I have been in Brussels  to attend a conference on the Radical Enlightenment, and to interview Jonathan Israel, the keynote speaker, for an essay I am writing about his work and argument. Israel has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his superlative trilogy published over the past decade: Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlightenment. At the heart of his argument is his insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.

The argument, as can be imagined, has created considerable controversy.I will publish the interview in time. In the meanwhile, to give a measure of Israel’s argument, and of its importance not just in rethinking the Enlightenment but also to contemporary debates, here is an extract from Enlightenment Contested on the question of equality and the Radical Enlightenment.

From Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested, pp. 545-51

enlightenment contested

Among the most divisive and potentially perplexing of all basic concepts introduced by the Radical Enlightenment into the make-up of modernity, and one of the most revolutionary in its implications, was, and is the idea of equality…

As Tom Paine points out in his Rights of Man (1790, the notion of basic equality is impossible without first demonstrating, and winning assent to, the idea of the ‘unity of man’ and forging the corresponding concept of a ‘general interest’ in which all share equally. For without this, there is no way of coherently arguing that men, as he put it, ‘are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right’… At first glance nothing could be less obvious than such a fundamental ‘unity of man’, something first proposed – and with great brilliance – by Hobbes; or indeed, less obvious than its presumed consequence: that men share (often without acknowledging the fact) in a universal equality applying at all times and places irrespective of historical context and social structure and essential to any genuinely secular system of politics, law, morality, and society.

In a Europe long dominated by kings, princes and nobles, saturated in the culture of courts and courtiers, to speak of fundamental equality and the unity of man – after the state of nature – must have seemed to almost everyone, aside from the radicals, to be going against the grain of reality, to be lost in chimeras. The churches and their doctrine of immortal souls perhaps came closest to establishing a notion of equality; but they too had, nevertheless, always proclaimed a fundamental duality or spiritual hierarchy, based on New Testament authority, between those who believe and those who do not, as well as, ultimately, between those who are ‘saved’ and those condemned to eternal damnation. In the gospel, Salvation is proclaimed to be through faith, creating an immovable, indeed an eternal, yardstick segregating the saved from the damned, those who possess the kingdom of Heaven from those who will not; and even if living men have no way of ascertaining for sure which is which in this life, in practice, the saved hardly seemed to encompass self-confessed unbelievers, atheists, agnostics, idolaters, infidels, Confucianists, heretics, reprobates, adulterers, and schismatics.

Locke’s (and the Arminians’) stress on equality of human consciences may, then, perhaps have helped ground the mainstream Enlightenment’s conception of toleration and made some wider contribution to the new idea of equality, but it is not clear that it did and, if so, it can have been only a subsidiary contribution. For Locke’s vision of humanity was too deeply anchored in theological concerns to be secularized in the direction required by more radical, democratic, and republican thinkers. In addition, the fact that Locke’s political ideas arose in the entourage of the first earl of Shaftesbury, in circumstances connecting him not just to the world of colonial enterprise, and the expansion of black slavery in the Americas, as numerous historians have pointed out, but also to the centrality of hereditary aristocracy in the functioning of English mixed monarchy, was an inevitable barrier. His great patron, Shaftesbury, had backed Parliament against Charles I, and then supported Cromwell; but he was also one of the movers of the royalist Restoration of 1660. However resolute against royal absolutism, at bottom, he, like Locke, stood for mixed government, limited monarchy, and institutionalized aristocracy.

For Locke, what basic equality, between men and women, and between social superiors and inferiors, besides fundamental inequality between man and animals, ultimately amounts to is Man’s capability of mind insofar as this renders men universally fit to organize this life and to learn the ‘way that leads to a better’, that is ‘knowledge of their Maker, and the sight of their own duties’, a stance tying his philosophy inextricably to theological premises. By contrast, it was not… religious conviction, or indeed compassion for the poor, which pushed the more radical philosophes, almost in spite of themselves, into formulating and discussing theories of equality but the powerful logic of the radicalized versions of the new philosophy itself…

The quest for equality… was driven by the need for an abstract conceptual device with which to justify schemes of mass politics and an incipient secular morality, especially notions of popular sovereignty and accountability to the people. True virtue as conceived by the moral philosophy of the Radical Enlightenment is something which by definition has no basis in custom, tradition, revelation, or theological doctrines, and is only found… in the philosophical principle of the natural equality of all men… if no God-ordained order exists, or at least cannot be demonstrated philosophically, what meaningful alternative is there to grounding morality, politics and social theory on a systematic, generalized radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons?’


  1. We are still in the habit of defending and maintaining freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, freedom of thought and so on as the bedrock that will guarantee a society free from the ossified doctrines of the past that deny all of these freedoms. However out of the reign of reason there are modern ‘isms’ that that claim to have a universal reach while challenging this bedrock. The political and religious fundamentalist ‘isms’ have claimed the natural equality of all men under very specific conditions such as the Umma/Sharia law, communism, and the Christian imperative to convert unbelievers to the universal values contained in christian doctrine. They all believe we are all equal under god or the proletarian dictatorship. The exception to this is fascism which challenges enlightenment ideas about the universal reach of equal rights for all in a kind of revanchist reclaiming of national/racial identity against the universalism and mongrolisation of the Bolshevik/Jewish world view. A view that can be traced back to enlightenment thinking.

    The problem still remains about how to develop a meaningful grounding as highlighted by Jonathan Israel. I suspect for the time being we have to hold on to and vigorously defend the above enlightenment values already mentioned.

  2. I recently finished Israel’s Radical Enlightenment… at over 700 pages, it was a major test of endurance and I regret to say that I don’t think I have it in me to read the other two volumes. I learned a lot about the key players initiating the enlightenment movement, but I just found myself overwhelmed with too many details I could have done without, and I struggled to maintain the key threads. Israel’s thesis is however very intriguing and I very much look forward to your essay exploring his arguments.

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