Radical Enlightenment

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* Book: Radical Enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. By Jonathan I. Israel. Oxford Uniiv. Pr., 2001


- Blurb: "one of the great historical works of the decade"



- Because he held that motion was inherent in matter and therefore needed no God to nudge it. Hence God's providence became indistinguishable from Nature's laws.

Michel Bauwens, 2004:

What was the Enlightenment ? The French tradition insists on the diffusion of ideas, such as those of Montesqieu, Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, d'Holbach and Rousseau. The English stress the scientific ideas such as those of Locke and Newton, while others claim there were so many differnent ones as there were countries in which it deployed itself.

But Israel insists that the latter claim is wrong, since indeed Europe was greatly integrated at the end of the 17th cy and the beginning of the 18th, and the major works circulated widely. However, next to the mainstream there was also an underestimated radical underground, to which the former works often reacted, and which were heavily influenced by Spinozism.

This was the moment, says the author, when the links of European culture in the sacred, magic, kinship and hierarchy, was effectively severed, and replaced by the principles of universality, equality, and democracy.

Israel starts with the 'age of confessional antagonism', from 1520 to 1650. After the Counter-Reformation, there was also a very strong Counter-Enlightenment, which revitalized traditional authority, with the emergence of new means of intellectual and spiritual control.

An italian observer of 1732, mentioned the following dominant schools:

   - The remaining Aristotelian scholastics
   - The 'moderni Lochisti', i.e. the followers of Locke and Newton
   - The Cartesiani-Malebranchisti
   - The devotees of Leibniz and Wolff
   - and the radical Epicuri-Spinosista

The first was conservative, category 2-4 were moderate partisans of the Enlightenment battling superstition, and the fifth were radicals denying that morality could be based on the attributes of the christian God.

By 1650, a wave of secular and critical thinking submerged Europe, which by 1680 had replaced the inter-confessional squabbles. What was in question was faith itsef and theology lost its prominent place in thinking. The key social and cultural changes took place all over Europe, evidenced for example by the end of the sorcery trials, in the Early Enlightenment, from 1690 to 1750. The more famous 'High Enlightenment', was only a consequence of this. Before that, i.e. after the Counter-Reformation, the four dominant confessions (Catholic, Lutheren, Calvinist, Anglicans) had all achieved regional dominancs, with very effective systems of control against religious dissent, but it was no longer efficient against the myriad challenges to religion itself. The unity of all confessions against Scholastic Aristotelianianism was fast broken by Cartesianism, which divided the Churches, but it never became totally dominant itself. This because its main internal contradiction, warring factions, and challenge by the new system of Leibniz and Vico.

During the confessional strife period, each region and ruler was obliged to take sides and the authorities of the State Church became arbiter of opinion, which had to be 'theologically correct'. Philosophy and science were only of peripheral concern, because it was practiced 'under control'. But this changed with the advent of the New Philosophy after 1650, especially under the impulse of Cartesianism.

There were three failed and violent revolutions in the 1640's, i.e.

- The English Revolution (1640's)

- The Fronde revolt of the nobility in France (1648-1653)

- The short-lived Neapolitan Republic , following the Masaniello insurrection (1647-1648)

Israel also writes about the social conditions which could have promote this new thinking, and finds it in the thriving commercial cities, where a fluid social milieu was being created, but also a 'new public sphere', which thrived with conversations outside of academic and ecclesiastical control, and he notes the creation of new methods of information diffusion, such as the learned journals.

Israel continues with a long review of freedom of expression and censorship throughout Europe, and notes that the latter became a matter of State rather than Church around the middle of the 18th cy, and finds that everywhere, the forces of the moderate Enlightenment did not wish for the freedom to philosophize. Clergy , State, AND moderate philosophers such as Leibniz all wanted the continuation of censorship, and were for the suppression of radical and atheist thought.

J. Israel notes that typical for the 17th cy was the break between natural and the supernatural, but Spinoza was the first with his absolute rejection of the supernatural, since nothing existed outside the one substance that is Nature. The realm of the mine is also part of it, since there is no outside to it, contra Descartes!!. Everything is submitted to the laws of cause and effect.

Regarding politics, Israel notes that Hobbes refers to the concept of 'negative liberty', ie. the sphere left open by the sovereign and the laws of the state. This contrasts with the positive interpretation of freedom by the Republican tradition, of which Spinoza is a prime exponent. Comparing Spinoza to Locke, Israel notes that the latter's toleration only extend to 'believers', and expressly excluded atheists. Spinoza by contrast advocates for true individual freedom of thought, but calls for the limits on large independent churches, so as to protect the state and the individual. In fact, moderates did not advocate for the full freedom to publish, as Spinoza and the radicals did.