What Samuel Moyn Got Wrong in His Nation Article

Historians/History




Jonathan Israel is Professor of History at the Institute for Advanced Study. His latest book is "A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy" (Princeton, 2009). This is a extended version of a letter that appears in the July 5 edition of The Nation.

In his recent article “Mind the Enlightenment,” published on May 20 on The Nation’s website, Samuel Moyn finds what he calls my “‘monomaniacal Spinoza worship’ both amusing and exasperating by turns.”  However, in the course of deriding it he makes a number of claims that are extremely inaccurate and broadly misleading.  They concern some highly important points of interpretation and debate and will, I am sure, play a significant role in future discussion about the Enlightenment.

Firstly, Moyn thinks that my approach leaves me “without a story of the Enlightenment’s intellectual or cultural origins.”  This is far from the truth, and while I hardly think my account of the Enlightenment’s origins is especially original, it is detailed, lengthy, and essential to my argument.  I explain the Enlightenment as arising out of a complex mixture of cultural-social and intellectual causes.  The direct intellectual causes were what I call the “Philosophical Revolution” of the late seventeenth century and what historians have long referred to as the Scientific Revolution.  The effects of the latter in changing notions of nature and natural causes are well known and I will say no more about them here.  As for the Philosophical Revolution, this has been underestimated but is of the greatest importance.  At least six great philosophers—Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz and Bayle—stipulated, all within a very short space of time, that both the basic assumptions of centuries of previous thought and most men’s actual beliefs and ideas at the time were fundamentally wrong.  Furthermore, if it were possible to improve men’s thinking and ideas this would considerably improve human life by making society safer, more tolerant, and better governed.  All six of these philosophers powerfully contributed to this process and I have much to say about Bayle’s, Locke’s, and Leibniz’s contributions especially.  Bayle’s input was crucially important in forming what I call the Radical Enlightenment, and in my book Enlightenment Contested his role in shaping this type of Enlightenment receives thirty pages of explanation.  I considered Spinoza’s contribution foremost in crystallizing Radical Enlightenment in my account primarily because his thought goes further than the others in undermining belief in revelation, divine providence and miracles, and hence ecclesiastical authority, and because he was the first great democratic philosopher.  But this is only part of a much wider process that Moyn says nothing about.

Besides the Philosophical and Scientific Revolutions, there were also other fundamental cultural and social factors at work in preparing the ground for the Enlightenment.  I especially stress the role of religious stalemate, with the Protestants and Catholics fighting each other to a draw at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648).  Surely God had to be on one side or the other, yet neither side won.  How could this be?  The psychological effect was tremendous, and the pressure to develop notions of tolerance and justifications for co-existence of religions much increased.  There were other factors.  Especially notable was the disturbing effect of the Renaissance humanists’ rediscovery of ancient skepticism—Epicureanism and other kinds of ancient philosophy—and the tension between philosophy and theology that had arisen in the universities since the later Middle Ages, a tension that the work of Aquinas was unable fully to check.  Both these developments contributed to a veiled subversive tendency in intellectual life that preceded the Enlightenment proper, especially in Italy and France, known as libertinage érudit that specialized in slipping in impious and libertine hints and suggestions obliquely, often by quoting suggestive phrases from ancient classical authors.  Thus, during the later seventeenth century, many different and highly complex tendencies, all vast in scope, helped forge the Enlightenment.

Another strand of Moyn’s critique is his claim (at the bottom of page three) that it is a “faulty premise” on my part to “think that a philosophy of naturalism and liberal-democratic politics are inextricably linked.”  He then gives the example of Hobbes which he thinks shows this is untrue.  Here again, Moyn’s objection is wrong both philosophically and especially historically.  The official Enlightenment presided over by Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Joseph II in Austria and the ministers of Carlos III in the Spanish Empire vigorously upheld aristocracy, (a remodeled) ecclesiastical authority, and strict book and newspaper censorship.  They maintained that subjects of kings have no right to question the commands of their sovereigns and that the divinely given order legitimates the social order they upheld. Likewise, in ancien régime France, the aristocratic-ecclesiastical frame of society and the moral order with its system of sexual policing (highly discriminatory against homosexuals and married women accused of adulterous relationships) was maintained by appealing to divine providence and Church authority.  The only effective way to break the ancien régime system conceptually—and deliver comprehensive freedom of thought and expression and a democratic politics—was to destroy the notion that the existing order was divinely authorized, directed by divine providence and presided over by the clergy and monarchy together.  Hobbes indeed got around this prevailing political theology, but only at the price of introducing the obviously unwieldy construction of a once and for all, indissoluble political contract which cancels out men’s natural rights, an iron contract the legitimacy of which, in terms of nature and naturalism, is hard to discern.  In this respect, Hobbes was an inconsistent naturalist and Spinoza did no more than iron out his inconsistency.

Historically, naturalist philosophy and the rise of a democratic politics were, in fact, inextricably linked.  Philosophically, too, there is a close relationship.  Actually, there are no important exceptions to this rule in the eighteenth-century context, though according to Joseph Priestley, at least, one-substance doctrine does not necessarily have to be atheistic.  During the Enlightenment era, there was no such thing as a democratic libertarian who was not either a proponent of one-substance philosophy, or, as Priestley claimed about Richard Price, philosophically blatantly inconsistent.  But if Moyn is mistaken here, a still more incorrect and misleading strand of his critique is this contention:

Israel ends up with no explanation for why his package of emancipatory values succeeded except that they are true.  They were what society needed, and always needs, and they caused a revolution.  But this is no explanation at all—or at least not a historical one.  Perhaps not by coincidence, it is much like saying Christianity succeeded because Jesus was the savior; but Spinoza is not supposed to be a messiah who triumphs because he knows the truth that sets you free.  Secular history is very often the story of bad ideas winning and good ideas losing:  ideas themselves don’t explain why they succeed or fail.

This passage could hardly be more incorrect.  First, the package of emancipatory values did not succeed.  They partially succeeded for a time with the advent of the French Revolution, but this was perverted and derailed by Robespierre and the Terror and later by Napoleon.  The European nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the whole involved further defeats for democratic, libertarian enlightened values.  As for my explanation as to why the Radical Enlightenment was more successful than the moderate Enlightenment of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Hume in the 1780s and 1790s, this is an essentially a historical argument and one which is, I believe, both more original and more important albeit no less complex than my account of the rise of the Enlightenment.

The Radical Enlightenment, something forged by dozens of writers, rose up from the underground of illicit ideas and clandestine manuscripts (especially prolific in France) and slowly achieved a position of temporary dominance in Enlightenment debate in stages, over many decades, between 1650 and the 1770s.  It was around 1770 that Voltaire and others first joined the theologians (who had been saying similar things earlier but were mainly worried about belief and the overthrow of religion), in loudly denouncing monist materialism, or“modern philosophy,” as it was pejoratively called in Britain, as an immediate threat to the existing social, moral and political order.  This slow, sporadic rise was a process driven, yet again, by a highly complex mix of social-cultural and intellectual factors.  Three causes in particular were crucial.  Firstly, there was the socio-political factor, namely that enlightened European monarchy in late eighteenth century, however much some of the so-called enlightened despots, like Frederick and Catherine prided themselves on their enlightened credentials, proved completely unable in the end to deliver the structural reforms some sections of society were urging.  There were many religious minorities in the eighteenth century—among them Jews, Unitarians, in Britain and Ireland Catholics, and in France and the Habsburg lands, the Protestants—pressing for comprehensive religious toleration.  No European country (until France in 1789) was able to deliver it, not even Britain, where the Catholics and Unitarians remained quite seriously discriminated against (and Jews somewhat so).  Many groups agitated for freedom of thought and the press; no European country succeeded in achieving it except for France during the years 1788-92.  Serfdom still oppressed large numbers in central and eastern Europe; nowhere were the serfs fully emancipated.  Black slavery marred the Americas; only very slowly and marginally were slaves emancipated.  There were continual (and all too justified) complaints on all sides about the archaic, inconsistent and often highly inequitable character of Europe’s legal systems (Britain and America included); full equality before the law was nowhere delivered except by revolution.  Democratic ideas were nowhere respectable except in the nascent United States (to some degree) and, again, in France after 1789.  Men tyrannized over women everywhere as they had done for centuries.  This continued to be the case in all parts of the Western world, but in radical circles in France in 1789, some editors and spokesmen began calling for reforms to the marriage laws and the introduction of civil divorce as a way of lessening the subjection of women.

The official (i.e. moderate) Enlightenment of the courts and liberal sections of the churches broadly failed in their vast Enlightenment reform program, extending from Chile to Russia and from Scandinavia to Naples, because the moderate Enlightenment buttressing the existing social order was completely incapable of delivering the emancipatory reforms many thought were required (albeit there were probably even more people who opposed them).  The second major reason for the Radical Enlightenment’s partial success was intellectual:  namely, that its one-substance monism rendered its metaphysics and ethical arguments apparently more consistently and free of logical difficulties than any alternative, at least prior to the rise of Kantianism as a cultural force in the late 1780s.  Enlightenment philosophies trying to reconcile reason with religious authority, or, like Hobbes’ naturalism, with absolutism, or, like Hume’s, reconcile a pruned back reason with tradition, were bound to incur more difficulties than la philosophie moderne in sounding and looking consistent as well as in justifying sweeping reform (Hume was so conservative he even defends the press-gang).  It may be true that many, or even most, people remain untroubled by “bad arguments” but there are always some individuals at all social levels for whom intellectual consistency matters—and this applies especially to those aspiring to change everything.  The whole point of the great Pantheismusstreit in Germany in the 1780s is that conservative thinkers like Jacobi and Rehberg concluded that no philosophy can refute Spinoza since it is impossible to defeat him with rational arguments, given that he was, or appeared to be, more consistent than any other thinker at the time; from this they inferred the impossibility of blocking the materialism of Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvétius.  Instead, they argued, it was the duty of true conservatives to abandon philosophy and the Enlightenment and rely on faith and authority instead.  Such arguments helped fuel the rise of the Counter-Enlightenment, rejecting reason and insisting that faith and authority are the only true guides in human life, a key element in my interpretation not mentioned at all by Moyn.  The point about Spinoza’s superior consistency (which also greatly bothered Voltaire in his last years) can be criticized as being partly a philosophical judgment on my part.  But is primarily a historical observation:  it is simply a fact that in the late eighteenth century a great many people thought or feared (often much to their consternation) that one-substance monism was the most formidably coherent philosophy existing.

In addition, and functionally just as integral to my interpretation of why the Radical Enlightenment eventually emerged strongly, is my analysis of the basic mechanism of modern revolutions.  The only thing in Moyn’s attempt to be devastating that I agree with is his remark that “simmering discontent usually just keeps on simmering.”  Social grievances can continue for centuries without anyone doing anything about it.  Quite correct.  But this is not what happened in the later eighteenth century when there were a truly astounding number of major revolutions in France, America, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Peru, New Granada (Colombia), Mainz and some other parts of Germany, and Naples.  Study of these revolutions demonstrates, in my opinion (most historians of the French Revolution disagree) that the common and most crucial feature of their revolutionary mechanics is the introduction by an aggrieved but aspiring intellectual leadership of a revolutionary ideology.  The common people neither grasped this ideology nor were they particularly interested in it, but it was successfully adapted as a catch-all for protest and discontent.  Except for the American Revolution, which followed a different pattern, all these revolutions were orchestrated and co-ordinated by tiny batches of unrepresentative editors, orators, pamphleteers, professional agitators and renegade nobles like Mirabeau—practically never businessmenor lawyers, and never established office-holders—who captured a mass following by amplifying popular protest arising from grievances into an unstoppable political force.

These three highly complex factors, I argue, add up to a novel and cogent historical-philosophical explanation for the temporary relative success of radical thought in the late eighteenth century that will, I am sure, provoke much constructive discussion in the future, though Moyn obviously is not going to be part of it.  His claim that I provide no explanation for the partial, temporary success of la philosophie moderne is not simply wrong:  it absurdly misrepresents the position to the point of being ridiculous.

There is no sense in unduly spinning out this reply to Moyn’s attempted take-down which so distorts and misses the character of my arguments as to be almost completely irrelevant, and which fails to make a single solid, substantive correction which anyone who has read the books carefully would think needs to be taken on board (which is not to say that there are no mistakes or imperfections that need correcting—of course there are).  Because of its great importance, however,I will take up a fourth fundamental error in Moyn’s critique where he is, again, altogether misleading.  The last part of his essay is basically a eulogy of a very different interpretation of the role of ideology in the French Revolution than mine presented recently by Dan Edelstein in a book Moyn finds “absorbing, memorable and absorbing.” Says Moyn:

Edelstein argues that Enlightenment naturalism turned out to be a recipe for terrible wrongs.  Edelstein wants to know how the Jacobins whom he rightly credits with some of the most progressive and egalitarian aims any political movement has ever professed ended up orchestrating a reign of terror.

The confusion here stems from Moyn’s conflating Edelstein’s notion of utopian naturalism drawn from sections of eighteenth-century literature with the philosophical tradition of radicalism I am discussing, something forged by Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach, Helvétius and their numerous disciples, many of whom were at the forefront of the revolution of 1788-92.  These philosophe-revolutionaries were Sieyes, Mirabeau, Condorcet, Brissot, Volney, Roederer, Cloots, Manuel, and a group of twenty or thirty others who gained control of the National Assembly in the summer of 1789.  I am not attributing anything in the French Revolution to some vague ”naturalism” trawled from literature, the relevance of which is far from obvious, but to a specific package of representative democratic values and freedoms expressly justified by the principal revolutionary leaders in terms of “la philosophie,” or what Catholic apologists at the time disparagingly called “philosophisme.”  If claims about society or politics were not rooted exclusively in what the Radical Enlightenment called “philosophy,” or la philosophie nouvelle, then they have nothing directly to do with the process I am discussing and analyzing.  For the leaders I am discussing, “philosophy” was the only guide in human life and nothing is justified or justifiable legally—socially, morally, religiously or politically—if it was not “philosophique”in the radical sense in which they used this term.

The opposite and rival tendency within French Revolution ideology, stressing ordinary people’s feelings and urging that the philosophy be thrown out of the window, which Keith Baker aptly called the “revolution of the will” pitting itself against the “revolution of reason,” was indeed present from the outset, notably in Marat’s nagging, growling revolutionary journal L’Ami du people.  But it remained largely on the sidelines until late in 1792.  Once the Jacobins took over in the name of the people (of whom Marat was secretly just as contemptuous as any of the philosophes), they promptly shut down the unprecedented freedom of the press introduced in 1789 and re-introduced authoritarian notions about book and paper censorship, as well as reversed the stress on representative democracy, starting this process well before the Terror itself began.  How did Robespierre and his ally Saint-Just justify stiff censorship, stifling opposition, authoritarianism and the Terror?  By denouncing la philosophie, and representation, in the name of the people’s feelings and the unity of those feelings.  To accentuate their ideology they made much greater use of Rousseau than of radical ideas, primarily because Rousseau was an advocate of direct sovereignty of the people.  But to Robespierre Rousseau was additionally useful because of his justification of censorship, plea for nationalism, idealization of the ordinary man, and tremendous hostility to the philosophy of the radical thinkers.  By condemning atheism, powerfully re-introducing divine providence and rejecting the materialism of his former friends, Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvétius, with whom he bitterly quarreled from the mid-1750s onwards, Rousseau had supplied a powerful intellectual apparatus that could be effectively used to overthrow the Radical Enlightenment values which Robespierre publicly condemned.  (In the Jacobin club Helvétius’s bust was torn down and trampled underfoot after one of his anti-Enlightenment speeches.)  It wasn’t by accident that the Robespierre regime guillotined or imprisoned (pending probable eventual execution) Brissot, Condorcet, Tom Paine, Cloots and various others of the philosophe-revolutionaries.  However, Condorcet, Paine, Volney, Cloots, and the others, dead or alive, were rapidly rehabilitated and their works republished in France within months of Robespierre’s dramatic downfall in the summer of 1794.

One of Edelstein’s central arguments, that Robespierre does not invoke the ‘general will” while Sieyes and the leaders of the revolution of 1789-92 do so constantly (Edelstein, Terror of Natural Right, 207), is I think correct. But Moyn has completely misunderstood the significance of this.  The term volonté générale was first introduced into French political thought debate by Diderot, not Rousseau; and while Diderot and d’Holbach and their disciples constantly used the term, they continued to mean something significantly different by it (basically representative democracy rather than direct popular sovereignty) than Rousseau, and the usage of 1788-92 corresponds, I argue in my A Revolution of the Mind, more with Diderot’s than Rousseau’s usage.

I have never anywhere stated that any of the philosophe-revolutionaries who, according to my interpretation, made the French Revolution of 1788-92 and of 1795-1800 were “Spinozists.”  They derived their ideas from Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius and Raynal, and more selectively from Rousseau, Mably and Montesquieu.  They were not thinking about Spinoza, at least not in public, as is indeed hardly surprising given the universal public aversion to the very name of Spinoza.  But the radical encyclopedism that underlay their ideology was what in the eighteenth century was called “Spinozism,” and the royal suppression of the Encyclopédie in 1759 and 1765 (which was rigorously enforced in France as well as Italy, Belgium and Spain) was justified on the grounds of that great compendium’s “Spinozism” as well as its politically and religiously subversive content (and its obviously large debt to Bayle, and smaller but contentious debts to Hobbes and Locke as well).  Moyn vigorously argues, like Antoine Lilti, that “Spinozism became more of a battle cry for its opponents than a detailed and coherent intellectual position,” a point often repeated by critics.  But it is precisely one of my main and most detailed arguments that Lilti’s constantly repeated refrain is demonstrably incorrect.  When Voltaire, Lessing’s German opponents, or anyone else in the eighteenth century attacked “Spinozism,” they were rejecting one-substance doctrine, denial of divine governance of the world—along with revelation and miracles—and hence denial that God delivers men their moral (and political) values, together with the corollary that therefore men must make their own political and moral values in terms of what they think best for society (or the general good—Diderot’s volonté générale), as best they can.  To this specific, concrete usage of the term “Spinozism” there are no significant exceptions in the major Enlightenment controversies.  Contrary to Lilti and Moyn, “Spinozism” in the eighteenth century has a clear, fixed and stable meaning. If Lilti or Moyn think they can produce concrete examples demonstrating that something significantly different is meant by “Spinozism” in an important controversy, I would be most interested to know what it is.  The reader may rest assured that they cannot.

Finally, may I conclude by saying a word on Moyn’s and La Vopa’s strictures about what they call my “package logic.”  Moyne thinks that Anthony La Vopa is “one of Israel’s most trenchant critics,” especially for drawing attention to this aspect of my procedure.  But actually La Vopa, far from being “trenchant,” is entirely missing the point.  The revolutionaries of 1789 forged their program on the basis of a ready-made package logic made up of equality, individual liberty, freedom of the press and expression, democracy and so forth.  The object of the exercise in which I am engaged as a historian is to try to explain how this package logic, the basis of modernity and basic human rights, emerged during the course of the eighteenth century.  My answer is that it evolved through complex social circumstances which did much to polarize Enlightenment thought into two conflicting factions by the 1770s and via a long drawn out battle over ideas that has to be examined and studied in detail, strictly empirically.  This battle reached back all the way to the 1650s.  My study is the study of how a “package logic” came into being.  Of course, I entirely agree that it is pointless and unhistorical to force people into boxes and categories where they do not belong, and I have tried my best not to do so.  Where figures like Hobbes, Bayle, Leibniz, Bekker, Montesquieu, Reimarus, Jefferson, or Kant seem radical in some respects but moderate in others, or somewhere in between, I have plainly said so.  Moyn suggests that Vico is an example of a thinker I try to squeeze into a box where he does not belong.  But I am not the only one who has discerned important affinities with and echoes of Spinoza in Vico—but that is an ongoing dispute that remains to be thrashed out.  My main point here is that to deny that there was a package logic of democratic values at work in the eighteenth century, or that the empirical study of its evolution, lacks validity, and far from being “trenchant,” it should be dismissed as thoroughly obtuse.

Moyn ends by saying that the “real need is to acknowledge that the Enlightenment had many rival futures from the outset, and could still have many possible versions to come.  The Enlightenment’s legacy for contemporary politics is there to revive, but not by mindlessly putting aside the complexity of historical origins and the problem of alternative outcomes.”  I thank him for describing my approach as “mindless” and his utterly false charge that I put aside the complexity of historical origins.  Here again Moyn has got things historically wrong and philosophically wrong at the same time.  The aristocratic Enlightenment of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume and Frederick the Great collapsed completely in the 1780s and 1790s, never to revive.  No one has ever gone back to their thought-world in recent times and would be laughed at if they did.  It is true that there are still some remnants of the moderate Enlightenment, reconciling reason with religion and tradition, alive today.  Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant in particular have hosts of admirers in their different spheres.  But if one wishes—and many do—to combine secularism with basic human rights, equality both racial and sexual, social and political regulation of the market, democracy and freedom of thought and expression, then neither Kant nor Smith really fit if one analyzes what they are saying in their historical context.  Smith, for instance, was much more a defender of aristocratic domination of society than most of his present-day admirers realize.  Likewise, many of Kant’s modern admirers conveniently forget his deference to monarchy and absolutism as well as to the public church of his day.  It is eminently arguable that the radical package spelt out by what in the late eighteenth century was called la philosophie moderne is actually the only possible way to go philosophically if one wants to uphold modern democratic core values.  But that remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, I think it best for readers to use their own judgment in deciding whether Moyn’s critique ranks him as one of his ”vultures” or simply a “gnat.”

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