7 June, 2010Issue 12.4HistoryPhilosophyPolitics & Society

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Mind Over Matter

Oliver Cussen

foerJonathan Israel
A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the
Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy

Princeton University Press, 2010
296 Pages
ISBN 978-0691142005

20 June 1789: the day radical thought became radical action. Or so Jonathan Israel would have us believe. This was the revolutionary moment when the National Assembly recognised that sovereignty rested with the people of France and declared its intention of “fixing” the constitution of France on the “solid foundations” of Enlightenment principles. Jacques-Louis David’s famous depiction of the Tennis Court Oath therefore appropriately adorns the front cover of this book. David’s masterpiece provides fitting imagery for Israel’s main thesis: that the revolution of fact was preceded, made possible, and given meaning, by “the revolution of the mind”. Yet Israel’s ambitious project, like that of the National Assembly, ultimately falls victim to the complexities of the political and intellectual landscape of the 18th century.

In this collection of essays (originally delivered as the Isaiah Berlin Lectures of 2008) Israel has extended his central ideas about the Radical Enlightenment. A Revolution of the Mind complements both Radical Enlightenment (2001) and Enlightenment Contested (2006), two weighty and influential works that celebrated the cohesion and relevance of enlightenment philosophy in response to the “dogmatic anti-intellectualism” of post-war Marxism and the relativism of postmodern multiculturalism. Frustrated by some historians’ attempts to break up the Enlightenment into a “family-of-enlightenments” dependent on respective socio-economic contexts, Israel champions the notion of an international intellectual movement. Moreover, he suggests, it is only by acknowledging this unified movement that we can understand the political thought of both the 18th century and today. It is no surprise, then, that this book concludes with an examination of the relationship between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This is indicative of Israel’s grand project, echoing that of the late Berlin: to draw philosophy and history into a more meaningful partnership.

Yet this latest instalment is more than a pithy introduction to the already considerable oeuvre of the Princeton-based historian. While the values set out in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights are today part of the common parlance of Western democracies, Israel argues that their modern political hegemony is reliant upon “the astounding intellectual victories of the radical philosophes” in the “fraught, bitterly contested decades” between 1770 and 1789. The principles of freedom of thought and expression, religious tolerance, individual liberty, political self-determination of peoples, and sexual and racial equality are all traced by Israel to their phase of adolescent dynamism in the charged atmosphere of late 18th-century political and social thought. These are the principles of Israel’s Radical Enlightenment; the ideas that emerged as the official values of a major part of the world after 1945, and whose origins precipitated and informed the “General Revolution” of the late-18th century.

Central to understanding this great awakening of political modernity is the schism between radical and moderate enlightenments, which became both inescapable and irreparable by the 1770s. The Moderate Enlightenment of Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Hume is characterised by Israel as one that upheld tradition and privilege. These thinkers sympathised with a providentialist (that is to say a “God-ordained”) conception of the universe and were reluctant to undermine the authority of kings and clerics. In direct opposition to this “moderate mainstream” were the intellectual heirs of Spinoza, whose influence is traced by Israel to the demands for radical reform and the condemnation of social inequality that intensified in the late-18th century. The Spinozist practitioners of the philosophie moderne are routinely referred to by Israel as “Diderot, d’Holbach, and their disciples”; a coterie of thinkers in the 1770s and 80s that coalesced around universal principles and democratic values.

Far from being Francocentric, however, Israel asserts that this radical/moderate schism was universal in scope. “The most crucial questions” of the Enlightenment project are presented as either/or: one was either for or against democracy, equality, a free press, the separation of church and state. The universal nature of this “vast chasm” between radical and moderate enlightenments proves a strong foundation from which Israel can expound his notion of a transnational “Revolution of the Mind”. Moreover, it allows him, in engaging and flexible prose, to incorporate a vast range of controversies over politics, economics, war, and moral philosophy, in all of which the radicals laid the foundations for a “General Revolution” out of Spinoza’s universal, egalitarian, and ultimately democratic principles. The result is a richly informative, coherent thesis that provides an original insight into the major controversies of the 18th century.

In this respect, Israel succeeds in his task of drawing history and philosophy closer together. But in his determination to identify within the Radical Enlightenment “the intellectual origins of modern democracy”, Israel has overstated the case. Throughout, Radical Enlightenment is “quintessentially defined” by its identification of “democracy as the best form of government”, but was there such consensus around democracy’s normative content in the 18th century? Israel insists that “it was plain what the radical thinkers intended” from the early 1770s, “when Diderot and d’Holbach began propagating their fully fledged democratic republican ideology”. We are told little, though, of the specific political institutions and reforms that this ideology entailed, whether constitutional monarchy, virtual representation, or universal suffrage. Israel’s thesis proposes that these issues were already settled amongst the radicals, yet the subsequent progress of the French Revolution suggests that this was not necessarily the case.

This conceptual confusion is frustrating, not least because Israel is ultimately attempting to identify the origins of “what we today would call ‘democracy'”. Yet this imprecision is a natural consequence of the variegated intellectual landscape in which Israel’s radicals operated. The likes of Paine, Sieyès, and Condorcet frequently used the terms “representative” and “republican”, but largely refrained from demanding “democracy”. To claim that these traditions constituted the same radical outlook is to neglect the inherent diversity of 18th-century political thought. As the recent scholarship of historian Mark Philp and others has shown, “democracy” did not become a popular term until the 1790s, and even then it lacked determinate political content. Israel is certainly correct in identifying monarchy, privilege, and civil inequality as the targets of Radical Enlightenment, but the radical camp had more conceptual confusion than Israel lets on. It takes more than a common enemy to create a “fully fledged ideology” between disparate radical thinkers, whether “republican”, “democratic”, or otherwise.

One is left with the impression that Israel has asserted this uniformity with contemporary debates in mind. By insisting so steadfastly on the primacy of mind over matter in history, he overlooks (ironically) the radical dynamism and rich variety of Enlightenment political thought. The complexities of a nascent radical politics are smothered and, to an extent, manipulated to fit a narrative of democracy’s march from Spinoza’s Dutch Republic, through the Atlantic revolutions of the 18th century, and down to Palais de Chaillot in 1948. Israel ultimately goes too far in imposing a universal dichotomy upon the Enlightenment, especially one that rests upon a nebulous notion of democracy, in an attempt to read into the 18th century the distant gestation of modern institutions.

That is not to deny the importance of A Revolution of the Mind. As a contribution to the history of late-18th century ideas it is informative and thought-provoking, invaluable in celebrating the role of ideas in history. However, one is ultimately reminded of David’s representation of the Tennis Court Oath. As a work of art, it magnificently celebrates the moment the National Assembly recognised the sovereignty of the French nation. Yet beneath history’s broad brush strokes lies a more complicated reality. Far from being the glorious realisation of radical thought, the Tennis Court Oath was in fact another rally in the Enlightenment’s grand contest of politics and ideas.

Oliver Cussen is reading for an MPhil in Political Theory at Pembroke College, Oxford.