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Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790

Eric Schliesser
p. 651-657
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Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 1066 pages, ISBN: 9780199668090

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1Democratic Enlightenment is the third in Jonathan Israel’s “Enlightenment Series.” According to Israel Enlightenment is

best characterized as the quest for human amelioration occurring between 1680 and 1800, driven principally by ‘philosophy’, that is, what would term philosophy, science, and political and social science including the new science of economics lumped together, leading to revolutions in ideas and attitudes first, and actual practical revolutions second, or else the other way around, both sets of revolutions seeking universal recipes for all mankind and, ultimately, in its radical manifestation, laying the foundations for modern basic human rights and freedoms in representative democracy. (7)

2While Israel allows that a revolution in attitudes can influence (a revolution in) ideas, on the whole the thrust of his argument is that ideas drive events. The book is, in fact, one long polemic against social and economic historians who discount the overwhelming importance of ideas (32-3; see also 924-6). (It is also a polemic against those intellectual historians that have focused on sociability: “sociability…is just a gigantic red herring.” (5)) In particular, the key, French revolution is to be explained as follows: “Philosophy made the Revolution; the people, in its ignorance, misled by demagogues and rendered ferocious by famine and civil war, made the Terror.” (931) That is to say, Israel privileges what he presents as a “highly cohesive” ideology (16). In emphasizing a ‘revolution of the mind’ (949), Israel returns to Benjamin Constant’s (1819) influential interpretation of the Revolution as driven by ideas, but with an important twist as I note below (for an excellent overview situating Israel into, more recent 20th century historiography on the Enlightenment, see De Dijn 2012).

3As the quote (from p. 7) above implies, Israel relies on a distinction between a moderate and radical Enlightenment. In this review below I focus primarily on Israel’s treatment of David Hume and Adam Smith; according to Israel, two of the leading members of the moderate Enlightenment. But before I get to the two relatively brief chapters devoted to them (approximately forty out of almost one thousand pages), let me first set the stage by mentioning some of the key themes and arguments of the book and a sense of its scope. In particular, before I criticize, I want to stress that Israel should be lauded for attempting to sketch the contours of Enlightenment outside the narrow confines of Western Europe—all readers ought to appreciate and learn from his efforts at engaging with developments in other parts of Europe and the wider world not just within the European colonial empires (with informative chapters on the Dutch in Asia, the Spanish in the Americas, British in India), but also outside (with instructive chapters on China and Japan). All of these chapters flesh out the debates over commerce, empire, and Enlightenment.

4According to Israel the radicals, inspired by Bayle and, especially, Spinoza accepted a “one-substance metaphysics ruling out teleology, divine providence, miracles, and revelation, along with spirits separate from bodies and immortality of the soul, and denying that moral values are divinely delivered;” the radicals also insisted “that equality is the first principle of a truly legitimate politics” and advocated “freedom of thought” (11). Sometimes Israel includes “materialism” as a central ingredient in the radical Enlightenment (12).

5By contrast the moderate Enlightenment thinkers “remained anxious to restrict the scope of reason and retain tradition and ecclesiastical authority, duly clipped, as the primary guides for most people.” That is, there was no need to “enlighten the great majority.” (11) The moderate enlightenment relied either on a Lockean-Newtonian construct or a Leibnizian-Wolffian tradition; both versions of moderate enlightenment are hospitable to teleology. Another key difference between radicals and moderates is that on Israel’s account moderates were unwilling to advocate “full toleration.” (20) According to Israel, it was the “almost total failure of the moderate Enlightenment to deliver reforms” (14) that opened the door to radicals (see also 943). Israel allows that the contrast between moderates and radicals is not always sharp (from his perspective, Rousseau is “a strange mixture,” (21) and that some authors can develop from one camp to another.

6There are two central revisionary aims in Israel’s narrative: first, he wishes to disassociate the radical Enlightenment from the Terror that followed in the wake of its political success during 1789-1792 (e.g., 26). While Israel uses the radical-moderate split through the volume, he announces on page 889 that until the storming of the Bastille Enlightenment opinion “had remained broadly united,” but that “during the summer of 1789 the heirs of the philosophes irrevocably split” (901). He then argues that the Assembly started to adopt the program of the radicals, and through it the rejection of all privilege (901ff), culminating in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (908); a key move in his central argument is the rejection of the common idea of Rousseau’s influence on sovereignty and the general will (914). He traces the growth of the influence of Marat as an illiberal reaction to the philosophes (914ff). By disconnecting Rousseau from the radicals, he can point to Rousseau’s bad influence on the role of violence during the Terror (e.g., 643; 814; 930ff; 946ff)—going so far as to claim that Rousseau was the “unique inspiration of what Robespierre insisted was the people’s Revolution, that of ‘virtue’, not a revolution of philosophes” (948). So, while Constant treats representative democracy as a product of the post-Napoleonic settlement and traces the Revolution back to Rousseau (and Mably), who unintentionally “furnished deadly pretexts for more than one kind of tyranny,” Israel only traces the bad developments and consequences of the French Revolution to Rousseau, and insisting (against considerable evidence) that his radicals introduced modern representative democracy (815; see also De Dijn 2012).

7Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that a moderate-radical distinction works as Israel intends, it is surprising that Israel never confronts what would be the key, moderate objection against the radicals: sudden changes are likely to lead—in the words of Adam Smith—to destructive “disorder,” (Wealth of Nations 4.2.40, p. 469; in context Smith is discussing the removal of trade barriers). Accordingly, Smith famously insists that the “spirit of system,” leads to the violent “madness of fanaticism” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), 232; see also 6.3.12, 242). So, even if the radicals did not intend the Terror, one could argue that by rapidly changing the laws and institutions of society, they paved the way for what is a foreseeable consequence of it. Given that Israel acknowledges Smith’s “gradualism” (239) it is odd that he fails to discuss the objection.

8The second main revisionary thesis is that Kant’s critical philosophy is (a) not just as the key moment in which philosophy gets transformed “into a highly technical subject leaving the content of morality, politics, and social theory broadly outside the sphere of reason’s competence,” (733)—thereby ignoring the many seventeenth century efforts to study nature while leaving morals and politics at arm’s length—but (b) can also be best understood, in the hands of his disciple Reinhold, as a response to the radical threat of Spinozism (720-9) and, thus, (c) a final and decisive reconciliation of “Aufklärung and Christianity,” (729) as well as a “drastic curtailment of metaphysics” (928-9). Israel implies, in fact, that Kant endorsed Reinhold’s reading (724-5). I am not unsympathetic to efforts to see Kant’s philosophy in light of Spinoza (see Schliesser (2013), Bœhm, (2014); Israel is unfortunately unaware of Goldenbaum (2007)). But Israel does not even bother informing his less erudite readers that Kant presents his first Critique (say in its two prefaces) in a different light; there his stated concern is not so much a near-ascendancy of Spinozism, but rather the inability of metaphysics to reach any agreement at all; and a reader of Israel would not suspect that Kant promises his own system of “pure speculative reason.” It is one thing to embrace with Israel—Leo Strauss is oddly unmentioned—the radicals’ encouragement “to read between the lines” of their works (8), it is quite another to ignore the self-presentations of the non-radicals.

9I now turn to Israel’s treatment of Hume and Adam Smith. In fact, Smith frames Israel’s whole volume; Smith “definition” of ‘philosophy’ as “’the science of the connecting principles of nature’” is introduced at the start. (7) And the “epilogue” draws attention to Smith’s remark (TMS, 53) that “That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed or punished, as the public conveniency may require…is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of nature.” (941) Israel reads this remark by Smith as a criticism—a self-defeating criticism, in fact—of the radicals. Because Israel associates Smith’s target (reason, public utility) with the radical thought, he misses that Smith is criticizing Locke’s doctrine, which was the ideology of the Whig establishment, after all, of the right to revolution when there are great (abusive) “inconveniences” with continuing with established government (e.g., Second Treatise, §168). Smith is here not defending tradition, but rather calling attention to the role of philosophy in providing justification for the status quo even when the actual doctrines it supplies have limited empirical adequacy. In larger context Smith is explaining how the corruption of our sentiments generates great social injustice and simultaneously a surprising element of stability to most established governments. This is not a defense of tradition “or veneration of rank” (237), but careful social analysis combined with considerable moral “indignation” (238)—no need to look at Smith’s unpublished writings it’s right on the page, as discerned by Mary Wollstonecraft and Sophie De Grouchy (both fall partially outside the chronological scope of the book, although Wollstonecraft is mentioned a few times—Israel is not especially attentive to women’s voices in the period).

10Despite Israel’s acknowledgment of the significance of (recall) “the new science of economics” (7) Smith’s economics gets little attention. Strangely (and unfairly) enough Smith’s economic writings get lumped together with Ferguson and Campbell and other defenders of social hierarchy. Smith’s well-known criticism of merchants in Wealth of Nations is read as a defense of aristocracy (240). Because Israel appears to be unaware of Smith’s great target, James Steuart’s (1767) An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, Israel misdiagnoses quite a few of Smith’s positions.

11While Israel underestimates Smith’s argument against slavery—it is not just economic, but also moral—, he is right to discern in Smith a defense of a racialized empire (although Israel ignores all of Smith’s proposed reform and only quotes Smith’s criticism of empire hundreds of pages later after his official treatment of Smith (417)). But while there is no doubt that Smith appealed to the enlightened self-interest of part of the aristocracy, he does so amidst frontal attacks on entails and aristocratic privilege as well as explicit advocacy of land-reform (noted by Israel on 242-3) and progressive taxation (ignored by Israel). Crucially, Israel, fails to acknowledge fully that Smith systematically advocates not “the harmony of interests” (243), but policies that will result in high wages for the working poor in the name of ‘equity’ (238) and ‘humanity’—and it is no surprise that his economic policies were taken up by De Grouchy. Millar was indeed more radical than Smith in lots of ways (241; see also 18), but that Millar was Smith’s student and admirer would have deserved some mention (For a more ‘radical’ interpretation of Smith, see Schliesser, 2014, 115-1).

12Ultimately, Israel’s engagement with Smith is not very thorough; one wonders if Israel even notices that Smith advocates the entire disestablishment of religion (without any Lockean hedging) far surpassing anything Spinoza would have endorsed (Iannaccone, 1991, 156-177). Oddly enough, while Turgot does not merit a focused chapter or section, he is mentioned throughout the volume, and he is treated as a more consistent thinker than Smith (239). His actual economics goes underexplored except for a brief, yet insightful, treatment of Rousseau’s oft-overlooked entry ‘Économie politique’ in the Encyclopédie, which is used to summarize the ways in which Quesnay, Turgot, and Rousseau agree (and anticipate Smith) about the structure of taxation and the role of progressive taxation to prevent the development of “extreme inequality” (641).

13By contrast, it is important to his overall argument that Hume’s skeptical philosophy played a destructive role in casting a “giant question mark over” the radical Enlightenment (210). Oddly enough, Israel reads Hume, while excessively relying on a remark from the Natural History of Religion, as a Deist and a defender of tradition. This fits Israel’s scheme of fitting Hume into the moderate camp, but this would have surprised Hume’s early and nineteenth century readers (none of whom had any problem discerning Hume’s deeply irreligious views despite his defense of custom.). The problem here is a larger one: that when he is writing about authors outside his main areas of expertise, Israel has a tendency to cite only those scholars that he agrees with (For contrasting views on Hume, see Holden (2010) and Russell (2010)). While it is true that Hume is a critic of Spinoza (see Della Rocca (2014), Israel also misses Hume’s embrace of ‘materialism’ (e.g., “we may certainly conclude, that motion may be, and actually is, the cause of thought and perception” (Treatise, I.iv.5.30; I.iv.5.33) and “human body is a mighty and complicated machine” (First Enquiry, Section VIII, Part I, 87.)) And, while Hume was forced by his publisher to delay publication of the essays in which he denied the immortality of the soul and advocated allowing suicide, careful readers of his works would not have been surprised by his position (which repeatedly prevented his university appointment, first in Edinburgh, and later in Glasgow). Hume’s views were far removed from the safe Newtonianism embraced, say, by Colin MacLaurin; along the way, Israel also falsely conflates Hume’s views with Newton’s (see Schliesser (2009)) and does not recognize the suspicion and criticism of the authority of the application of mathematics in the sciences shared by Spinoza (“The Letter on the Infinite”) and Hume (Treatise

14At one point Israel notes that in a late letter, Hume had described himself as an “American” in his “principles” (226). Israel treats this as an isolated remark. This is a shame because it might have forced him to confront both Hume’s opposition to slavery, which is why Hume, who was a racist (Essays 208-9 & 629-30) and imperialist, had little sympathy for Republican nostalgia to Rome (Essays 383-4). It would have also forced Israel to confront Hume’s essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” which was purportedly written not so much to challenge existing government (Moderation), but intended to provide the framework that might be implemented after the “dissolution of some old government, or by the combination of men to form a new one, in some distant part of the world” (Essays, 513). If it is radical to articulate the revolution and prepare for the day after, then Hume ought to count as a radical by Israel’s lights (Israel never addresses the not obscure argument of Adair (1957)). Better yet, let us discard the misleading moderate/radical terminology altogether.

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