Enlightened Revolution

Brooke Horvath

Revolutionary Ideas: The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-691-15172-4) 870 pp. Hardcover, $39.95.

Was Maximilien Robespierre always the “all-consuming crocodile” Swedish radical Thomas Thorild found him to be? On what issues did the Hébertistes differ from the parti BrissotLes Enragés from your garden-variety sansculotte? Why did the radical Left prefer Diderot to Rousseau? How did a revolution that began by preaching the “rights of man” in a secular society based on reason fall victim, first, to the authoritarian populism of Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat and then, a few years later, to the coup of 18 Brumaire, which delivered the country into Napoleon’s hands?

These are a few of the questions answered (not unproblematically) in Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas, the thesis of which is that the French Revolution—though often conflicted, deadlocked, and co-opted—was driven at its best by la philosophie moderne or, more specifically, by Enlightenment radicals schooled in Diderot, d’Holbach, and Helvétius. Israel’s most succinct articulation of his principal contention: “Radical Enlightenment was incontrovertibly the one ‘big’ cause of the French Revolution. It was the sole fundamental cause because politically, philosophically, and logically it inspired and equipped the leadership of the authentic Revolution. It could do so because the Radical Enlightenment alone offered a package of values sufficiently universal, secular, and egalitarian to set in motion the forces of a broad, general emancipation based on reason, freedom of thought, and democracy.”

Israel develops his thesis by moving meticulously—virtually month by month—from rumblings of discontent in 1788 through Napoleon’s coup of 1799, periodically interrupting his chronological organization with chapters devoted to the press, religion, educational reform, international conflicts, and efforts to emancipate the slaves of France’s Caribbean colonies. A different history might well have added a chapter on the theater’s surprisingly large role in agitating for change (would that we had a theater taken so seriously by so many) and another covering ideas regarding women’s rights (including proposed changes to divorce and inheritance laws). Both topics are covered passim, but both would have rewarded concentrated discussion.

Tracing more than ten years’ worth of radical republican thought (as well as the thinking of counterrevolutionaries, constitutional monarchists, and others) and drawing upon hundreds of primary documents, Israel has produced a book of extraordinary detail. The hopeful shapers of France’s enlightened future were many, as were their antagonists (an appendix including only the revolution’s “main participants” offers thumbnail biographies of 167 journalists, philosophes, politicians, constitutional and revanchist clergy, royalists, pamphleteers, orators, and assorted “tartuffes of civisme”). Such detail, hélas, results in a book that will almost certainly prove wearying for the general reader, who may often, as did I, feel that the thrust of the argument had gotten lost amid the jostling of the fine points. Pamphlets, newspaper editorials, manifestos, transcripts of speeches, and Assembly minutes are diligently quoted, summarized, compared and contrasted, and tied to events that they are meant to explain. The reader will learn, for example, what Jean-Baptiste Cloots had to say about Jewish emancipation and of what Antoine Pierre Barnave’s centrism consisted, the nature of Tom Paine’s and Joseph Priestley’s influence, what Nicolas de Condorcet and Honoré Mirabeau contributed to the radical agenda, and how Camille Desmoulins attempted to “discredit the Terror” in the pages of Le Vieux Cordelier. But you get the idea: following these eighteenth-century intricacies through 708 pages of text requires commitment and close attention. Readers hoping for lurid stories of Charlotte Corday or the guillotining of Marie Antoinette had best shop elsewhere.

In fact, Revolutionary Ideas is less a book for the general reader than for other historians of the period. It is not only too detailed to hold the interest of the casually curious, but Israel’s sense of audience only sometimes considers readers not conversant with French, which can prove annoying, as I have perhaps already demonstrated. He also assumes his readers possess knowledge they may not have. What was the “corvée”? What are “royal lettres de cachet”? How did the Estates-General function? Who were the Brabant Patriots? Why, exactly, was the French Constitution of 1793 (and not the U.S. Constitution) “the first modern democratic constitution and the first constitution ever . . . not imposed by an aristocracy”? Otherwise, Israel’s prose is clear—nothing close to the “spastic syntax” one of his critics has accused him of practicing—but his sentences are long, loaded with interrupters, and decidedly utilitarian. His is, in short, academic prose disinclined to court and spark.

As for those fellow historians: they have been taking Israel’s work to task for a while now. A professor of modern history at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and the author, among several other works, of A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy as well as a three-volume history of the Enlightenment (Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlighten-
ment), Israel clearly writes with authority, but his prominence has made him the target of much (often harsh) criticism. Following the publication of Democratic Enlightenment, for instance, H-France Review published four trenchant dissections accompanied by a twenty-page reply from Israel (H-France Forum (volume 9, number 1, 2014). Early reviews of Revolutionary Ideas have not been glowing: see, as examples, Jeremy Popkin in H-France Review (volume 15, 2015) and Lynn Hunt in the New Republic of June 27, 2014. Among the problems his critics raise are Israel’s frequent failure to consider the personal motives behind many of the ostensibly ideological attacks and alliances, an inclination to distort or ignore in the interests of buttressing his thesis, and blindness to the difference between bluster for rhetorical effect and the ideas that informed practical political decisions.

What Israel’s critics reveal—however astute their own positions—is that, like any book attempting to make sense of large, complicated historical events, Revolutionary Ideas cannot be taken as an oracle of right ideas. Just as Israel pauses several times to offer correctives to common assumptions about the revolution, beginning with the observation that it is wrong to suppose we have no adequate explanation of why the revolution flared when it did, readers seriously desirous of understanding the Enlightenment’s role in the events of 1788–1799 will profit not only from this book but also from the “corrections” offered by critics such as those noted above.

I do not, however, wish to undermine the accomplishment this book embodies. Israel is often a clear and helpful cicerone. He has a gift for underscoring essential points memorably and usefully: “Nominally, Marat and Robespierre stood for Rousseauiste direct democracy but actually promoted a collective vision emphasizing conformity with ‘the people’s will,’ which was envisaged as a monolithic entity fixed by the people’s leaders from which no dissent was permitted.” Occasionally, and equally usefully, his story reminds us that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “the Paris Jacobins had refined the art of mass deception, developing a method of deluding ordinary folk that even the most corrupt royal courts had never dreamed of. Untruth and misinformation endlessly repeated, they had discovered, is what most effectively mobilizes an ignorant public”—though perhaps this tactic was not sui generis but something the Jacobins learned from the Church itself.

Indeed, of special interest to readers of Free Inquiry may be the two chapters devoted to la philosophie’s war on the Church. Despite the fact that many radical philosophes were atheists or deists, the more politic were initially willing to pay lip service to belief if only to assuage France’s large number of pious Catholics. In short, as Israel presents the situation, the revolution was uninterested in theology but most interested in social reform and Realpolitik. Because the Church had become a particularly repugnant Augean stable that was rightly seen as participating in the exploitation of the people, siding with king and nobility to defend “what to the Left revolutionary leadership seemed barbaric, unjustified privileges, antisocial attitudes, and immunities,” strenuous steps were taken to break organized religion’s stranglehold on France. As Israel explains, “reducing and marginalizing religious authority and the public role of religion and religious values was always central to the outlook and writings of the radical philosophes.”

The question, Israel continues, was whether “a gradual process of diminishing and degrading ecclesiastical sway in politics, education, culture, daily life, and the economy” could be accomplished without “stoking civil strife.” By 1793, the number of clergy hoping to reconcile revolutionary plans with Christianity had shrunk, and more extreme efforts at “de-Christianization” were taken. “Aggressive persecution and vandalism” gained traction, including the destruction or defacement of religious artifacts, the repurposing of confessionals into sentry boxes, the forcing of priests to marry against their will, “inquisitorial” violence, and more, all of which paved the way for Robespierre’s “Cult of the Supreme Being” (by which he did not mean himself) and assault on the atheistic “apostles of reason.” In these two chapters, Israel offers a vivid account that illuminates a signal moment on the path toward secular humanism.

In sum: for those with sufficient resolve and stamina, and who understand that there are legitimate challenges to Pro­fessor Israel’s reading of the French Revolu­tion, Revolutionary Ideas will prove informative and stimulating. It is not by any means light fare, but it should prove time well spent.

Brooke Horvath

Brooke Horvath’s most recent reviews for FI were of Arlindo Oliveira’s The Digital Mind and Daniel De Nicola’s Understanding Ignorance.


A review of Revolutionary Ideas: The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel.

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