Spinoza’s radical enlightenment

  • Themes: Books, Enlightenment, History

Jonathan Israel's monumental biography of Spinoza characterises the philosopher as a foundational thinker for the modern world. To what extent is that the case?

Baruch Spinoza, Benedito de Espinosa, (1632 – 1677)
Baruch Spinoza, Benedito de Espinosa, (1632 – 1677). Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Spinoza, Life and Legacy, Jonathan I. Israel, Oxford University Press, £39.99

Since 2001 (the year in which he moved to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton) Jonathan Israel has published four vast books on the Enlightenment, plus almost equally large books on the American and French Revolutions, and a summary of the ‘Israel thesis’, Revolution in the Mind. Now we have his biography of Spinoza, which runs to more than 1,300 pages. These major publications alone total more than 6,000 pages (roughly twice the length of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall), and there are another 25 or so publications in the same period. They are all the works of a mature scholar: Israel was 49 when, in 1995, he first envisaged this programme of research and publication. It’s an astonishing achievement; one has to turn to the six volumes of J.G.A Pocock’s study of Gibbon, entitled Barbarism and Religion, written over the space of 20 years, to find anything remotely comparable.

Israel does not write out of ambition, or in search of fame or fortune. Since 2001 almost everything he has written has pointed to Spinoza as the source of all that is good in the modern world: secularism and a systematic rejection of revealed religion; democracy and free speech; a naturalistic ethics which recognises that we are selfish animals; and a strictly scientific approach to the natural world. His vast body of work is, in outward appearance, typical of heavyweight modern scholarship, laden with footnotes and larded with references to other scholars. Its inner motivation is quite different: it is, through and through, a work of piety, in which he honours Spinoza, and with him the Jewish (and, one may well add, Dutch) roots of modern intellectual life.

There are several fundamental difficulties with the Israel account of the Radical Enlightenment, which we may summarise as follows:

i) Are Spinoza and his followers the key figures in the Radical Enlightenment?

ii) Is the Radical Enlightenment as important within the intellectual currents of the long 18th century (1660-1830) as Israel says it is?

Most scholars would answer these two questions with ‘No’. When Galileo wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) he thought he could prove the truth of Copernicanism from the ebb and flow of the tides. I have yet to find an example of a contemporary who found Galileo’s proof convincing; and yet then and now the book has been recognised as of fundamental importance. Israel sometimes reminds me of Galileo: wrong over and over again, but always admirable, and heading in the right direction. Spinoza may not be as important as he claims, but he was a lot more important than people used to think. The Radical Enlightenment may not have existed as a coherent, Spinozist movement, but there is a great deal of radicalism to be found in the Enlightenment, and sometimes in unexpected places.

Israel’s work also offers a model of how to study large-scale historical change. He places ideas at the very centre, and treats them as if they are autonomous and have their own agency – as opposed, for example, to the French philosopher of technology, Bruno Latour, who wanted us to acknowledge the agency of things. And he is more interested in big pictures than fine distinctions. In a  review in The Critic, Daniel Johnson has praised Spinoza: Life and Legacy, presenting it as evidence that Israel was a true disciple of his doctoral supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. With due respect to both Johnson and Israel, he often reminds me, not of Trevor-Roper, but of Roper’s antagonist, Christopher Hill. Isaiah Berlin divided intellectuals into two groups: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs are obsessed with one big idea; foxes turn and twist every which way. Israel is a hedgehog; Roper was a fox. J.H. Hexter divided historians into two groups: lumpers and splitters. Hill, he claimed, was a lumper; Hexter himself, we were to understand, a splitter. Israel is without doubt a lumper; Roper, always the fox, was a splitter when it suited him, a lumper when it didn’t.

Like Johnson, I am struck that the brief biography which appears on the cover of this book, and which he must have approved if he did not write it himself, announces that Israel was Trevor-Roper’s pupil (full disclosure: I was, too); but I am surprised because at first sight Israel’s intellectual trajectory would seem to owe nothing to Trevor-Roper. His DPhil (1972), which became a book (1975), was on Race, Class and Politics in Colonial Mexico: a subject about as far from Roper’s core preoccupations as one can imagine. Yet Roper was both an establishment figure and an inveterate contrarian. Perhaps that is how Israel now sees himself – at the summit of his profession, but still on the outside.

Roper was also a stylist who polished every sentence: he read his lectures aloud, and always had a pen in hand so he could mark infelicities to which he must return. Israel, I have to say, shows no sign of having read with any care the ten commandments which Roper gave to his graduate students in 1971. Roper was against digression and deviation; Israel gives us here what feels like a complete history of the Second Anglo-Dutch war. Roper insisted ‘that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning’; a test that Israel repeatedly fails. Above all, Roper specialised in being impious, while Israel is constructing his own form of piety.

The great strength of this book lies not in its lengthy expositions of Spinoza’s works, his disputes with others, his slow construction of a tight-knit circle of friends and followers who ensured his ideas survived although they were everywhere condemned. What I found astonishing and enthralling was part two, entitled ‘The Young Spinoza’, which contains within it a moving, painful account of the diaspora of Jews, including Spinoza’s family, from Spain, through Portugal, to France, and eventually Holland, and gives a detailed description of the commercial enterprises, linking all these countries to the New World, which Spinoza was born into and expected to inherit, along with a detailed account of the synagogue from which he was eventually expelled. I confess it was a shock for me to realise that Spinoza’s mother tongue was Spanish, and that in 1665 Robert Boyle could refer to him, perfectly sensibly, as ‘your Spanish philosopher’ and a ‘Spanyard’.

Equally important is the care with which Israel establishes the relationship between Spinoza and the Cartesianism that was the dominant intellectual tradition in Holland at the time. Here, I must confess, my response (to both Spinoza, and Israel’s uncritical account of his views) was often one of impatience. Like Descartes, Spinoza never grasped (as mathematicians such as Kepler, Galileo, and Newton did) that the new science involved a fundamental break with the Aristotelian conviction that natural philosophy could be part of philosophy as a whole. Like Descartes (and indeed even more than Descartes) Spinoza believed it must be possible to deduce truths about the natural word, as in Euclidean geometry, from indisputable first principles.

Spinoza, who earned a living grinding lenses, and who entered into correspondence with the Royal Society, was always hostile to Baconian science. Bacon, he wrote to Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, in 1661, was quite wrong to take ‘for granted that the human intellect, quite apart from the fallibility of the senses, is by its very nature liable to error, and configures everything after its own nature rather than after the analogy of our universe, so that it is like a mirror presenting an irregular surface to the rays it receives, mixing its own nature with the nature of real things’. For Spinoza, the human intellect is part of the divine intellect, and so, in essence, infallible.

Israel wants to present Spinoza as the precursor of all that is valuable in modernity, but surely one of the most valuable accomplishments of intellectual life since 1600 is the exploration of the ways in which our minds mix their own nature with the nature of real things, like a mirror presenting an irregular surface to the rays it receives – Spinoza perfectly understands the Baconian point, but cannot bring himself to acknowledge its force. And yet, it is hard to see how one can present a strong claim for free speech and democracy unless one grounds it in a recognition of our inescapable fallibility – the key word here being ‘inescapable’, for Spinoza had no doubt that people are, for the most part, every bit as error-prone as Bacon said they were. He just believed that philosophers need not be like other people.

While I have been reading Israel’s Spinoza I have also been working on a critique of his understanding of Voltaire. I sent it to him a few weeks ago, assuming he would disagree, and wanting to know what he would think was the weakest point in my argument. Perhaps I should have foreseen that, since my argument implied that Spinoza was of fundamental importance even to Voltaire, he might rather like it – which he did. But few academics respond well to being forcefully attacked in a footnote, and it seems to me remarkable that Israel showed no sign of being hurt or offended when confronted with evidence of his own fallibility. I’d rather read Trevor-Roper; but I have no doubt that, in comparison to Trevor-Roper (with whom I also had occasion to disagree), Israel is the better man. Admirers of Spinoza, I feel sure, will think that this is yet more evidence of the superiority of Spinozism over all other philosophies. Perhaps it is.


David Wootton