Spinoza and the enlightenment

Having finally come to an understanding of sorts about Spinoza’s ideas which have an enormous appeal to me, I try to deepen my knowledge about him wherever I can. This is a review of a 3000 page work on Spinoza and the enlightenment which I will never read, but I did at least read the review, “Seeing reason: Jonathan Israel’s radical vision” written by Kenan Malik. The central point of the review:

Like many before him, Israel lauds the Enlightenment as that transformative period when Europe shifted from being a culture “based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority” to one in which “everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason” and in which “theology’s age-old hegemony” was overthrown. And, yet, despite language and imagery that hark back to Kant, Israel is also deeply critical of much of the Enlightenment, and hostile to the ideas of many of the figures that populate the works of Cassirer and Gay. At the heart of his argument is the insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know, which provides the public face of the Enlightenment, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment “rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely.”

In Israel’s view, what he calls the ‘package of basic values’ that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derives principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment.

This is the Enlightenment project that I understand Spinoza to have helped set in motion. This is part of the interview that Kenan has with Israel that seems to summarise the point:

“If you are going to construct a moral order in the modern world what other basis do you have?” asks Israel. “If it is not the voluntaristic preferences of some divinity to be interpreted for us, then the only way we are going to come to an agreement is if we agree to consider our interests as equal. Why would we agree to cooperate unless we start by saying, ‘OK, we want different things but we will treat each other as moral equals.’”

But the separation of the notion of equality from its underpinning Judeo-Christian theology has been the problem. Not a few Stalins, Hitlers and Pol Pots have ridden the wave of this enlightenment philosophy as part of a con man’s approach to political power. Nicely put as well at the end of the article:

Why did Hobbes and Hume and Voltaire row back on ideas of equality and democracy, freedom and liberty, while Spinoza and Diderot and Condorcet embraced more radical beliefs? It was not so much that the unwillingness of the moderates to break with tradition and theology made it impossible for them to accept a radical stance. It was more that their fear of revolutionary change led them to embrace tradition and theology. Because of Israel’s attachment to the old-fashioned history of ideas, this relationship between the intellectual and the social gets submerged in his narrative. But implicit in his argument is the acknowledgement that the division between the radicals and the moderates was not simply an intellectual distinction but an expression also of social conflict – and that it is this that also lies at the heart of contemporary debates about the meaning of the Enlightenment.

And about contemporary debates about the best social order as well.

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