Liberty Matters

The French Exception, Political Esotercism, and the Scientific Revolution


Faced with three musketeers, Hank wisely aims at dividing our ranks.  Andrew Jainchill and I persist in the effort to find something "radical" about the Encyclopédie.  But Dan Edelstein has come in forcefully on Hank's side, making it a fair fight at least.  Responding to Andrew, Hank doubts whether d'Alembert's Baconian "Map of the System of Human Knowledge" points to any kind of political radicalism.  Bacon was certainly no republican; nor did any contributor to the Encyclopédie come close to anticipating Sieyès's assault on "privilege."  My suggestion that we still might glimpse in it prodromes of the revolutionary egalitarianism to come meets with a similar objection.  Traces of that kind of radicalism there may be, Hank allows, but the dominant tone of the Encyclopédie is manifestly not Jacobin.  The same goes for Montesquieu -- Jaucourt's channeling of him is mildly reformist, at most.  Dan has it right: the most accurate label for describing the political outlook of the Encyclopédie would be something like "monarchic liberalism."  It may be too late, Hank concludes, to give Israel's "Radical Enlightenment" the decent burial that Dan thinks it deserves -- but giving it a rest for a while would do us all a world of good.
Evidently, one thing we all agree on is that "Radical Enlightenment" is not exactly what Joan Scott famously called "gender" -- "a useful category for historical analysis."  Imagine if Hank had asked a different question: "How revolutionary was the political thought of the Encyclopédie?"  Although that sounds close to our topic, the ensuing discussion likely would have been very different -- and probably shorter, since my guess is that all four of us would have converged on the same answer: "Not very."  No doubt one of Jonathan Israel's achievements, if achievement it is, has been to sow discord among specialists.  But as tempting as Dan's call for a moratorium on "Radical Enlightenment" is, I think that Hank and Andrew are right that we have to find a way to live with it.  So let me make another suggestion, which owes much to Dale Van Kley's great essay "The Varieties of Enlightened Experience."[91]  The problem with Israel's conceptual schema lies not just in the obvious anachronism of "Radical Enlightenment" itself, but also in the lazy amorphousness of its supposed opposite number, the "moderate mainstream."  Van Kley's solution is to revert to a pluralist conception of the Enlightenment, based not on national variants, but on specific thematic outlooks, formed out of a variety of theological, metaphysical, social, and political dispositions.  On his count, there were at least seven distinct such "enlightenments," sharing certain bedrock commitments, but otherwise quite distinct from one other.  In addition to Israel's "radicals," there were three currents that were explicitly confessional -- a Catholic, a German, and Pocock's "Arminian" enlightenment in the Anglo-American world; two others not overtly hostile to religion, but which chaffed one another on occasion -- John Robertson's "commercial enlightenment" and a "classical republican" alternate -- and even a separate "Rousseauist" version.  None of these is entitled to be called "the Enlightenment," as Israel would have it -- that label applies to the set as a whole.
Now, if Van Kley's overall conception of the Enlightenment can be accepted -- obviously, his specific definitions and enumeration of its seven "varieties" are open to question -- then it has a clear bearing on the issue at hand.  Van Kley largely accepts Israel's claim that the editorial team behind the Encyclopédie represented a "radical" enlightenment.  But he provides a very different explanation of the philosophes' turn in a militantly materialist and atheist direction.  For one thing, its philosophical impetus owed far more to Condillac's "sensationalist" reading of Locke than it did to any kind of "Spinozism."  But more important still was the specific ideological context in which Diderot and d'Alembert, Helvétius and Holbach were obliged to maneuver.  For the publication of the Encyclopédie coincided with the climax of the decades-long battle between the Jesuits and the Jansenists.  This was a theological dispute that, owing to the unique architecture of Bourbon Absolutism -- parlements and the General Assembly of the Clergy in control of crucial constitutional and fiscal levers -- was always deeply political.  It was the triangularization of this conflict -- Jansenists and Jesuits alike finding the philosophes convenient scapegoats, the latter responding, as Van Kley puts it, "with the heaviest ideological artillery available" -- that pitched the French Enlightenment into an assault on Christianity that had no precedent elsewhere in the European world. 
This returns us to the question of a "French exception" with a vengeance, of course.  For as Van Kley has argued elsewhere, the connection that Israel sees between metaphysical and political radicalism -- "All Enlightenment by definition is closely linked to revolution" -- is almost entirely a French phenomenon.  Far more common, in the ideological run-up to the Atlantic revolutions, in the Protestant and Catholic worlds alike, was the role played by a very different kind of political radicalism, an explicitly Christian form of "neo-Augustinianism."  France, for reasons that went back to the Religious Wars, traced a unique path to ideological and political modernity moving across three centuries, "from an era of religious revolution to a self-consciously irreligious revolution by way of religion itself"[92]
Does this "French exception" overlap in any way, in the Encyclopédie or elsewhere, with the one to which I alluded earlier?  That is something that can only be established by further research.  There seems nothing implausible about the possibility that the "social republicanism" described by Stéphanie Roza, Pierre Crétois, and their colleagues might have owed something to the "philosophic" radicalism of the team that steered the Encyclopedie into print -- or, indeed, to Jansenist "neo-Augustinianism" and the secular "patriotism" that succeeded it.  What does seem clear, however, is that a comprehensive answer to our question -- "How radical was the political thought of the Encyclopédie?" -- cannot avoid coming to terms with the extraordinarily complicated ideological context analyzed by Van Kley -- a "theological-political problem," if ever there were one.  The phrase reminds us of the other suggestion I made, which neither Hank nor Andrew nor Dan seem to want to touch with a 10-foot pole: the possibility that the Encyclopédie might present us with with an example, perhaps the example, of "political esotericism," à la Strauss and Melzer.  If I were them, I'd probably steer clear of it too.  But surely this is the right terrain for pursuing the dialectic between intentions and consequences, which Hank and Andrew agree is central to our discussion.  The evidence that d'Alembert and Diderot aimed at concealing some kind of esoteric message, for future disclosure, looks strong.  What was that message?  Hank's question invited us to confine our attention to the "political thought" of the Encyclopédie, and I think we can all agree that there doesn't seem to have been much to hide in that respect.  Hank and Dan describe its basic shape as "monarchic liberalism."  I think a good case can be made for assigning the political thought of the Encyclopédie a place in Dennis Rasmussen's "pragmatic Enlightenment," which is explicitly offered as a corrective to Israel's "radical" version.[93]  Rasmussen has scarcely anything to say about the Encyclopédie, but plenty about Montesquieu, one of the stars of his show.  But what if we are looking for "radicalism" in the wrong place?  What if prudent tacking in regard to "politics" -- for which there is more than a little evidence, as we've seen -- was merely a strategy of reculer pour mieux sauter, for some deeper purpose?  Any guesses about where these depths might lie?
In the spirit of not wanting to miss a belle occasion de me taire, let me conclude by returning once more to Jonathan Israel -- if only to assure you that, having joined in bouncing him from the party through the front door, I am not proposing to let him back in via the fire-escape.  It has occurred to me that perhaps part of the explanation for Israel's success in capturing the Enlightenment for our time lies simply in his inaugural gesture, the sleight-of-hand by which he subsumed nearly everything that was once called "the Scientific Revolution" into "the Enlightenment."  Among other things, that would help explain the peculiar demiurgic role played by Spinoza and "Spinozism" in the enterprise.  The possibility has been brought home forcefully as a result of studying David Wootton's magnificent The Invention of Science: A New History, the major recent attempt to rescue and rehabilitate that particular concept for our epoch.  In it, Wootton performs a feat of prestidigitation that is the opposite of Israel's -- that of making the Enlightenment disappear.  Having presented the Scientific Revolution as the most "important transformation in human history" since the Neolithic Revolution, Wootten moves straight on to its Industrial sequel before concluding with his extended polemic against the "relativism" that he traces primarily to the baleful influence of Wittgenstein.  Actually, the Enlightenment is not completely missing from his account.  At the very end of his second chapter, "The Idea of the Scientific Revolution," Wootton briefly ushers Denis Diderot on stage in order to pose the question of what it might have been like to have experienced first-hand the perspectival switch of "the invention of science."  Wootton concludes:
It might seem far easier for us to answer that question than it was for Diderot, for he was still caught up in the triumph of Newtonianism (which came later in France than in England), while we have all the advantages of hindsight.  But Diderot had one great advantage over us: graduating from the Sorbonne in 1732, he had been educated in the world of Aristotelian philosophy.  He knew how shocking the destruction of that would have been, for he had experienced it at first hand.  From a bird's-eye-view -- the historian's view -- the Scientific Revolution is a long slow process, beginning with Tycho Brahe and ending with Newton.  But for the individuals caught up in it -- for Galileo, Hooke, Boyle, and their colleagues -- it represents a series of sudden, urgent transformations.  In 1735 Diderot, educated in the old ways, still planned to become a Catholic priest; by 1748, only a little more than a decade later, he was an atheist and a materialist, already at work on the great Encyclopaedia, the first volume of which appeared in 1751.  The destruction of the temple of philosophy was not, for him, an historical event; it was a personal experience, the moment when he had awakened from a nightmare.[94]
There might be a touch of melodrama in the term "nightmare" -- but surely "radical" is not too strong a word to describe the experience of that kind of awakening.
[91.] Dale K. Van Kley, "Conclusion: The Varieties of Enlightened Experience," in William J. Bulman and Robert C. Ingram, eds., God and the Enlightenment  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 278-316.
[92.] Dale K. Van Kley, "The Religious Origins of the French Revolution, 1560-1791," in Dale Van Kley and Thomas Kaiser, eds., From Deficit  to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 117 -- an essay that resumes and updates his own masterwork, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).  For his most extensive discussion of revolutionary "neo-Augustinianism," see Dale K. Van Kley, "Religion and the Age of Patriot Reform," Journal of Modern History, Vol. 80, No 28 (June 2008), pp. 252-96.
[93.] Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Pragmatic Enlightenment: Recovering the Liberalism of Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
[94.] David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), pp. 53-54.