavier Lathenas. Some better known names appear on this list as well, in part by reason of their future importance, for example the journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the mathematician marquis de Condorcet, both future leaders of the Girondin faction but neither even deputies in the National Assembly in 1789. Granted the reality of any such "steering committee," some missing names would seem to belong on it: Armand-Gaston Camus, for example, who outtalked Mirabeau in the National Assembly, or the abbé Henri Grégoire, who led the defection of the clergy to the Third Estate. But one was a lawyer, the other a Catholic priest, and both Jansenists.

One secret to membership on this "committee" is that in order to qualify for it, candidates must be "radicals" in Israel's twin political and ontological senses: that is, as anti-aristocratic as well as anti-royal republicans who derived their political positions from a monist, materialist, and atheist ontology, in turn indebted to the works of philosophes such as Diderot, the baron d'Holbach, and Claude-Adrien Helvétius, if not to Spinoza directly. But this combination can seldom if ever be demonstrated. If for example Brissot had really come to believe at heart that France should be a republic in 1789, he kept this belief in his heart and derived his ideological inspiration from the deistic Rousseau rather than d'Holbach or Helvétius. The journalist Carra in contrast had incontestably thought his way to a materialistic atheist position with d'Holbach's help as early as 1782, yet as late 1789 argued that in the new order of things "the authority of the Monarch" would be "precious," as it alone "can act in concert with the nation." The quite famous street-level orator Camille Desmoulins did indeed publish a fully republican manifesto in 1789, but in it called atheism a "delirium." (In point of curious fact, of 30,000 pages of pamphlets consulted during the pre-revolutionary period in preparation for Pergamon Press's research collection on that subject, the only pamphleteer before 1789 who expressed the desire that France might be a republic was one Pierre-Jean Agier, a Jansenist lawyer.)

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