Monday, 12 March 2012

Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment

Over the past decade, Jonathan Israel has been remapping the Enlightenment in a massive trilogy of books published by OUP: Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and finally Democratic Enlightenment (2011). Together they amount to 2500 pages, and take us from Spinoza to the French Revolution, from the Americas to Greece and Eastern Europe, with fascinating chapters on European perceptions of China and India.

Reviewers have consistently praised Israel's extraordinary energy and resourcefulness, his facility in a variety of languages and his researches in dozens of archives. Yet many have also expressed serious misgivings about his vision of the Enlightenment. He discerns a three way struggle in the eighteenth-century between a materialist Radical Enlightenment, a compromised Moderate Enlightenment, and a traditionalist Counter-Enlightenment. Israel's sympathies lie wholeheartedly with the Radical version, and he aims to uncover the Enlightenment foundations of modern secularism and liberalism. But numerous reviewers have suggested that the analysis is far too schematic. Thinkers are assigned to ideological blocs, and each bloc is associated with a package of ideas or values. But on closer inspection, ideologies and alignments prove to be more complex, and Radical Enlightenment does not have all the best tunes.

The dispute is perhaps best followed through Israel's exchange with Samuel Moyn, following the latter's highly critical review in The Nation:

The current debate over the Enlightenment illustrates Croce's point that 'All history is contemporary history'. The issues debated in the eighteenth century have risen to the surface once again, above all the place of religion in public life. For all its faults, Israel's project does help us to understand how the Enlightenment has always been contested. Despite his affinity with the new atheists, his work reveals the persistent power of religion in Enlightenment Europe. He admits that secular materialists were only a radical fringe, nearly always outflanked and outnumbered by advocates of Christian Enlightenment or Counter-Enlightenment. These unresolved controversies of the eighteenth-century are being played out in the twenty-first.

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