Liberty Matters

Radical Enlightenment Now?


It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to Henry C. Clark's essay, which comes on the heels of his and Christine Dunn Henderson's masterful selection and translation of political articles from Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie.[41] Clark and Dunn have rendered a tremendous service to Anglophone scholarship on the Enlightenment, for which we should all be grateful. As Hank points out here, the Encyclopédie's political message proved elusive from the start. Responses varied widely. In France, condemnation by ecclesiastical and secular authorities nearly derailed the enterprise at the outset. But it was seen through to completion, owing in part to skillful editorial tacking, but also to the protection by liberal reformers such as Malesherbes. Across the Channel, the Encyclopédie was regarded as a pedagogical feast by Adam Smith, and its political articles were seen as comprising "a noble system of civil liberty" by Own Ruffhead, a Welsh critic of Wilkes. For Edmund Burke, on the other hand, benefitting from hindsight, the Encyclopédie was the very model of the arid and unbending rationalism that had led inexorably to the Revolution. Today, Burke's case for the essential radicalism of the Encyclopédie has been restated in magisterial fashion by Jonathan Israel -- though for purposes of celebration rather than commination. On Israel's account, Diderot and d'Alembert's work was indeed a "war machine": its publication marked the arrival on French shores of the militant "Spinozism" that served as the "one particular 'big' cause" of the entire cycle of political revolutions that convulsed the Atlantic world in the half-century after 1776.[42]
What is Hank's response? First, to suggest that, far from any radicalism, what would have struck any "casual, ordinary eighteenth-century reader" on glancing at the Encyclopédie's political articles is "a certain pronounced strand of 'conservatism,'" easily overlooked today. How else to describe the role assumed by the jurist Boucher d'Argis? Pressed into service after the initial collisions with authority, he went on to contribute some 4,500 articles to the enterprise, all unfailingly moderate and reformist in outlook. Or take the case of Rousseau. His mature outlook got a try-out in the Encyclopédie, the Third Discourse first appearing as "Economie ou Oeconomie" in its fifth volume. But Rousseau subsequently took his ideas, including the "general will" itself, elsewhere. In the Encyclopédie, his own essay was trumped by Boulanger's far longer and thoroughly unradical "Oeconomie politique" in volume 11. But the chief test-case for the political profile of the Encyclopédie, Hank argues, lies in the work of Jaucourt -- author of some 17,000 articles total, more than half of those collected in Encyclopedic Liberty. To Jaucourt fell the task of introducing French readers to the harvest of a century of cutting-edge political thought from the Protestant world. But here Hank introduces a twist in his argument. Given Jaucourt's well-attested debt to Montesquieu -- "it was through the sieve of his close reading of of Montesquieu, and especially The Spirit of the Laws (De l'esprit des lois), that Jaucourt offered up his political commentary" -- "it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the overall 'radicalism' of the Encyclopédie depends largely on our assessment of the 'radicalism' of the Baron de la Brède." Alas, that is a subject for another occasion, Hank writes -- though he concludes by reminding us that Montesquieu was "radical" enough to get De l'esprit des lois condemned by the Sorbonne and the Papacy, "conservative" enough to fall afoul of French revolutionary egalitarianism, and "moderate" enough to win the embrace Anglo-Saxon liberalism.
As a demonstration of how to have one's rhetorical cake and eat it too, Hank's essay could hardly be bettered. After teasing us with the suggestion that the Encyclopédie's political message might be the exact opposite of that described by Israel, Hank appeals to Montesquieu in order to table the question, pending further inquiry, while hinting that we may well discover that what the text offers, in the end, is the benign pluralism summed up in Norman Hampson's phrase: "not so much an ideology as a quarry," with something for everybody. Of course, elegant fencing of this kind is probably the best one can do in responding to Jonathan Israel. No matter what is actually contained in its 77,000 articles, the Encyclopédie could never have been anything other than the very incarnation of "Radical Enlightenment," which Israel sees as the Prime Mover in the advent of "modernity" itself -- just as surely as Jacobinism would later turn out to represent a "Counter-Enlightenment." The publication of the Encyclopedie is indeed the pivot of the master-narrative that extends across Israel's pentalogy -- what made it possible for the radical "Spinozism" incubated in the late 17th-century Netherlands to unleash the "General Revolution" that swept around the globe at the end of the 18th.[43] A tidal wave of criticism from professionals in the fields he has traversed has left Israel completely unmoved. What remains to be explained is why this particular historiographic image d'Epinal -- the Radical Enlightenment caused the French Revolution -- has resonated so deeply with a wider reading public. No doubt Israel's capture, and domestication, of the term "radical" itself has something to do with his success. But if further proof of its enormous appeal in our time were needed, it can now be found in Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress -- Bill Gates's "new favorite book of all time," praised for its "radical honesty" by David Brooks.[44]
But perhaps Israel and Pinker are not quite the last word in "radicalism," at least where the Encyclopédie is concerned. Let me suggest two different avenues for approaching the issue anew, in regard to both form and content, in ways that might appeal to Hank and to Jonathan Israel alike. First, on the side of form, is it possible that what we are confronted with in the Encyclopédie is not just "esoteric" writing, but esoteric writing of a novel kind? That the question can even be posed in this way is owing to the recent appearance of Arthur M. Melzer's Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.[45] Melzer's serene and level-headed book -- the first comprehensive survey of the topic, surprisingly enough -- begins with the overwhelming evidence for the existence of the phenomenon of esotericism, not just in the West but around the globe, and concludes by considering the consequences for modern thought of the recovery of this "lost history." But Melzer's greatest service lies in the lucid taxonomy of four different kinds of esotericism set forth in the middle of the text -- defensive, meant to shield its practitioners from persecution; protective, serving to insulate its audience from "dangerous truths"; pedagogical, in which obscurity and ambiguity are seen as teaching tools in and of themselves; and finally, political esotericism. The last is the joker in the pack, distinct from the other three in two ways: first, for being a thoroughly modern phenomenon, no more than three or four centuries old; and second, for being inspired by purely political rather than philosophical motives -- intended neither to promote and protect philosophy nor to shield society from its truths, but instead to use it as an instrument for changing the world. Thus cloister -- the "single word that best conveyed the essential characteristic of premodern philosophical secrecy" -- gave way to "conspiracy, which is initial concealment for the sake of future disclosure."[46]
Exhibit #1 for "political esotericism"? Though it was preceded by a series of daring solo "philosophical conspirators" -- Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza -- the "most surprising and illuminating case" of political esotericism is none other than the Encyclopédie, "the flagship of the modern Enlightenment and its project of political rationalization."[47] Here all Melzer has to do is introduce the basic evidence: not just the various articles directly addressing political esotericism in this sense ("Exotéique et sotérique," "Mensonge officieux," and Jaucourt's own "Mensonge"), but also the specific avowals of editorial intent: in d'Alembert's famous letter to Voltaire:
"No doubt we have some bad articles in theology and metaphysics, but with theologians as censors ... I defy you to make them better. There are articles, less open to the light, where all is repaired. Time will enable people to distinguish what we have thought from what we have said",[48]
and in Diderot's explanation of the Encyclopédie's system of cross-references in his own article "Encyclopédie."
"When it is necessary, [the cross-references] will produce a completely opposite effect: they will counter notions; they will bring principles into contrast; they will secretly attack, unsettle, overturn certain ridiculous opinions which one would not dare to insult openly.... This means of undeceiving men operates very promptly on good minds, and it operates infallibly and without any detrimental consequence -- secretly and without scandal -- on all minds. It is the art of deducing tacitly the boldest consequences. If these confirming and refuting cross-references are planned well in advance, and prepared skillfully, they will give an encyclopedia the character which a good dictionary ought to possess: this character is that of changing the common manner of thinking."[49]
That is as far as Melzer goes -- but it is some distance, directly abutting Team ARTFL's work on the cross-references cited by Hank. Jonathan Israel gets a respectful nod from Melzer as well.[50] But that points us on from form to content. Is there anything more specific to be said about the aims of the Encyclopédie's "political esotericism" beyond the Israel conception of "Radical Enlightenment" -- "monism, "democracy," "human rights," and the like? For purposes of discussion, let me make a suggestion, inspired by the cohort of French scholars currently hard at work on what they call the "French exception" -- the exceptionally radical character assumed by republicanism in France, by comparison with its variants elsewhere in the Atlantic world.[51] Their specific focus is what they term "social republicanism," founded on a radical egalitarianism that was without precedent in the early republican tradition -- indeed, was born of its sudden and explosive fusion with hitherto adjacent but distinct currents of utopian thought. So far, this cohort has devoted its attention primarily to the most spectacular fruits of "social republicanism," revolutionary Jacobinism and the Babeuvism that mutated out of it, together with their 19th-century fallout. Investigation of its earlier appearances has been largely confined to Rousseau and to pioneers in blending republican and utopian themes -- Morelly and Mably. As for the origines lointaines of French "social republicanism," one obvious place to start would be with what Michael Sonenscher dubbed, in Sans-Culottes, the "Rousseau-Fénelon pairing" (by contrast with the "Rousseau-Montesquieu pairing") -- the profoundly influential current of thought launched by Fénelon's effort to bring "ancient prudence" to bear on the reform of modern monarchy. This was the tradition to which Istvan Hont referred in the passage from his Politics in Commercial Society cited by Hank. It was a long journey, of course, from the "Rousseau-Fénelon pairing" to Robespierre and Babeuf. But it would be interesting to know what, if anything, the long incubation of "social republicanism" in this sense owed to the Encyclopédie in particular. That is perhaps another job for Team ARTFL -- to set out in search, not of Israel's Radical Enlightenment, but of this other, less "Spinozist" and more home-grown form of radicalism.
But neither of these suggestions is intended to let Hank off the hook in regard to the "Jaucourt-Montesquieu pairing." If he continues to think that the question of the radicalism, or otherwise, of the Encyclopédie is at one with that of De l'esprit de lois, then I propose that we corner him in discussion and force him to cough up the answer. One can understand his reluctance, especially given that the stakes here extend to Rousseau as well. Paul Rahe, second to none in uncovering the interplay between esoteric and exoteric writing in the Western political thought, has recently argued that "Jean-Jacques Rousseau constructed his system within the framework of Montesquieu's science of politics.... [T]he critique of bourgeois society that he shouted from the rooftops was a restatement of themes presented in a highly muted fashion in The Spirit of the Laws."[52] Is something like that true for the Encyclopédie as well?
[41.] Henry C. Clark, ed., Encyclopedic Liberty: Political Articles in the Dictionary of Diderot and d'Alembert, Henry C. Clark and Christine Dunn Henderson, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund: 2016).
[42.] For a sample of Israel's claims about "causation," see the concluding cadences of Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 950-51.
[43.] Democratic Enlightenment was the third volume in the series. Israel has gone on to publish Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (Oxford & Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) -- which drummed the Jacobins out of the Radical Enlightenment -- and, most recently, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1750-1848 (Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[44.] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018). For Gates's effusion, see <>; for Brooks, <>.
[45.] Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
[46.] Ibid., p. 246.
[47.] Ibid., p. 249.
[48.] Cited in Melzer, p. 250).
[49.] Cited in Melzer, pp. 250-51.
[50.] Ibid., p. 247.
[51.] For samples of their work, see Stéphanie Roza and Pierre Crétois, eds., Le républicanisme sociale: une exception française? (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2014), and Stéphanie Roza, Comment l'utopie est devenue un programme politique: Du roman à la Révolution (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2015).
[52.] Paul A. Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift (New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 138.