Where Do We Come From?

by David A. Bell | February 8, 2012

Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790
By Jonathan I. Israel
(Oxford University Press, 1,066 pp., $45)

I.

There’s something about the Enlightenment. Today, few educated men and women spend much time debating whether Western civilization took a disastrously wrong turn in the High Middle Ages. They do not blame all manner of political ills on Romanticism, or insist that non-Western immigrants adopt Renaissance values. But the Enlightenment is different. It has been held responsible for everything from the American Constitution to the Holocaust. It has been defended as the birthplace of human rights and condemned as intolerant, cold, abstract, imperialist, racist, misogynist, and anti-religious. Edmund Burke, in one of the most eloquent early attacks, excoriated “this new conquering empire of light and reason.” One hundred fifty years later, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno declared bluntly that “enlightenment is totalitarian.” It remains very hard to shake the sense that something fundamental about the modern world owes its form to the intellectual revolutions of eighteenth-century Europe—and that to repair the world, we may need to start by identifying what those revolutions got wrong.

As in all such intellectual controversies, misunderstandings abound, for no one can even agree on what is being argued about. Everything about “the Enlightenment”—its unity, its goals, its methods, its chronological and geographical boundaries—remains in dispute, providing activity, if not always gainful employment, for a sizeable academic industry. While some scholars limit the Enlightenment to a small cadre of eighteenth-century philosophes, others identify it with tendencies in Western thought that may stretch all the way back to classical antiquity. The title phrase of Kant’s famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?” is a question that has launched a thousand—ten thousand!—dissertations.

Despite this strife and confusion, over the past century a few scholars have dared not only to define and survey “the Enlightenment” as a whole, but also to proclaim its unity and to defend it forcefully against its critics. Interestingly, the most prominent among them have been secular-minded European-born Jews who perhaps feel gratitude to the Enlightenment for their social and intellectual freedom. In 1932, the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer, who later fled to America, published The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, which traced the development of critical reason through the eighteenth century. Subtle and difficult, the book showed how the same patterns of thought emerged in the realms of epistemology, religious thought, historical thought, and aesthetics. Overall, Cassirer argued that the heart of Enlightenment philosophy lay in a dialectical interaction between the great schools of Descartes and Leibniz, and that it culminated in what he saw as one of the great achievements of the human mind: German idealism. Cassirer took for a motto Spinoza’s lovely injunction, “Smile not, lament not, nor condemn, but understand.” But he concluded, in implicit response to criticisms of the Enlightenment’s supposed sterile rationalism, with a measured celebration of its ability “to reconvert criticism to creative activity.”

A generation later, Peter Gay, born Peter Fröhlich, a childhood refugee from the Nazis, published his own synthesis, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Shifting the focus to political and social thought, Gay also cast the Enlightenment as a dialectical process, in his case a Freudian one. (He would later publish an impressive biography of Freud and write an explicitly Freudian history of bourgeois culture.) In Gay’s telling, a “little flock” of philosophes, taking inspiration from classical antiquity, engaged in a filial rebellion against their Christian heritage, emerging as “modern pagans” and establishing the “science of freedom.” The word “science” mattered as much as “freedom” to Gay, for he highlighted the Enlightenment’s dedication to empiricism and experimentation, contrasting it forcefully to religious systems of belief, and also to the sort of rationalism that rested upon deduction from a priori principles. And his dialectic did not culminate in a philosophical achievement, but in the American Revolution, which Gay (grateful immigrant and friend of Richard Hofstadter) called “the program in practice.”

Since the appearance of Gay’s work in the late 1960s, his and Cassirer’s visions of a unified and largely beneficent Enlightenment have not fared well. Postmodern critics, taking inspiration from Horkheimer and Adorno, among others, have blasted a hyper-rationalist “Enlightenment project” that supposedly enabled modern racism and imperialism, among other sins. In the hands of Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment’s universalism and confidence came off looking distinctly sinister and repressive. Meanwhile, historical scholarship has moved toward expanding and fragmenting the subject. Inspired by the redoubtable historian of political thought J.G.A. Pocock, much of the current generation of historians likes to speak of “multiple Enlightenments,” including religious, conservative, and Caribbean Enlightenments, a whole variety of national European Enlightenments, and even, perhaps, an English Enlightenment.

At its best, this new research has moved away from Gay’s narrow concentration on a handful of mostly Parisian philosophes. It has cast the Enlightenment as a broad and complex cultural movement that turned cities such as Edinburgh and Naples into exciting intellectual marketplaces, and that involved booksellers, journalists, salon hostesses, freemasons, liberal theologians, and many other foot soldiers of Burke’s “conquering empire.” Yet this more diversified scholarship has sometimes seemed to fracture the subject so deeply as to render the term “Enlightenment” almost meaningless.

 

OVER THE PAST decade, flying directly against these two tendencies, there has appeared a third champion of a united and beneficial Enlightenment: Jonathan I. Israel, a distinguished English historian who first made his reputation working on the early modern Netherlands. Democratic Enlightenment is the third of three massive volumes, totaling nearly three thousand pages. Whereas Cassirer and Gay and other scholars limited themselves mostly to the eighteenth century, Israel burrows back deep into the seventeenth century. Whereas Cassirer and Gay and other scholars concentrated on France, Germany, and Scotland, Israel’s first volume gave pride of place to the Netherlands, and this most recent one soars over a dazzling variety of landscapes. Like Cassirer and Gay, Israel sees a fundamental tension at the heart of the Enlightenment, in his case between the tendencies that he labels “radical” and “moderate.” He goes so far as to speak of “two consciously opposed and rival enlightenments.” But unlike Cassirer and Gay, he is no dialectician. For him, the only truly significant Enlightenment was the radical one.

In Israel’s account, this “Radical Enlightenment” took shape as a coherent “package” of ideas in seventeenth-century Holland, around the titanic figure of Baruch Spinoza. For Israel, it is not enough to say that this brilliant Jewish-born Dutch philosopher challenged European thought with his contention that the entire universe is composed of a single fundamental substance, rather than divided into material and spiritual realms. Israel insists on “an inextricable and universal connection” between Spinoza’s “monist” philosophy and “genuinely democratic radical politics.” From the very start, he argues, the “Radical Enlightenment” bore the seeds of modern democracy, social equality, religious toleration, freedom of expression, and even sexual equality and toleration of homosexuality. The moderate Enlightenment that rose up to challenge it was a weak imitation, all too willing to trim its sails and compromise with existing beliefs, practices, and institutions.

Most of what today goes by the name of “the Enlightenment,” without a modifying adjective, properly belongs, in Israel’s view, to this latter moderate movement. But he confers his most sustained and sympathetic attention upon the radicals, whom he sees as carrying on in the face of heavy persecution, elaborating upon but not fundamentally altering the original monist “package,” and eventually bringing about the French Revolution in 1789. It is this event, rather than its American counterpart a few years earlier, that Israel takes as the culmination of the Enlightenment—but only the revolution’s initial liberal phase. Somewhat paradoxically, he associates the French Revolution’s later descent into the Reign of Terror with the supposedly less tolerant “Moderate Enlightenment,” and casts Robespierre as the true heir of the moderates (on which subject he promises yet another hefty volume).

There is a great deal to criticize in the series as a whole, and in Democratic Enlightenment in particular. But there is also a great deal to praise. Israel’s work now stands as the most monumentally comprehensive history of the Enlightenment ever written. The scope is absolutely stunning. Sources parade by in English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Here, a footnote testifies to explorations in the National Archive and Library of Bolivia; there, to material dug out of the Wrocław University Library. Halfway through this newest book, Israel tells us how the Spanish Inquisition put the Peruvian-born writer Pablo de Olavide on trial, confiscated his property, and sentenced him to eight years of re-education in a monastery. Three chapters later we have moved on to a Cherokee chieftain named Dragging Canoe. And a hundred pages after that, we get an informative disquisition on Rangaku, or the Japanese study of the West, with Israel learnedly telling us that the word was actually an abbreviation of Oranda-gaku, or “Holland-knowledge.”

 

ISRAEL ALSO INSISTS, admirably, on taking ideas seriously as motive forces in history. In the years since Peter Gay’s synthesis, historians of the Enlightenment and revolutionary eras largely turned away from the straight history of ideas, embracing various forms of social and cultural analysis in its place. While this shift brought many benefits, it could also have some strange effects. Twenty years ago, for instance, the French historian Roger Chartier produced a book called The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, which included no discussion whatsoever of the ideas of major Enlightenment thinkers. As far as political change was concerned, Chartier maintained that the content of books mattered less than the way they were read, which in turn depended on changing social practices. The thesis was seductive—after all, books do not generally impress their ideas upon readers like seals on soft wax.

But generalizing about readers as a whole does not necessarily explain radical historical change. It is the frustrated, hotheaded, eccentric minority of readers who start and lead radical movements. And as Israel’s work has made very clear, Enlightenment books did indeed have a life-changing effect on some such readers. In Democratic Enlightenment, he argues forcefully that we cannot ignore the striking overlap between the ideas that they absorbed and then passed on, often at great risk, and the ideas that triumphed, if sometimes only briefly, in the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

The first two volumes of Israel’s opus have already provoked enormous debate. Antoine Lilti, perhaps France’s most talented younger historian, subjected them to a particularly searching critique in the pages of the venerable journal Annales, challenging Israel on nearly every aspect of his thesis. Did Spinoza’s work really have all the social and political implications that Israel attributes to it? Did a coherent “Radical Enlightenment” really take shape in the way Israel suggests, achieving such strong ideological unity as to constitute a veritable intellectual party? Did its ideas have the reach and the durability that Israel claims? Throughout his work, Israel relies heavily on assertions about “Spinozism” made by eighteenth-century polemicists; but as Lilti observed, these writers used “Spinozism” as a scare word, to tar their enemies with the brush of atheism, and many alleged “Spinozists” were nothing of the sort. Critics have also chastised Israel for largely neglecting Enlightenment attempts to develop a “science of society” (led by “moderates” like Montesquieu), and for failing to prove the necessary link between philosophical monism and modern liberal values. It is hardly insignificant, after all, that the most prominent self-proclaimed “materialists” of the twentieth century were communist totalitarians. Israel has responded to the criticisms at length, although he believes so passionately in his thesis that he has often found it difficult to take his critics seriously. The debate shows no sign of slackening.

 

II.

YET Democratic Enlightenment does not merely continue the debate. It takes it to a new level with Israel’s claim that the “Radical Enlightenment” brought about the French Revolution. Israel only comes to the revolution itself in the last two hundred pages of this massive book, but it represents the climax of his entire enterprise. It is the moment at which, in Israel’s view, the promise of the Enlightenment began to be realized, but then, tragically, was “arrested by kings, aristocracy, and Robespierre’s Counter-Enlightenment.” (Israel’s fourth volume, if it materializes, might well be called Enlightenment Betrayed.) The interpretation is deeply ambitious, deeply provocative, and deeply problematic.

As Israel himself notes at length, his interpretation is not exactly new. At the end of the eighteenth century, radicals and reactionaries alike attributed the French Revolution to what they called “philosophy.” Radicals saw it as liberating the French from the shackles of superstition; reactionaries, as clouding minds with beguiling lies. Both accounts were self-interested enough to be treated with serious suspicion, and for the past two hundred years most historians have done exactly that. Even those who took Enlightenment ideas seriously as a contributing factor came to prefer interpretations that stressed class conflict, or the political dynamics of the Old Regime state, or even pure accident. Israel will have none of it, and takes the contemporary perceptions as self-evidently true. “What I am arguing is that the Radical Enlightenment ... is the only important direct cause of the French Revolution.” Full stop.

Israel insists that although the radicals remained, in his own words, “socially and politically marginal” throughout most of the eighteenth century, they nonetheless managed to diffuse their ideas widely. He calls them “deliberate, conscious revolutionaries ... not in the sense of being planners of revolutionary action but rather as ideologues preparing the ground for revolution.” And no other factor really mattered, including anything that might involve the experiences of the vast majority of the French population who never came into any but the blurriest contact with Enlightenment ideas. In a particularly provocative passage, Israel declares that “the agenda of 1788-9 obviously had nothing to do with the habits and experiences of the people except insofar as they responded to the summons to rise and establish a new order. Where the agenda sprang from was the thinking of the twenty or thirty philosophes-révolutionnaires leading the Revolution in Paris.”

Israel knows quite well that in making these assertions, he is challenging nearly everything written on the subject for the past two centuries. “A correct understanding of the Radical Enlightenment is impossible,” he declares, “without overturning almost the whole current historiography of the French Revolution.” He is clearly not lacking in intellectual self-confidence. Indeed, throughout his opus he has often found it very difficult to muster patience for those who cannot see what he thinks is so self-evidently true. To take just one example: in a single paragraph dealing with the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, Israel characterizes other historians’ judgments on the subject as “obviously untrue,” “could scarcely be more mistaken,” “fundamentally incorrect,” “seriously misleading,” and “completely untenable.” He rejects the philosophy of Michel Foucault as “false” (all of it?) and calls François Furet, the past century’s most innovative historian of the French Revolution, “doubly confused.”

In writing history this sort of selfconfidence is risky, and nowhere more so than in the methodological minefield that is the history of ideas. A generation of intellectual historians, led by Quentin Skinner, have identified the most dangerous of the mines very clearly. It is all too tempting to assume we know what particular statements “must” have meant, rather than placing them firmly within their original intellectual contexts. We can all too easily gloss over the contradictions, incoherences, and evolutions of particular individuals, treating them instead as followers of a single ideological line. We can all too quickly persuade ourselves that an earlier thinker necessarily influenced a later one who expressed a similar idea. And it is all too seductive to attribute a particular event to the conscious activity of those who hoped something like it might come about.

Some historians of ideas have become so wary of these explosive obstacles that their work barely advances at all. Others act more in the spirit of Marshal Zhukov, who once explained to Dwight Eisenhower that he cleared minefields by marching the infantry across them. Jonathan Israel is closer to the latter. It is not always an absurd strategy—Zhukov, after all, reached Berlin; and Israel scores some important points along his own intellectual journey. But finally I do not think the argument of Democratic Enlightenment is correct. Showing why requires some digging down into the details of the argument—but the details are, after all, where God resides (perhaps even for a Spinozist).

 

CONSIDER ISRAEL’S CLAIM that the torchbearers of the “Radical Enlightenment” were “conscious revolutionaries.” The claim presupposes that these men had a clear vision of what a “revolution” would entail. But did they? It was once assumed that before the French events of 1789, the word “revolution” retained its original etymological meaning of a circular return to a starting point. Israel insists that long before then it had come to mean “fundamental, sweeping change.” But the story is much more complicated, and more interesting. As Keith Michael Baker demonstrated many years ago, before 1789 the word “revolution” denoted something essentially unpredictable and uncontrollable. It meant something that happened to people, and rapidly, rather than something that people consciously brought about over a period of years. When Rousseau wrote, in 1762, that “we are approaching the state of crisis and the century of revolutions,” he was warning of violent upheavals, not predicting anything that Robespierre or Lenin would have recognized as a true revolution. Baker argued persuasively that the modern concept of revolution as a consciously willed and drawn-out political process only emerged after 1789, in the course of the French Revolution itself.

In Democratic Enlightenment, Israel quotes many eighteenth-century writers who denounced injustices, warned of violent upheaval, and demanded that monarchs bring about reforms. But he fails to provide evidence that anyone called for anything like a revolutionary movement to overthrow existing regimes. He does come up with one apparently convincing quote, drawn from Raynal’s and Diderot’s influential anti-imperialist History of the Two Indies. “The tyrants will never freely consent to the extinction of servitude,” the text reads, “and to lead them to this order of things, it will be necessary to ruin them or exterminate them.” On this basis Israel concludes that the book “clearly summoned the world’s oppressed to rise against their rulers in the name of liberty.” But the quote comes from a section of the History that deals specifically with the institution of Russian serfdom. The French word servitude here translates as “serfdom,” while the word “tyrants” refers specifically to Russian estate-owners, not tyrants in general. Israel has taken the passage seriously out of context.

Israel’s book also runs into difficulty with its sweeping claim that just twenty men, who supposedly belonged heart and soul to the “Radical Enlightenment,” provided the entire agenda for the early revolution. Many of the men Israel includes on his list were quite marginal, but he concentrates on four who were undoubtedly revolutionaries of the first order: Mirabeau, the dazzling orator of the early revolution; Sieyès, the author of its single most influential pamphlet, “What Is the Third Estate?”; Condorcet, greatest of the late philosophes and an important revolutionary politician; and Brissot, a prominent revolutionary journalist and leader of the radical Girondin faction. Israel calls Sieyès a “hardened ideologue,” and treats the other three in much the same fashion.

It is a very hard case to make. Most historians would contend that all four of these men were, first and foremost, flexible and self-interested politicians, not early incarnations of Lenin or Trotsky. Mirabeau, for all his supposed devotion to the principles of the “Radical Enlightenment,” was quick enough to strike a secret, corrupt bargain with King Louis XVI in 1790, and to work for the monarchy in the revolutionary National Assembly. Brissot struck his own corrupt bargain with the king a year later, so as to drag France into a war against the other European powers. As for Sieyès, he ended his political career by sponsoring Bonaparte’s coup d’état against the French Republic, from which he emerged a very rich man.

Nor is it at all obvious that all four belonged, intellectually, to a radical Spinozan Enlightenment. In fact, the greatest single intellectual influence on most of them was a figure Israel mostly banishes to the “moderate” Enlightenment: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Israel asserts that “Sieyès was always inflexibly anti-Rousseauist as well as anti-absolutist; and Brissot frequently was.” Yet Brissot’s principal work of philosophy, from 1782, mentioned Spinoza only glancingly, while calling Rousseau the greatest philosopher of all time. Sieyès disagreed vehemently with Rousseau on the issue of representative political systems, but disagreement hardly implies a lack of influence. A large portion of Sieyès’s “What Is the Third Estate?” followed Rousseau’s Social Contract point by point. And if Mirabeau, Sieyès, and Condorcet bore the mark of a common intellectual influence beyond Rousseau, the other most obvious candidate was not Israel’s “Radical Enlightenment,” but the school of early economic thought called Physiocracy, developed in part by Mirabeau’s father, which advocated free trade and the rational management of social resources—and was by no means democratic. The portions of “What Is the Third Estate?” that dealt with economics and social rights stem directly from Physiocratic writing. But Israel barely mentions Physiocracy, which does not fit well into his typology of “radicals” versus “moderates.”

Israel is in equally dangerous territory when he tries to trace the origins of a key revolutionary concept: the sovereign “general will.” This is a classic problem in intellectual history, which most scholars address by starting with Rousseau, the thinker most famous for popularizing the concept. Before Rousseau, the trail is murkier, but the political philosopher Patrick Riley has made a very good case for seeing the origin in Christian debates about the sovereignty and will of God. Israel is sure, however, that the real source must have been Spinoza. Somewhat tortuously, he argues that while Rousseau framed his concept of the general will within a specifically national framework, the French Revolutionaries cast their own version as universally applicable—just as Spinoza and the “Radical Enlightenment” had done. And he adds that what the revolutionaries did take from Rousseau, Rousseau himself had copied from Spinoza.

Unfortunately, neither of these arguments holds up. While a few revolutionaries did insist on applying their principles to the entire human race, most of them—including the key figure of Sieyès—agreed with Rousseau that the fundamental framework for politics was the nation. “Everything is in the nation” was the way Sieyès put it, and the thought went straight into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which, despite the universalist aspirations of its title, defined most of the rights it enumerated in relation to national law. Its third article proclaimed, forthrightly enough: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.” As for the idea that Rousseau copied part of his thinking on the subject from Spinoza, the evidence is thin. Israel calls particular attention to Rousseau’s argument that if you rebel against a state to which you have given your consent, you are effectively rebelling against yourself, and that if the state then compels you into obedience, it is doing no more than “forcing you to be free.” Israel asserts that Rousseau took this idea directly from Spinoza. But the main evidence he cites is an article by a Spanish scholar, Maria José Villaverde, which actually says only that Spinoza’s thought on the point “recalls” and “prefigures” Rousseau. While Rousseau’s idea certainly had things in common with statements by Spinoza, it had just as much in common with statements by Thomas Hobbes, in the eighteenth chapter of Leviathan. And while Rousseau hardly ever mentioned Spinoza, he wrestled long and hard with Hobbes. Once again, there is simply no evidence for a direct, unproblematic tradition leading straight from Spinoza and Israel’s “Radical Enlightenment” to 1789.

But Israel stubbornly insists on this connection, and in the concluding chapters of the book he triumphantly holds up a smoking gun of sorts, namely the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen itself. The Declaration’s roots, he states firmly, “were in philosophy, and especially in radical thought.” And not only that. He insists that a mere handful of ideologues within France’s National Assembly managed, by careful maneuvering and sheer force of argument, to win over a much larger number of deputies to their side, and to push through a far more radical document than this majority originally intended. It is certainly a tempting theory. Most historians of the Declaration have emphasized the chaos that presided over its confection, in the astonishing summer of 1789, when the people of Paris rose up in revolt, the French countryside exploded in the greatest violence seen in 150 years, and everyone wondered how much change the royal family would tolerate before trying to claw power back. In the middle of all this the deputies—all 1,200 of them—hammered out the Declaration, writing and rewriting dozens of drafts, and almost failing at the task entirely.

Was there indeed a secret, powerful force at work behind the scenes, guiding the hand of radical change? Some sort of conspiracy of the righteous? The answer, again, is no. Israel claims that the text of the Declaration was based on a draft written by Mirabeau, one of his alleged ideologues, and pushed through the Assembly by the radical party. But his account is simply mistaken. Strangely, Israel has not consulted the principal source used by nearly all previous scholars of the Declaration, namely the actual records of the Assembly’s deliberations (the so-called Archives parlementaires), which were published in the late nineteenth century. He has relied instead on memoirs and correspondence written by his alleged radicals, who naturally exaggerate their own role. But the Assembly’s records show very clearly that the initial attempts to write the document indeed came close to ending in stalemate. Early versions by Sieyès and Mirabeau were rejected. In the end, the exhausted deputies seized on an uncontroversial draft composed by the Assembly’s Sixth Bureau, a collection of decidedly non-radical non-entities. To this was added a few articles composed by moderate royalists, and Mirabeau’s eloquent draft preamble. It was this document, and not Mirabeau’s text, that passed the Assembly on August 20, 1789, and became the basis for the final document.

 

NO PROJECT conceived on the scale of Israel’s is going to be free of errors and misreadings. The history of the development of ideas throughout the Western world—and beyond—over a period of more than a century is an incalculably vast subject. It stretches over far too many political contexts, far too many intellectual idioms, far too many social practices for any one scholar, however brilliant and hardworking, to master completely. Nor should a fear of error deter such a scholar from attempting to generalize about the subject as a whole. Israel’s generalizations are particularly appealing, since they seem to uphold an account of liberal modernity that most of his readers will find both familiar and congenial. Particularly at a moment when liberal politics, social democracy, and secularism are under such broad assault across the world, it is deeply tempting to ascribe the creation of the modern political order to heroic revolutionaries who thought much as we do.

But the specific sorts of errors and misreadings that Israel commits in Democratic Enlightenment show the real limitations of his project. He has attempted to find order amid chaos: hidden hands, conscious agendas, revolutionary programs. More specifically, he has plucked particular writers and texts out of the vast, sloshing ocean of early modern intellectual production, taken similarities and connections between them as signs of the existence of a conscious and coherent radical party, and attributed to this party responsibility for events that seemed to fulfill its hopes. But history is simply too messy and complicated to allow for such tidy explanations.

Events such as the French Revolution are driven to a frighteningly large extent by accident, improvisation, misunderstanding, and self-interest. The role of ideas should not be minimized, but in practice political figures very rarely follow ideological programs to the letter. They grab ideas helter-skelter from a variety of sources and cobble them together imperfectly in forms they think will work to best advantage. Other people in turn misunderstand, modify, and distort these ideas. To claim otherwise, to insist on the heroic narrative, requires reading texts out of context, ignoring ideas that do not fit, and making assumptions about the course of events that a closer attention to the work of fellow scholars would quickly have corrected.

The result should still not be dismissed. Not only does it make an inspiring story, it also pushes and prods us, with copious new evidence, to re-examine events we thought we knew well from a different perspective. No one who reads Jonathan Israel’s pages will ever again doubt the importance of radical materialists in the intellectual changes that shaped the modern political world. But his overall interpretation of the Enlightenment era nonetheless amounts to a projection of his own values and ideas back onto a body of evidence that they fit very imperfectly. His work stands as renewed proof of just how central and controversial the Enlightenment remains in the twenty-first century—but dare it be said that it also suggests that the Enlightenment remains too central, too controversial? We might do a better job of defending our liberal values if we did not see them as having necessarily taken on their full-blown present-day shape in the eighteenth century or before. And we might see those earlier times more clearly if we did not imagine them prefiguring so closely our own dilemmas. “Smile not, lament not, nor condemn, but understand.”

David A. Bell is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton, and a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.

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