The Enlightenment That Failed: A book review by Bob Morris

The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830
Jonathan I. Israel
Oxford University Press (January 2020)

A brilliant examination of previously unexplored dimensions of the Radical Enlightenment thesis

Those who have a passionate interest in world history are blessed to have Jonathan Israel’s contributions to thought leadership, providing insights that are accessible to non-scholars such as I. His erudition is wide and deep. I am amazed, frankly, by his mastery of both the macro and micro dimensions of historiography, whenever and wherever the given focus may be.

For example, in The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848,  Israel makes brilliant use of pyrotechnical metaphors when tracing the process by which thirteen colonies eventually achieved their independence from what was then the most powerful nation in the western hemisphere. He provides a brilliant examination of “the crucible of demographic modernity.”

Having formulated his Radical Enlightenment thesis years ago, Israel extends the project’s core themes in The Enlightenment that Failed “by reaching back before 1650 to consider the underground movements of the ‘Radical Renaissance’ and ‘radical Reformation’ in relationship to the Enlightenment, and forwards to encompass a range of relevant contexts thus far not covered or brought together, such as women’s emancipation, black emancipation, rcwe theory, the rise of the Spanish American republics, education reform, law reform, and the advent of economics and especially post-1789 revolutionary upheavals in the trans-Atlantic world and the early nineteenth century. This volume also addresses key objections raised in the escalating controversy surrounding the thesis.”was finally and definitely

In or near the downtown area of most large cities, there is a farmer’s market at which merchants offer slices of fresh fruit at samples of their wares.In that same spirit, I now offer four of the passages that caught my eye, also listed to suggest the thrust and flavor of Israel’s analysis:

o “Following the failure of the 1848-9 revolutions, and armed clashes in Paris between socialists and radicals, leading to the demise of the Second French Republic, Radical Enlightenmentwas finally and definitively marginalized. Opposed by most of society from the outset, the ‘Enlightenment that failed’ remains vehemently contested today.”  (Page 33)

o “For radical enlighteners, Locke’s ‘confusion’ [about the substance of man] regarding, soul, body, and substance, free will, and necessity, and the colossal muddle he lent his name to, to underpin theology, urgently needed sweeping aside, and precisely this was accomplished by [Anthony] Collins in his Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717), a treatise brought to Priestley’s attention by the deist schoolmaster Peter Annet (1693-1769); it was a work [Joseph] Priestley judged ‘sufficiently methodical and concise to give intire satsfaction to every unprejudiced person.'” (154)

o “Adversaries socially, politically, and religiously, in terms of intellectual ferment and interaction of ideas, there can be little doubt that Leo Strauss was right to maintain that the moderate Enlightenment, or at least its man compromises, was the Radical Enlightenment’s best friend. It was this especially that made the 1814-15 Restoration so widely and often a bitterly disheartening and disappointing experience not just for hard-core legitimists, reactionaries, and militatnt religionists but for a veryt large number of disappointed worldly noble émigrés, dispossessed ecclesiastics, and outcast princelings.

If the Enlightenment registered an immense impact on the world’s population in the half century down to 1800, it is no less true that it continued to do so during the first third of the nineteenth century in ways that remained no less divisive than they had earlier.” (771)

o “Profiling the Radical Enlightenment as philosophical rejection of religious authority tied democratizing republicanism helps show how precisely it was that differentiates the novel elements of the late-seventeenth century nascent Radical Enlightenment from earlier, pre-1650 clandestine philosophical-theological revolt against the prevailing religious, social, and political order — that is, from the Radical Renaissance rooted in rediscovery of Lucretius, on the one hand, and, on the other, key currents of Radical Reformation rooted especially in Socinianism.” (923)

The quality as well as the scope and depth of Jonathan Israel’s erudition suggests that he is a polymath. In this volume, he provides dozens of notes at the conclusion of each of 29 chapters and the Conclusion. Also, he provides a 90-page Bibliography (Pages 942-1032) and an abundant Index that facilitates, indeed expedites cross-references between and among major developments in historiography. Fortunately, also, his writing style is lively as well as eloquent.

Those who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out aforementioned The Expanding Blaze as well as Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and Democratic Enlightenment (2011). These sources will clarify and enrich “our sense of the Enlightenment’s unity, universal pretentions, and cosmopolitan flavor, as well as near local reach, and our sense of its continuing relevance to society and politics today.”

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