I have previously referred to Jonathan Israel’s trilogy on the Enlightenment. The volumes are Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and Democratic Enlightenment (2011). There are other good treatments of this period, but I think Israel set a new standard, and his unique emphases are extremely valuable. Here are a few highlights.

Volume 1 documents the large social importance of the Spinozist movement in 17th and 18th century Europe and its role in pioneering democratic politics, with much fascinating detail.

Volume 2 rounds out the picture of a three-way contest between “moderate” or mainstream Enlightenment, “radical” Spinozist Enlightenment, and Counter-Enlightenment.

Volume 3 covers the relatively sudden emergence of democracy as a mainstream concern, via the American and especially the French revolution.

His description of the mainstream Enlightenment suggests that its representatives were actually a good deal more timid than I judge Plato and Aristotle to have been in asserting the place of reason over one-sided authority in politics and religion. While I generally agree with these assessments of the relative conservatism of the mainstream Enlightenment, I support a more charitable reading of Kant, putting more stress on his general view of autonomy of reason.

The French Encyclopedists and their cothinkers appear as continuing the Spinozist “radical Enlightenment” democratic tradition (and, I would say, as closer to carrying out the implications of Plato and Aristotle on the unfettered use of reason); advocating a more robust rationalism and a principled approach to social justice; and even strongly anticipating 20th century criticisms of colonialism and racism. As Israel presents their positions, they look both saner than and politically well to the left of the ideologically Rousseauian Robespierre faction responsible for the Terror. (See also Hegel and the French Revolution.)

Israel documents in wonderful detail the huge, amazing popularity of illegal political and “philosophical” pamphlets in 18th century France. He argues that the unusually high social importance of pamphlets and books and what the 18th century French called “philosophy” was a decisive factor in the actual advent of the French Revolution. I think this is utterly fascinating. (It in some ways parallels the florescence of social democracy in Germany before World War I, or the flourishing of interest in translations of “ancient wisdom” among literate craft people in medieval Baghdad.)

Unfortunately, Israel thinks his emphasis on the widespread social importance of “philosophy” is necessarily incompatible with other historiographical emphases, such as economic or Foucaultian ones. As a sort of Aristotelian, I question assumptions of — or requirements for — such univocality in accounts of the determination of complex things, especially something as rich as history. I don’t see any reason why we can’t usefully deploy all these ways of understanding as seems fitting.