By the seventeenth century, though, new trends in scientific and philosophical thinking began to pose challenges to Aristotelianism. A growing number of thinkers saw naturalistic and mechanistic explanations of events as more accurate than vague references to essences. From a mechanistic point of view, if something moves or changes, it is because something else causes it to move or change. This kind of explanation posed a problem for religious thinkers in the seventeenth century and after. God seemed to be left out of an account of the world that attributed every event to the interaction of bodies. In addition, there seemed to be no room for human thought or awareness in the machine of the universe.
French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) came up with one ingenious and influential solution to the problems posed by mechanism. By carefully reflecting on his own thoughts, Descartes found that the world seemed to be divided into himself as a thinking being and the mechanistic objects outside of himself. This managed to maintain both the supernatural and the scientific mechanisms of nature by splitting them apart. The solution offered by Descartes was frequently viewed with suspicion by leaders of church and state, but there were still some radical thinkers, such as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) who went even further than Descartes and discarded the supernatural altogether.
Jonathan Israel argues, in this comprehensive and detailed volume, that the naturalistic radicals did not merely exist at the fringes of Enlightenment thinking. Although repeatedly denounced by church and state officials and frequently given only covert support even by their followers, the radicals played a central part in the creation of a modern view of the world. The radicals made substantial contributions both to the naturalistic perspective of modern science and to democratizing trends in politics.
Earlier studies of the Enlightenment frequently approached the period as a matter of national politics. Insofar as these studies have understood the Enlightenment as a European occurrence, they have portrayed it as the projection of a single nation’s influence. Those who place France at the center of the events of the time have seen Europe revolving around the writings of the philosophes from Montesquieu to Rousseau. Those in the English school have argued that the empiricism and materialistic philosophies of Locke, Newton, and their colleagues established the current of the era. Israel does acknowledge the importance of French thinkers, although he also maintains that the development of the French Enlightenment was hampered by the hostility of the court of King Louis XIV (ruled 1643-1715). Israel also recognizes that English thinking was widely influential, particularly during the “Anglomania,” the fashion for English ideas and styles that swept through European intellectual life in the 1730s and 1740s. However, he sees the Enlightenment as a continental phenomenon, a set of challenges to received views and social hierarchies that arose in all parts of Europe and took varied forms in response to varied conditions.
Insofar as Israel gives priority to any country in setting the pace of the times, he gives it to the Netherlands. This may, to some extent, be a matter of the author’s professional bias. He specializes in early Modern Dutch history and the academic’s inclination toward seeing his own field as the center of the world may have led him to emphasize the importance of things Dutch. Nevertheless, there are two reasons to accept his argument for Dutch centrality. First, the Dutch Republic was one of Europe’s two freest societies, along with England. Many of the books that more repressive governments attempted to censor and repress elsewhere in Europe were produced in the Netherlands. Second, the greatest intellectual radical of the seventeenth century, Spinoza, was Dutch. Spinoza was an enormously influential figure, who corresponded with Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and many of the other foremost thinkers of the time. Spinoza, also, according to Israel, was one of the foremost proponents of freedom of thought and expression in his age.
Israel’s approach to the Enlightenment is topical rather than chronological. He begins by looking at developments that set the stage for philosophical radicalism. He considers the rise of Cartesianism and its reception by governments in Central Europe, in Scandinavia and the Baltic, and in the Italian states. He discusses the urban social milieu and the changing social institutions that fostered both political and philosophical radicalism. He also describes the relative emancipation of women (at least privileged women) that marked the beginning of the modern period. These efforts at social history, while interesting, may be the weakest part of the book. Israel never seems to make a convincing argument about just what urbanization or women’s increased participation had to do with philosophical radicalism, or to make it clear whether he sees social change as cause or consequence of new thinking. He also gives little attention to the great economic changes of the era, or to how shifts in popular mentalities may have been related to the ideas of intellectual elites. He is on much stronger ground when concentrating on more traditional concerns of intellectual history, and he gives good accounts of how the rise of diversified libraries and the circulation of learned journals assisted the spread of ideas.
In looking at the rise of philosophical roots of modernity, Israel makes his case for Spinoza’s central position. He describes some of the outstanding political and religious figures of the time, many of whom had personal ties to Spinoza. These included Spinoza’s teacher, Franciscus van den Enden (1602-1674), an ardent proponent of democratic republics who was hanged for conspiring against the French King Louis XIV; the brothers Johannes Koerbagh (1634-1672) and Adriaen Koerbagh (1632-1669), who were put on trial for expressing Spinozistic ideas in popular Dutch rather than scholarly Latin; and Lodwijk Meyer (1629-1681), who attempted to use a rationalistic philosophy to interpret Scripture. Israel looks at how Spinoza’s officially banned ideas spread throughout Europe, often secretly published and circulating in books with false title-pages.
Israel places the major intellectual controversies in Europe that followed Spinoza’s death in the context of the rise of naturalistic ideas and he examines the reaction to radicalism in the early eighteenth century. Finally, he discusses how the thoughts of the Radical Enlightenment made quiet progress throughout the nations of continental Europe and England up to 1750. One of the most interesting sections of this last part of the book is in the chapter in which he looks at the radical impact in Italy. The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) has been something of a cult figure among those interested in cyclical theories of history. Twentieth century writer James Joyce is often said to have used Vico’s ideas as the basis for Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Vico, who argued that human societies go through set phases determined by irrational human impulses, is generally seen as deeply conservative and anti-modern. Israel makes a good case for seeing Vico as influenced not only by Enlightenment ideas, but as directly influenced by Spinoza’s works.
Israel also manages to show the pervasive influence of Spinoza on English deism. The deists accepted the existence of God, but saw little room for divine operation in the world, which they saw as functioning according to naturalistic processes of cause and effect. Although it is recognized that Spinoza corresponded with Henry Oldenburg (1620-1677), the secretary of the London Royal Society, historians often portray English and Irish intellectual life as largely isolated from continental Europe. Israel acknowledges that the English tended to be inward-looking and suspicious of foreign influences. Nevertheless, he points out that Spinoza’s ideas were widely debated in England and he identifies Spinoza’s impact on such English radicals as John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1676-1729), Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), and Bernard Mandeville (1670-1730). The English chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) discussed Spinoza’s ideas with Henry Oldenburg and the great English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had all of Spinoza’s books in his library and may have met with followers of the Dutch radical.
At the end, Israel moves beyond his historical period to look at the consequences of the Radical Enlightenment, in the form of the French Revolution. Most historians would regard this event as the defining moment of the beginning of the late modern world. Israel argues that the radical ideas of the mid-seventeenth century through the mid-eighteenth century helped to make the revolution, but that the revolution, in a sense, also helped to re-make those ideas. The revolutionaries and those opposed to them looked back at Spinoza and the other radicals and re-interpreted the thinking of those earlier philosophers. One of the consequences was that many of the early radicals were over-shadowed by the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who derived many of his ideas from the earlier philosophes, but who came to be seen as the chief intellectual symbol of the Revolution.
While it is loosely organized, and often skips abruptly from one topic to another, Radical Enlightenment is an impressive work of scholarship. Erudite and expansive in its scope, the book provides an outstanding survey of trends in intellectual history during early modern times. It clarifies the connection between philosophical materialism and opposition to traditional political hierarchies. It also provides support for a new perspective on Spinoza’s role in the Enlightenment. In his recent biography, Spinoza: A Life, Stephen Nadler argued that the Dutch philosopher was not the social isolate that many have considered him, and that Spinoza was deeply involved in the intellectual networks of his day. Jonathan Israel has convincingly maintained that Spinoza was actually at the center of those networks, not only in the area around the Netherlands, but throughout Europe.