Life in the shadow of Spinoza

Radical Enlightenment
December 21, 2001

Jonathan Israel began his academic career by charting the intricate movements of commodities and merchants on which the prosperity of the Dutch Republic depended. His most recent and deeply impressive contribution to our understanding of early-modern culture is about an equally risky European trade, this time in the ideas that constituted what Margaret Jacob first described as the Radical Enlightenment. Writing 20 years ago, Jacob distinguished two strands of Enlightenment thought. On the one hand, there was a moderate position espoused by philosophers such as Voltaire and d'Alembert, who were confident that the triumph of philosophical reason was compatible with established forms of Christianity and hierarchical government. On the other hand, there was a more radical stance adopted by those who believed that a rational metaphysics undermined the central tenets of Christian dogma, and in doing so posed a challenge to the church and the entire political order of which it was a part.

Israel has now developed and modified Jacob's argument. Where she acknowledged several intellectual sources of the Radical Enlightenment, he claims that it can be traced specifically to Holland and to the influence of Spinoza, whom he characterises as "the supreme philosophical bogeyman of early Enlightenment Europe". Although other figures have some claim to be counted as radicals, none of them "remotely rivalled Spinoza's notoriety as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality and what was everywhere regarded, in absolutist and non-absolutist states alike, as divinely constituted political authority".

Before 1650, Israel maintains, European intellectual debate was carried on within a Christian framework and focused on confessional issues. But in the second half of the century this consensus began to break up, and within 50 years Spinozism had spread "from Spain to Russia, Scandinavia to Sicily", provoking an international crisis of intellectual confidence. Despite the efforts of traditionalists and moderates to halt its progress, it created the philosophical matrix for the secular, materialist ideology around which our own cultural and political life is organised. Spinoza, an excommunicated Jew who died in 1677, emerges as the prophet in whose shadow we all dwell.

This claim to extraordinary fame derives, according to Israel, from Spinoza's unique ability to forge a sequence of radical claims into a systematic philosophy. In his most sustained work, The Ethics , Spinoza defended the view (outrageous by the standards of orthodox Judaism or Christianity) that the world is not the work of a God who exists independently of it and privileges humans over the rest of his creation. Rather, God is immanent in nature and manifests himself in the laws that govern a natural world of which humans are only a tiny and insignificant part. Just as it is a mistake to think of humans as creatures outside the causal nexus of nature, so it is a mistake to conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms as the kind of being whose love or jealousy might explain what happens to us.

This onslaught on Christian metaphysics paved the way for a further argument, developed in the Tractatus Theologico - Politicus , about the relations between faith and reason. If God is not the sort of being who intervenes on our behalf in the natural course of events, then there are no miracles, and one of the most powerful reasons for believing that the Bible contains revealed truths is undercut. To understand the Old and New Testaments, we do not need to resort to faith, but must bring our reason to bear and study them as historical texts. When we do so, we shall discover that their central message is the simple and accessible one that true religion consists in loving God (in Spinoza's sense of God) and loving one's neighbour. It does not require us to subscribe to any particular doctrines or practices, and priests are no better placed than philosophers to interpret it.

If a rational society has no need of a dogmatic religion, what kind of polity does Spinoza favour? Although his metaphysics rules out the possibility that God chooses individual rulers, and so excludes any appeal to the divine right of kings, it does not deliver a single positive view. The point of the state, as Spinoza sees it, is to guarantee peace and security, and different types of constitutions may achieve this goal with equal success at different periods of history. For 17th-century Dutchmen, however (and this is the conclusion Israel stresses) the best kind of government is a democratic republic - that is to say, a society in which male, propertied citizens elect representatives and take part in decision-making. Moreover, if a republic is to flourish, it must allow its citizens religious liberty and also give them freedom to philosophise. Instead of conforming to the universal European practice of suppressing radical ideas and writings, it should tolerate these as far as political stability allows.

The common belief that Spinoza was a retiring and scholarly man whose shocking philosophy was largely ignored by his contemporaries is, Israel argues, drastically misleading. He establishes this revisionist claim with the enthusiasm and immense erudition that his readers have come to expect, so that Radical Enlightenment is a vastly rich source of fascinating information and suggestive ideas. As well as identifying circles of intellectuals who shared all or some of Spinoza's convictions, and providing detailed analyses of their works, Israel reveals the extent to which "Spinozist" (roughly comparable to "communist" in cold-war culture) was bandied about by their anxious opponents. He traces the sometimes clandestine routes by which Spinozist doctrines were disseminated, and the sometimes brutal attempts by governments, churches and universities to destroy them. What emerges is a fragile, radical milieu, set against a somewhat paranoid and divided establishment.

Israel's book makes a notable contribution to our understanding of the complexity of early-modern philosophy, and the significance of its argument is historiographical and philosophical. He insists, in the first place, that the intellectual foundations of modern thought were laid before 1740, much earlier than historians have realised. In addition, they were laid throughout Europe, so that no single nation (except perhaps Holland) can justly claim to be the cradle of the Radical Enlightenment. At a philosophical level, Israel's thesis helps to undermine the still widespread assumption that an enlightened naturalism evolved smoothly out of the new science. As well as underestimating the contentiousness of the mechanical philosophy (at the end of the 17th century, for example, Cartesianism was banned throughout much of Europe), this view turns its back on the fierce conflict between "atheism" and established religion, which had to be resolved before an enlightened culture could take hold. It is because Spinozism addressed this problem that it was at once so central and so dangerous, becoming the philosophy around which the differences between the radical and moderate strands of enlightenment thought revolved.

Spinoza is indeed an entrancing philosopher, and it is easy to sympathise with the desire to place him on a pinnacle. Nevertheless, Israel seems to me to press his central claim far too hard. When he asks rhetorically whether it is likely or conceivable that a single figure could be responsible for the entire radical wing of the European Enlightenment, his answer should, in my view, be no. To avoid this uninspiring conclusion, he squeezes his findings into a philosophical straitjacket that distorts and oversimplifies their shape.

The oversimplifications begin with a reading of Spinoza's philosophy that is designed to establish him as the unparalleled cham-pion of an unequivocally radical position. Israel writes, for example, that Spinoza regards miracles, including biblical prophecies, as "purely mental constructions in men's minds, with no objective reality". Putting aside the fact that nothing is "purely mental" in Spinoza's philosophy, Israel's point is that Spinoza offers a naturalistic account of prophecies, as insights available only to people with exceptional powers of imagination. That they are disjoined from revelation is surely radical enough. But this is not to say that they have no objective reality. Although Israel does not mention this, Spinoza provides rules for distinguishing "true" from "false" prophecies and allows that true prophecies yield morally certain knowledge. At this point he sounds less like a modern atheist than like the 17th-century philosopher he was, struggling to enunciate a form of naturalism in which nature manifests divine perfection.

More central to Israel's style of argument is his tendency to sweep any thinker who holds remotely radical views into the Spinozist camp, riding roughshod over inconvenient distinctions. Epicureanism, for instance, gets conflated with Spinozism, while Spinoza's monism is misleadingly identified with materialism. This extreme approach mimics that of the nervous traditionalists - whose anxieties Israel documents so brilliantly - who spied a Spinozist behind every bush. At the same time, it obscures the fact that the various doctrines Israel identifies as radical were much less tightly interconnected than he is prepared to acknowledge. It was possible, in the latter part of the 17th century, to be a republican without abandoning Christian metaphysics, a defender of popular sovereignty without advocating a democratic constitution, and a metaphysical vitalist without abandoning one's faith in divine revelation. These diverse positions developed within a range of contexts, each with its own motivations and preoccupations, and contributed more or less directly (and sometimes barely at all) to the cultural transformation that forms the telos of Israel's narrative. To assimilate them all to Spinozism is to render a delicate and contoured landscape as flat as Holland itself.

Susan James is a professor of philosophy, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750

Author - Jonathan Israel
ISBN - 0 19 820608 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 810

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