Study Guide

Radical Enlightenment

by Jonathan I. Israel

Radical Enlightenment Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

By the end of the European Middle Ages, a Christianized version of Aristotelian philosophy had achieved the status of the official Western interpretation of the world and of the place of human beings in the world. According to Aristotelian scholasticism, things are made up of matter and form. Form comes from an essence or soul within all things that also joins each form inseparably with its substance. The essence of each thing also determines how it develops and interacts with other things. Scientific thinking, from the late Middle Ages through the Early Modern period, generally involved classifying and explaining things according to their innate qualities. This view of the world, with its emphasis on essences, was consistent with the idea of souls in Christian theology and with the idea that the universe is purposeful, consisting of movement toward ends created by divine design. It was also consistent with the established political order, because political inequality among people was the result of placement decreed by God according to inborn essences.

By the seventeenth century, however, new trends in scientific and philosophical thinking began to pose challenges to Aristotelianism. A growing number of thinkers saw naturalistic and mechanistic explanations of events as more accurate than vague references to essences. From a mechanistic point of view, if something moves or changes, it is because something else causes it to move or change. This kind of explanation posed a problem for religious thinkers in the seventeenth century and after. God seemed to be left out of an account of the world that attributed every event to the interaction of bodies. In addition, there seemed to be no room for human thought or awareness in the machine of the universe.

French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) came up with one ingenious and influential solution to the problems posed by mechanism. By carefully reflecting on his own thoughts, Descartes found that the world seemed to be divided into himself as a thinking being and the mechanistic objects outside of himself. This managed to maintain both the supernatural and the scientific mechanisms of nature by splitting them apart. The solution offered by Descartes was frequently viewed with suspicion by leaders of church and state, but there were still some radical thinkers, such as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) who went even further than Descartes and discarded the supernatural altogether.

Jonathan Israel argues, in this comprehensive and detailed volume, that the naturalistic radicals did not merely exist at the fringes of Enlightenment thinking. Although repeatedly denounced by church and state officials and frequently given only covert support even by their followers, the radicals played a central part in the creation of a modern view of the world. The radicals made substantial contributions both to the naturalistic perspective of modern science and to secular, democratizing trends in politics.

Earlier studies of the Enlightenment have frequently approached the period as a matter of national politics. Insofar as these studies have understood the Enlightenment as a European occurrence, they have portrayed it as the projection of a single nation’s influence. Those who place France at the center of the events of the time have seen Europe revolving around the writings of the philosophes from Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755) to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788). Those in the English school have argued that the empiricism and materialistic philosophies of John Locke (1632-1704), Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and their colleagues established the current of the era. Israel does acknowledge the importance of French thinkers, although he also maintains that the development of the French Enlightenment was hampered by the hostility of the court of King Louis XIV (ruled 1643-1715). Israel also recognizes that English thinking was widely influential, particularly during the “Anglomania,” the fashion for English ideas and styles that swept through European intellectual life in the 1730’s and 1740’s. However, he sees the Enlightenment as a continental phenomenon, a set of challenges to received views and social hierarchies that arose in all parts of Europe and took varied forms in response to varied conditions.

Insofar as Israel gives priority to any country in setting the pace of the times, he gives it to the Netherlands. Some readers may feel that this is simply the author’s professional bias. He specializes in Early Modern Dutch history and the academic tendency to see one’s own field as the...

(The entire section is 1869 words.)