Luke's Reviews > A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy

A Revolution of the Mind by Jonathan I. Israel
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In Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy, Jonathan Israel argues that the Enlightenment must be viewed as a competition between two separate strains of philosophical thought. The first strain, moderate Enlightenment, is that most commonly recognized, advocating for Enlightened despotism, a deistic worldview, a small group of enlightened individuals, and incremental reform. The radical Enlightenment, on the other hand, aimed for democratic solutions, rational atheism, and sweeping change in Atlantic societies as a way to liberate all people of tyranny. In Israel’s conception, radical Enlightenment became the dominant force in intellectual circles during the 1770s and led to the outbreaks of the Atlantic Revolutions, above all the French Revolution.

However, Israel overstates the differences between radical and moderate Enlightenments, arguing that they were two irreconcilable strands of thought that brought the Western world on two different trajectories. To him, the moderate Enlightenment was epitomized by the regimes of Catherine I of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia, while the radical Enlightenment is much more recognizable to us living in the liberal and social democratic world. This does not seem to be a quite fair explanation, as there was a great deal of correspondence between thinkers of both the moderate and radical Enlightenments and the two spheres did converge a great deal.

Strangely, Israel argues that the radical Enlightenment must be viewed as the core of the French Revolution and that debates about Old Regime crises is overstated. Studies of the intellectual origins of the French Revolution were quite common until the 1970s and 1980s before they were eclipsed by broader cultural, political, and economic studies of the origins of the French Revolution. Frankly, the Enlightenment was certainly a cause of the French Revolution, but material realities were surely more important to those who constituted the Third Estate and felt the brunt of the Old Regime’s policies. Without doubt, they were influenced by the Enlightenment, but the reality of the French Revolution is that it was not an ideological struggle, but a simple attempt for better conditions, at least before 1792 when the Republic was formed.

Israel argues that the Reign of Terror represented a disavowal of the radical Enlightenment, leaving a space of less than a year for the radical Enlightenment to have been the dominant force in the French Revolution. Yet, Republican leaders looked more to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who Israel characterizes as moderate) than Thomas Paine or Denis Diderot (who he characterizes as radical), suggesting that the Revolution did not rely on as radical thought as Israel thinks.

Nevertheless, this is a study worth reading for its insights, but I do not think that Israel’s argument is as useful as it could be.
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Reading Progress

April 5, 2018 – Shelved
April 5, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
April 5, 2018 – Shelved as: history
April 5, 2018 – Shelved as: geo-europe
April 5, 2018 – Shelved as: temp-modern-late
April 14, 2018 – Started Reading
April 14, 2018 – Shelved as: geo-america-north
April 14, 2018 – Finished Reading
April 15, 2018 – Shelved as: comprehensive-exams

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc Great review. It’s always been Jonathsn Israel’s unique selling proposition, this dichotomy between moderate and radical Enlightenment (I read his biography of Spinoza), and it’s a good thing he makes distinctions, but you’re right: he grosly exaggerates this dichotomy and the consequences of it. I think he is obsessed with offering another approach than the classic political (whig) approach and the social-economic (marxist) approach.


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