Dale Van Kley

The French Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment

A cautionary lesson for Christian historians.

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It is into this confusing but creative plurality that Jonathan Israel has marched with this last of his four-volume-long advocacy of a "radical" enlightenment inaugurated by the writings of Baruch Spinoza. This 17th-century Jewish Dutch philosopher notoriously reduced his contemporary René Descartes' two opposed substances of thought and material extension to a single eternal and infinite substance that, whether called God or Nature, included both and everything else, moved and developed without outside agency, and did so in strict conformity with general laws that left no room for free will or miracles and reduced morality to the natural and necessary pursuit of self-preservation. Attributing socially egalitarian and politically democratic corollaries to what he characterized as Spinoza's materialistic and monistic atheism, Israel equated the whole with what he called the "radical" Enlightenment, and in the three preceding volumes traced its dissemination over time and space by means of exposure to Spinoza's works and restatements by successive generations of converts.

By far the best, Israel's first volume, entitled Radical Enlightenment, might have been read as a fleshing out of the Spinozan element in Margaret Jacob's original thesis of a radical Enlightenment while seemingly allowing for others—for example an early, mature, moderate, Protestant, Catholic, and German Enlightenment. That illusion fell victim to the surgical quality of the second volume, Enlightenment Contested, which, damning all religiously labeled enlightenments to the infernal category of "counter-enlightenment" and reducing the "real" ones to two, all but preordained the ultimate victory of the radical Enlightenment over its "moderate" Lockian-Newtonian rival by virtue of its superior internal consistency, explanatory parsimony, and revolutionary potential in comparison to its moderate rival's superfluous retention of God in addition to nature and its political limitation to reformist half measures. After a tour of the radical Enlightenment's progress around the globe, including a stopover in the American Revolution, Israel's third volume, Democratic Enlightenment, found an impregnable redoubt for that Enlightenment in Old Regime France, where, reducing all causes to the sole efficacy of ideas, Israel ignited his radical Enlightenment's accumulated ideological ordnance in the explosion known as the French Revolution. By the end of the trilogy of volumes, Israel had effected something like the re-closing of the enlightened mind, reducing the variety to a monistic monotony. With this third volume, he also produced a curiously sectarian history of the French Revolution.

Having already carried the story well into the French Revolution, and having laid down the thesis that the Revolution's founding principles embodied the radical enlightenment, why yet this fourth volume on the entire Revolution? The reason has to do with an older, pre-Marxian metanarrative about the origins of the French Revolution first formulated by such "conservative" critics of that revolution as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre and later argued with a greater show of "positivist" empirical rigor by the late nineteenth-century historian Hippolyte Taine. That narrative held the Revolution to be as philosophically atheistic as Israel does, and similarly located the origin of the Revolution thus characterized in the intellectual movement we now call the Enlightenment, especially its French variant. Indeed, the long 19th-century image of the Enlightenment as "radical" in this ontological and anti-Christian sense is largely a product of this "conservative" interpretation of the Revolution, itself a product of seeing the 18th century through the distorting prism of an already very partial view of the Revolution. And since this "radical" image of the Enlightenment is Israel's too, it becomes tactically necessary to end his argument by firming up a comparably "radical" characterization of the origin and nature of the French Revolution, this image's original source, and in so doing coming close at times to updating the conservative abbé Augustin Barruel's notorious thesis of the Revolution as the result of a philosophic conspiracy.

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