Politics and Puzzlement

Lynn Hunt doesn’t think much of Jonathan Israel’s latest, Revolutionary Ideas. She charges that Israel’s intellectual history lacks nuance and fudges the evidence because he “thinks about philosophy and philosophers in obsessively dichotomous terms.”

There are children of light and children of darkness, the former are the radicals, the latter moderates and constitutionalists: “On the one side are Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach, the true radicals because they are materialists, atheists, and allegedly therefore democrats. Without atheism and materialism, Israel claims, ‘it was impossible to champion the far-reaching reforms needed for a worldwide emancipation, secularization, and rationalization of society and culture.’ On the other side are the insufficiently radical philosophers whose influence can lead to no good: Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Their refusal of atheism and materialism stunts their views.”

Hunt also charges that “Israel has no feel for politics, which would not matter if he did not want to fuse ideas and politics. Nowhere is this lack of discernment more evident than in the ever-changing cast of characters who make up his authentic revolutionary leadership. Since he wants to tie every libertarian social and legal reform to materialist and atheist antecedents, he has to find his left-wing protagonists where he can. In the early chapters he makes much of the Abbé Sieyès, his leading renegade priest, and Mirabeau, the chief turncoat noble.” Later, thought, he acknowledges that both “were constitutional monarchists,” but to preserve his Manichean scheme, he has to say that they were monarchists “only ‘minimally.’ In their hearts they were already republicans—until they changed their minds and reverted.”

Hunt traces Israel’s flawed story to a flawed understanding of history. There must, Israel thinks, have been a massive revolutionary cause to produce the revolutionary tides, but Hunt points out that “No law of history dictates that dramatic outcomes must have dramatic causes,” and in fact :New situations bring new causes into the mix. The causes at work in 1789 need to explain only what happens then, not what happens ever after.” Israel’s heroes are always right, and as a result there is no room for “puzzlement.”

For this reason, Hunt prefers Tocqueville’s account: “he worked out of a sense of bafflement. Even after offering a trenchant account of ‘how, towards the middle of the eighteenth century, men of letters became the principal political men of the country’ (the title of one of his chapters), Tocqueville confessed to a friend his lingering uncertainty: ‘Independently of all that can be explained about the French Revolution, there is something unexplained in its spirit and in its acts. I can sense the presence of this unknown object, but despite all my efforts, I cannot lift the veil that covers it.’”

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