Radical Enlightenment in Brief

After a long and interesting discussion on Twitter, I wanted to say a bit more about the Enlightenment than in my last post. This is for the Twitter discussion, but I couldn’t put in 140 characters. Basically, below is the philosophical and political Enlightenment that I discuss in the book, and generally what I mean by “the Enlightenment movement.” In discussions of the Enlightenment with me, I’m more interested in whether someone agrees or disagrees with the values espoused below than with the term “Enlightenment” itself, which has always been heavily contested. Thus, I mean by the Enlightenment the values below, but the important part for me is the cluster of values, not the term Enlightenment itself, and what might help to implement those values. Most people in the world disagree with the values below, but I suspect some librarians agree with me who maybe think they don’t because of some labels I use. Although I could be wrong on that, too.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

Rather than provide any in-depth analysis of his exhaustive works, I will provide Israel’s own summary of the Radical Enlightenment from his shorter and more accessible Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy:

Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or nonreligious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies it its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally. (vi-vii)

As should be clear, by Radical Enlightenment Israel means more or less those political beliefs developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that eventually triumphed over the more conservative beliefs in divine-right monarchies or established churches or “enlightened despots” as the foundation for liberal democracies in the West. As he describes it,

Radical Enlightenment is the system of ideas that, historically, has principally shaped the Western World’s most basic social and cultural values in the post-Christian age. This in itself lends the history of the movement great importance. But this type of thought—especially in many Asian and African countries, as well as in contemporary Russia—has also become the chief hope and inspiration of numerous besieged and harassed humanists, egalitarians, and defenders of human rights, who, often against great odd, heroically champion basic human freedom and dignity, including that of women, minorities, homosexuals, and religious apostates, in the face of the resurgent forms of bigotry, oppression, and prejudice that in much of the world today appear inexorably to be extending their grip. (xi)

We end with this vision of Enlightenment. Eighteenth-century Europe and America present us with complicated histories, even if we restrict ourselves merely to intellectual history. For every proponent of Enlightenment, there were hundreds of detractors; for every radical idea, thousands of reactionary ones.

If we consider the Enlightenment as a period of history, we must along with Darnton and many others continue to see it as more complex and more quotidian than if we consider the Enlightenment to be a living intellectual tradition, an Enlightenment project. Israel’s work reinforces this view of Enlightenment. He digs deeply into the intellectual history of the period and discloses raging debates over socinianism or materialism that now seem trivial or obscure, but that helped form the modern consciousness. However, he is certainly not writing Whig history, because it is clear that while a system of ideas emerged as the foundations of Enlightenment, Enlightenment has yet to fully triumph. (pp. 41-43).

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