they are: (1) that something like a unified enlightenment (as opposed to the multiple "enlightenments" that historians talk about now) existed in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, (2) that there existed "radical" and "moderate" strains of enlightenment thought, and (3) that Spinoza was the most radical, the most comprehensive, and the most influential intellectual figure of this period. He posits that Spinoza was the most comprehensive thinker of the 17th century (he is, i think, right about this, but he is right for the wrong reasons), and, on this basis, concludes that he was also the most influential.
I abandoned this book after a few hundred pages. Oh, and please dont tell me in French. (I literally opened my book at a random page.) In the words of his critics, Jaques Saurin, a prominent Huguenot preacer at The Hague, Bayle was a genius who lived a sober, austere life, but used his pen à attaquer la chasteté, la modiestie, toutes les vertus chrétiennes and, while adamantly professing his allegiance to the Reformed faith, repeated the objections to Christianity of all the worlds greatest heretics leur prêtant des armes nouvelles, et réunissant dans nôtre siècle toutes les erreurs des siècles passez. This is a typical sentence in the book: the point of the passage is in French. But for some reason, every turn of phrase that the author got in French must find its way into the book in the original.
Coinciding with this focus on the Dutch Republic is an emphasis on Spinoza, the main protagonist of Radical Enlightenment (which Jacob had previously suggested). Another implication of this focus on the Dutch Republicagain, which Jacob had proposedis to push the Enlightenments formative period back to the mid-seventeenth century. In Radical Enlightenment, Israel places Spinoza at the center by solidifying the three-part taxonomy for Enlightenment-era intellectuals that Jacob had first suggested. Israel posits, first, a moderate Enlightenment; second, a radical Enlightenment (represented by Spinoza); and third, a conservative opposition to the Enlightenment. Spinozas work circulated in the Dutch Republic in the middle of the seventeenth century, but soon diffused throughout Europe along the arteries of the print trade, which Israel documents in impressive detail. Israel says that the growth of Spinozism prompted moderates to position themselves as the middle group of the three.
Israel argues that this drastic change was begun by a radical underground of thinkers, inspired by the work of Benedictus de Spinoza, and circulated clandestinely and in code by prominent philosophes throughout Europe. Israel argues that the "radical" Enlightenment has been under-studied, in part due to an over-emphasis on national narratives that ignore the trans-national nature of Spinozism. Israel connects Spinoza and the "neo-Cartesians" (who tried to appear less radical, but often arrived at Spinozist conclusions) to a change in thinking that is almost viral in nature. Once intellectuals were exposed to secular ideals of philosophy, it seems, they could rarely refute them without resorting to either religious fundamentalism or a tortured double-think in which Spinoza's own weapons are marshaled against him, in the end proving him right in methods if not conclusions.
But the focus of Professor Israel's study is on Spinoza (1632-1677.) Spinoza rejected Cartesian dualism and developed his philosophy equating God and Nature. Professor Israel argues that Spinoza's thought constitutes the basis for what he terms "radical enlightenment", which rejected theology and revealed religion in favor of a philosophy of mechanism and determinism. Professor Israel contrasts the Radical Enlightenment emanating from Spinoza with "moderate enlightenment". Professor Israel identifies three separate strains of moderate enlightenment: Cartesianism, the monadic philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff, and the deism and empiricism of Locke and Newton. (The exposition of Descartes thought and of the teachings of scholasticism is less thorough.) The major theme of the book is that Spinoza's ideas were not simply those of an isolated recluse; rather, his ideas became widely known and disseminated even during his lifetime, and became the basis for much of the secular, modern thought and life we have today. Spinoza's goal (shared with the religious thinkers whom he rejected) was to find the path to human blessedness, enlightenment, and happiness by freeing the mind.
It thus sets aside the everyday life of the masses, and propounds an idea-driven vision of history, with the knowledge and faith that such an approach, aloof and elitist as it may seem, is the only way to find the true causes of how we can improve the living standards of the vast majority of the people. Of all such newfangled ideas, especially meritorious ones, philosophy and science have provided the major share, although they have always fought against mass superstition, political tyranny and religious dogma. The great achievement of Israel's in-depth research is to provide a counter-narrative to many of the existing histories of the philosophical underpinnings of the Enlightenment, by focusing much-needed attention on the Dutch context, especially the vibrant intellectual atmosphere around Spinoza and a dozen other radical writers in Amsterdam, Hague, Leiden and elsewhere. The book provides an excellent showcase of the importance of the relative freedom of the Dutch Republic (justly lauded by contemporary and subsequent radical authors) as a breeding ground, especially in the publication sense, but also in the conception sense, of radical philosophy. Israel decisively shows how Spinoza's influence, far from being negligible, formed an important and vital backbone of the intellectual debates around scripture, secular authority and science. That he clearly DID affect Europe, from France to Germany, and Italy to Scandinavia, despite the near-universal condemnation and demonization he faced - and not only from the political and spiritual defenders of the status quo, but also from fellow modernizers and philosophers (who nonetheless often admired Spinoza's courage privately) - is a testament to the power of his philosophy, the radical lure of his ideas among fellow intellectuals, and the needs of the time. To be sure, Israel places Spinoza's influence in the proper context of his radical Dutch contemporaries - the Brothers Koerbagh, Van den Enden, Bekker, etc. This fact, then, is used to argue that Spinoza's ideas were, out of all his contemporaries, the most at odds with the spiritual and political authorities of his day. By trying to put Spinoza on a pedestal, and trying to downplay the influence of his contemporaries, Israel ends up doing disservice to many great philosophers who have contributed to radical thought. A history book likes to use Spinoza to measure the forgone stupidities of yesterday, but there is much to be learned from his systematic philosophy, even today, and even tomorrow. Thanks to Israel's book, and thanks to others who are giving Spinoza a second go, perhaps the reviled philosopher won't have to "remain alone with his shining halo", to quote Einstein's poem: "Wie lieb ich diesen edlen Mann Mehr als ich mit Worten sagen kann.
Jonathan Irvine Israel is a British writer on Dutch history, the Age of Enlightenment and European Jews.