Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jonathan Israel Enlightenment

The other day at Princeton I picked up Jonathan Israel's A Revolution of the Mind published by Princeton University Press. Israel is at the Institute for Advanced Study located in Princeton. It is not, as some believe, and I first thought when learning about it, part of Princeton University. But if you read up on the history of the Institute, it has some very notable figures cut from the same cloth (for instance, among others Albert Einstein and Alan Turing).

The book's thesis is that there were two wings of the Enlightenment, the radical wing and the moderate wing. The radical wing more dominated France's revolution. And although the radical wing was well represented in the American Revolution (by among others Jefferson and Paine) the moderate wing more dominated.

Israel, as a British writer, focuses on Enlightenment as it relates to Western Civilization in general; as it were, the American Enlightenment is just a particular focus in a general movement. He has to deal with grasping a great many figures and Israel sometimes overstates his case or otherwise contentiously analyses historical facts; but on balance he grasps them well.

Regarding Enlightenment and religion, I was happy to see Israel notice (as I have) the special place "providential Deism" and "Christian Unitarianism" had among the Enlightenment thinkers. The book stresses Richard Price and Joseph Priestley to represent radical Enlightenment in England. And also for equal gender representation (an Enlightenment idea!) Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay.

Here is how he deals with Benjamin Rush, that American Enlightenment "Christian":

[H]e had been a fervent Evangelical as a young man. Yet his radical libertarianism stemmed not from this religious background (which he soon abandoned for a highly unconventional kind of Christianity), but from Enlightenment ideas that he avidly absorbed as a student in Edinburgh and in London and Paris in the years 1766-1769, when he met Hume, Ferguson, Diderot, ... Macaulay, and other Enlightenment figures. He switched to radical ideas because skepticism, having destroyed his confidence in conventional political notions, led him to suspect, as he put it, "error in everything" he had previously been taught in America.

... Rush became an advocate of liberty, equality, and fraternity in which all men would share. ... After returning to his homeland, Rush became a famous medical and political reformer, and in religion, from 1780, for some years an advocate of "Universalism" -- that is, the doctrine of universal salvation of souls irrespective of belief or behavior, the only theology that renders all souls equal and considers union between all the Christian denominations a necessity if "corrupted" Christianity is to be eradicated and mankind's interest promoted. Like the Unitarians, to whom he was close, Rush stressed one's obligations to the entire human race, opposing all theology dividing Christians into separate denominations. Aspiring to unify reason with religion, he proposed stripping away practically all traditional theology. (pp. 42-43.)

My biggest disappointment with the book is its, at times, abstruse prose. This is a problem from which many academic book suffer. Parts of the book could use a rewrite.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The French Revolution has been malaigned, due to the context in which it occurred, I believe. (but there is debate about this idea)..

Though there was a "Crown" over America as a colony, it was not and established power, in the minds of those that came to America. These sought liberty of one kind or another.

The American Revolution, just as the French Revolution, became a revolt from the abuse of power. The poor peasants in France were only "serfs" under the King, while those on our shores, were not timid souls. These saw themselves as independent of/from power and sought to express their own values in a 'different land' creating a different form of government!

Liberty of expression, and liberty from power, whether political or religious, were a value in our country. Some still chose to live under the concept of "power from or given by God" and this was the concept of the religious of "Providence", but to the "enlightened" it was the order and form of government under law. The "rule of law" was to protect the interests of life, and the pursuit of happiness for each citizen.

But, at the same time, while "Providence" was understood and accepted as "God over history". The Founders understood too well, the cyclical cycle/nature of history and power, therefore, they sought to build checks and balances to prevent an "empowered class" that ended up being a "new nobility.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yup---just as I always nag. The academics rewrote history into their own image, bumping the religion of the Founding out for "reason," i.e., "the "Enlightenment."

If the Enlightenment was not, in fact, primarily a French phenomenon, why have we been led to think it was? Part of the answer is that the French had both the last and loudest word. As Gay and the others have noted, the French served as ‘propagandists’ for the Enlightenment, while its ‘patron saints and pioneers’ were largely British. Since the eighteenth century, the doctrine that the Enlightenment was the Age of Reason has been perpetuated by the teaching and (text)books of historians. And as historians are intellectuals, who would naturally flock, as birds of a feather, to those who emphasize the mind over the instincts and feelings, Reason over Sentiment. It makes sense, then, to suppose that unthinkingly (so much for Reason) the French Enlightenment became for them, and their students, and then their students, the Enlightenment simpliciter. That would explain the “posthumous victory of the French over the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment,” which as Irving Kristol points out, has itself been “a major event in the intellectual history of the West.”

And if you read the whole article, the Scottish Enlightenment, which was what inspired America, was very suspicious of "reason."

The Scottish thinkers, like their French confreres, found plenty of reason for optimism; it’s just that their reason was not Reason. Their philosophy rests on the premise that nature steers us in a positive direction, not the other way around. As Reid dryly notes:

Reason, if it were perfect, would lead men to use the proper means of preserving their own lives and continuing their kind. But the Author of our being hath not thought fit to leave this task to reason alone, otherwise the race would long ago have been extinct.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes I know we need to revisit Reid.