Enlightenment–bashing, it would seem, is “in.” If anything could unite the discordant voices inside the cacophony of postmodern “discourse,” it must surely be the almost unanimously acknowledged thesis that the Enlightenment project has exhausted itself. What earlier intellectual historians had so smugly called the “triumph of reason” over obscurantist dogma is now looked on as in reality an imperious (and imperial) Will to Power. Reason’s claim to universality is now regarded as just a cover for Europe’s colonial outreach, the velvet glove of reasonability cloaking the iron fist of its aggressive, hegemonic domination of the rest of the globe. That old shibboleth “the White Man’s Burden” has now taken on a new meaning. What once was seen as a burden of responsibility, set on the shoulders of European man to bring the “light of reason” to other cultures (which cultures must of course by definition be regarded as more benighted), is now seen as a burden of oppression, one that imposes a totalizing and obliterating reason on the kaleidoscopic variety of other cultures.
Even the term “Enlightenment” has come under scrutiny. Not only is it intolerably self–congratulatory and offensively denigrating to other ages and civilizations, but it also subtly blocks from view a motif common to all religions and philosophies: that reason’s light is universal. Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that reason is “the divine in man,” which could hardly imply that any one age has a monopoly on such an inherent light. In fact, as Josef Pieper points out in The Concept of Sin, “this metaphor, the ‘light of reason,’ seems to have made its home in every intellectual tradition of the human race.” So much so, he says, that “one might well wonder whether this image of the light of reason really is a metaphor at all, a mere illustrative expression.”
Common also to the wisdom tradition of religions and philosophies both East and West is the insistence that what blocks that light is not tradition, or religion, or worship, but sin. Offenses against reason always have the effect of “matting” the soul, which is why so many religions speak of sin, or crime, or violations of ritual norms, as a “stain” on the soul and why Thomas Aquinas, for one, can correlatively say: “But if man returns to the light of reason and to the divine light by virtue of grace, then the stain is washed away” (Summa Theologiae 22.214.171.124). Thus religious rituals of confession, purification, penance, and so forth serve to wash away that stain and to restore that light to its pristine splendor. Nor can it be accidental that so many sects and religious or quasi–philosophic movements speak of themselves (or are called by others) the Illuminati, the Alumbrados, or address themselves to the Inner Light, etc. Nor should it be forgotten that when reason is taken to be an endowment common to all human beings, the West usually means by enlightenment the triumph of reason (over sin, tradition, obscurantism, whatever), whereas the East habitually uses the term enlightenment to mean the soul’s triumph over reason, as in the Buddha’s moment of enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.
Moreover, the sweeping term “Enlightenment,” if meant to cover all of European intellectual life from roughly 1600 to 1789, also obscures (ironically, given its name) the sheer variety of thought in that time. As Jonathan I. Israel admits in his massive study, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750, the so–called Enlightenment can actually be divided into four main streams: Cartesian, Newtonian–Lockean, Leibnizian (a kind of synthesis of the previous two), and—the subject of Israel’s book—“Radical,” which in Israel’s taxonomy refers mainly to Spinoza as opposed to, say, Voltaire or Hume. Of course this broad categorization (which could easily be given greater nuance with further subdivisions) only proves the point first made by Judge John T. Noonan, Jr. in his book The Lustre of Our Country, a study of the notion of religious liberty of so–called “Enlightened” Founding Fathers of the Constitution of the United States, especially James Madison. As Noonan points out:
“The Enlightenment,” like its now discredited opposite, “the Dark Ages,” is at best a way of dating a period of history. It does not function well as an analytic guide. A catchword and catchall, the term embraces every extoller of reason from Mr. Locke to M. Voltaire. The intellectual leaders of the age all celebrated reason—a reason that encompassed such a spectrum of religious convictions that the verbal convergence is not helpful in discerning the lines of division.
The real problem with Israel’s focus on Spinoza is that if “radical” means the complete rejection of religion, tradition, faith, revelation, and hieratic authority, then a book of this title should concentrate on Hume or Voltaire—who together seem to have given the Enlightenment its deceptive retrospective meaning as a movement unambiguously hostile to religion. Certainly Israel is correct that the term “Spinozism” was often equivalent in the popular (and underground) press with “atheism.” Yet the fact remains that, judging from Spinoza’s own views, he must be counted as one of the most deeply religious philosophers of post–Cartesian Europe. To be sure, classical theists often accused, and still accuse, Spinoza’s pantheism of being the functional equivalent of atheism, and perhaps the point should be granted. But that still leaves hanging a question that Israel never really addresses: namely, did the way Spinoza was received by intellectuals after his death correspond to the real man? As Don Garrett argues in his Introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, the answer is far from obvious.
Benedict Spinoza appears to be a contradictory figure in the history of philosophy. From the beginning, he has been notorious as an “atheist” who seeks to substitute Nature for a personal deity; yet he was also, in Novalis’ famous description of him, “the God–intoxicated man.” He was an uncompromising necessitarian and causal determinist, whose ethical ideal was to become a “free man.” He maintained that the human mind and the human body are identical, yet he also insisted that the human mind can achieve a kind of eternality that transcends the death of the body. He has been adopted by Marxists as a precursor of historical materialism, and by Hegelians as a precursor of absolute idealism. He was a psychological egoist, proclaiming that all individuals necessarily seek their own advantage above all else and implying that other individuals were of value to himself only insofar as they were useful to him; yet his writings aimed to promote human community based on love and friends, he had many devoted friends, and even his critics were obliged to acknowledge that his personal conduct was above reproach. . . . He denied supernatural revelation, and criticized popular religion as a grave danger to the peace and stability of the state; yet he devoted himself to the careful interrogation of Scripture, and argued for complete toleration of freedom of religion. Providing explicit definitions of his terms and formal demonstrations of his doctrines, he sought to clarify his meaning and reasons more diligently than has perhaps any other philosopher; yet few philosophers have proven more difficult to interpret.
By and large, Israel looks only at the first side of this Janus–faced philosopher, the synagogue excommunicate who so horrified his co–religionists and who, for similar reasons, gave such a delightful frisson to the novel–reading public in France (one of Israel’s most fascinating chapters is devoted to “The Spinozistic Novel in France”). Nor can there be any question that the challenge Spinoza hurled at supernaturalists and his innovations in biblical hermeneutics caused an immense upheaval in European thought, so much so that in comparison, Voltaire looks in Israel’s narrative like the derivative and un original epigone he in fact is.
Which is to say that, provided the reader keeps in mind the author’s main focus on Spinoza’s historical impact—as opposed to the actual man locatable in his own texts—one may judge that Israel has succeeded in his task. Not since the days of A. O. Lovejoy has America seen an intellectual historian of such energy and verve, a scholar with such an impressive command of his sources (not only does he give the impression of having visited nearly every library in Europe but also of having read each volume and manuscript in them).
But it is in the nature of the discipline that a historian of ideas must concentrate either on history or on ideas. Historians of philosophy like Etienne Gilson and James Collins, while brilliant historians, generally wrote to engage their philosophical subjects in an ongoing debate from a particular philosophical perspective, in their cases, a Thomistic one. Israel’s focus, however, is much more strictly historical, as evidenced by his detailed attention to some rather obscure thinkers and novelists of his chosen era, not to mention by the massive amount of documentation he marshals to build his case. Much like the government’s antitrust suit against Microsoft, with box upon box of evidence entered into the record, Israel seems to think that where five citations would clinch his case, seventeen will do even better. And much like a legal brief, the book is published in extremely small print, with the footnotes even tinier.
But let not these demurrals undercut the astonishing achievement of this fascinating work of historical detection. No one could finish this book and not be utterly stunned by the intellectual ferment, not to say outright turmoil, of the years from 1650 to 1750. In his famous book Orthodoxy (1907), G. K. Chesterton spoke of this almost freakishly unsettled discontent in the European mind, a ferment which he felt was its constituting essence:
The highest gratitude and respect are due to the great human civilizations such as the old Egyptian or the existing Chinese. Nevertheless it is no injustice [to these civilizations] to say that only modern Europe has exhibited incessantly this power of self–renewal, recurring often at the shortest intervals and descending to the smallest facts of building or costume. All other societies die finally and with dignity. We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.
These “smallest facts” apparently include novel–reading and library–cataloguing too; and in that area Israel has given us, it seems, all the details. Readers who have the time for it will find that in itself the book constitutes a graduate seminar in Enlightenment historiography (and takes about a semester to read). But because of the author’s rather one–sided reading of Spinoza, the story he tells must be supplemented and counterbalanced by Judge Noonan’s observation of the deep religiosity of the vast majority of “Enlightenment” thinkers. True to form, Israel repeats that hoary old cliché that philosophy had “assuredly [!] been marginal to the life of society since the advent of the Christian empire in late antiquity from the time of Constantine onwards,” a complete distortion of the evidence that neither Collins nor Gilson would ever have dreamt of making. In fact, Chesterton’s whole point was that modern Europe’s dynamism came from the volatile and unstable synthesis forged in the Middle Ages, which itself was due to some foreign, inassimilable element introduced at the Incarnation:
[Christianity] could be ex plained as an awful galvanic life working in what would have been a corpse. For our civilization ought to have died, by all parallels, by all sociological probability, in the . . . [twilight of the gods] of the end of Rome. That is the weird inspiration of our estate: you and I have no business to be here at all. We are all revenants; all living Christians are dead pagans walking about. Just as Europe was about to be gathered in silence to Assyria and Babylon, something entered into its body. And Europe has had a strange life—it is not too much to say that it has had the jumps—ever since.
Viewed in this light, Jonathan Israel is an historian (indeed a brilliant one) of a century–long period filled with an inordinately large number of jumps. But his retrospective interpretation of Spinoza through the lens of his effects on later history leads Israel to forget what made European civilization so jumpy in the first place. After the death of Jesus, a sect of Jewish Messianists jump–started its way into the pagan empire of Rome; then this rabble of gentile lowlifes conquered that same empire before going on to master their masters, the Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine; and now after the demise of the age of European expansion—and the “Radical Enlightenment” notwithstanding—we see the whole world a–jumping. Odd, how flush and ruddy–cheeked are the disciples of Swinburne’s “pale Galilean.”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.