- The Radical Enlightenment: Faith, Power, Theory
Here is one thumbnail sketch of the Enlightenment: It was launched in England and France, with Descartes and Hobbes as key precursors; it gathered momentum in England through Locke and Newton; their influence then spread to the continent, with Voltaire and Leibniz playing leading roles and Rousseau responding with characteristic ambivalence; it culminated in Kant’s devotion to reason. It was hounded by clerics and monarchs; but its exposure of flaws in Church history, its commitment to empirical evidence, and its love of reason eventually triumphed.
Jonathan Israel contests something in several of these clauses. The “moderate Enlightenment,” he says, was prodded at every point by the “radical Enlightenment”. The key site of innovation was Holland. The most radical figure was Spinoza and those mesmerized by his ideas in France, Germany, and England.1 A history of the moderate Enlightenment thus requires one of the radical Enlightenment. But the latter is difficult to write because those who admitted being Spinozists, or were successfully accused of being so, had their texts banned and their lives wrecked. Moderate figures, in turn, anxiously defended themselves from the charge of Spinozism. One unstable line of differentiation was whether a philosopher concluded with Descartes that the final source of motion is external to matter — thereby locating it in a providential God, or with Spinoza that it is internal to matter — thereby rendering matter itself dense, mobile and complex. Whenever a figure in the moderate Enlightenment slid toward the second view he was accused of being a Spinozist. The accusation was potent because of the awesome machinery of Church-state repression it mobilized.
Spinoza’s teacher, the radical priest van den Enden was hung for treason; Johannes Koerbagh, a member of Spinoza’s circle, wrote a book asserting that God was substance and that the magical stories in Scripture were designed to control the people. His book, appearing before Spinoza’s main work was published, was banned. He died in prison a broken man. So Spinoza himself was cautious, not in stating his views, but in publishing them. When Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published covertly in 1670, its critique of miracles created a furor. And his whole approach to reading the Bible excited animosity. For he argued that you must use logic and historical evidence to assess the text, and it helps to know Hebrew, which many clerical interpreters did not. “In his response to Spinoza, written in Florence, the great Danish scientist-prelate implored the unnamed ‘reformer of the New Philosophy’ to heed the insuperable risks he was creating for the whole of humanity including himself, and consider ‘how you throw everything into confusion.’” (p. 223) The publication of the Ethics was delayed until after Spinoza’s death, when it was published and distributed surreptitiously.
In general, defenders of the moderate Enlightenment, including Locke, Bayle, Boyle, Leibniz, Fontenelle, Voltaire and Wolff, carefully distinguished their views from those of Spinoza. It is not always easy to tell to what extent they exaggerated that distance in the interests of survival; they themselves may not always have been sure of the answer. For Israel’s history reopens the question of how power can flow into the existential faith of theorists, and how a faith-power complex infiltrates into refined philosophical arguments, nudging them this way or that. At any rate, the question of whether the final source of motion was internal or external to matter remained a key litmus test.
Consider another Spinozist who went public. Frederick van Leenhof (1647–1712) was a popular pastor in the Dutch Reformed ministry. Encouraged by friends to publish ideas presented in his ministry, his book argued that God is substance rather than a being with personal traits, that heaven is blessedness on earth, that the old stories instill ignorance in the people, and that participation in a republic would require a public education that lifts its citizens to a higher level...