The Enlightenment, Part 2: Radical Enlightenment

Next, I am going to be discussing the Radical Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  The Radical Enlightenment has not been covered properly by historians until recent years and should be of great interest to atheists and other secular people.  We shall be covering its roots in the 16th and 17th Centuries, its fruition in the 18th, and its relation to the French Revolution of 1789.  We shall also briefly glance at the Terror and the Counter-Enlightenment, both reactions to the entire progressive project undertaken by many philosophers of that era.  We shall be concentrating on France, Holland and England, with some mention of Germany’s secret societies. 

Many European nations experienced similar awakenings and drastic changes that were part of the new ways of viewing the world, human nature, and social and cultural perspectives.  Jonathan Israel, the author of an important trilogy on the radical Enlightenment and of A Revolution of the Mind, 2003, has listed the beliefs and basic principles that informed this strand of the Enlightenment. They are: “democracy, racial and sexual equality, individual liberty concerning lifestyle, full freedom of thought, expression and of the press, eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education, and full separation of church and state.  The purpose of the state is seen as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process.

The chief maxim of the Radical Enlightenment is that all men have the same basic needs, rights and status, irrespective of what they believe, or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and that consequently, all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or non-religious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations respected by law and government.  Its universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally.”

Before I discuss what such an agenda means to us today, I would like to thank Professor Israel for his discovery and detailing of facts that were there all along and needed a keen mind to discern.  He has found that there were two distinct strands to the Enlightenment.  One strand was the moderate one as exemplified by such thinkers as Voltaire, Hume, and Benjamin Franklin.  The other strand, most important to the secular community, can be found in the works and projects of such philosophers as Diderot, d’Holbach and the Marquis de Condorcet.  To separate the two strands of the Enlightenment and to privilege the Radical strand, is not an attempt to denigrate moderate thinkers who were vital to the modern project. Instead, it is a penetration into territory of utmost concern and interest to atheists.  Not enough has been written concerning those men who not merely opened the path to the beginnings of modernity, but pushed through it, often at peril, and sometimes, loss of life.

But to get back to the principles and projects set forth about the goals of the Radical philosophers, I am sure we all see the point of what they mean to us in the present day.  Their principles, now part of the justice and cultural systems of the most progressive and developed nations of the world, are the same ones that religious fundamentalists all over the planet would like to eradicate.  Such principles were not put into effect until the American Revolution which began in 1776.  They were of course not fully implemented in America at that time, either, as slavery and other abrogation of rights prevailed for too long.  What is quite remarkable, considering the vast array of literature written on the Enlightenment, is that very little has been produced until recently on the importance of the Radical philosophers’ influence on that progressive era. The two strands, identified by Israel and other scholars, are an important distinction.  We need to be aware of the true roots of our modern belief systems and principles.  According to Israel, the last significant threat to modernity was the extension of various aspects of the Counter-Enlightenment as exemplified by the Fascist Party, defeated in 1945, and Stalinism, now past. Yet religious fundamentalism, as I have mentioned, continues to threaten the hard-won rights and governmental reforms of human beings all over the world.  In addition, there is the sad fact that the decolonization of many countries and areas in the 1950’s and 1960’s did not result in secularism or democracy with the ascendancy of newly formed governments.  Indeed, many of the fledgling governments failed to endorse such principles. 

There have been other problems in recent years concerning the Enlightenment.  I admire many postmodern thinkers for their penetrating analyses of language, power, cultural sacred cows and other clichéd traditions; but their denigration of the Enlightenment and its values became a challenge to the hegemony of secular values in academe and in philosophy. Too many post modernists denied the concept of universal values based on reason and denied that such values could claim superiority over other systems of thought.  Fortunately, their reign was brief- I do not think that conferring equal validity to all traditions and belief systems is a salient thought process.  It is not colonialist, racist, or elitist to privilege reason over emotion and superstition.  Fortunately, the hegemony of the post moderns in academe has passed, and while some of the unfortunate effects of both post modernism and multiculturalism linger, Enlightenment values remain alive and well.  Michel Foucault, one of the Enlightenment’s most penetrating critics, suggested in his last works that we need to revisit it.  He had regained an increased respect for it.  His untimely death cut off his critique, but we have been left with his change of mind concerning the importance of the Enlightenment to the progress of the modern world.

What are the origins of thought that culminated in the Radical Enlightenment?  Baruch Spinoza and Pierre Bayle were among the crucially important influences on many of the philosophers of the 18th Century and thus on modernity.  Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish Dutch citizen living in Amsterdam.  Although he had been brought up in the Jewish faith, he later studied with Van den Enden, a former Jesuit, freethinker, and radical democrat.  He also associated with anti-clerical groups in the Dutch community. In 1656, his Jewish synagogue excommunicated him.  The exact reasons have never been explained, but there were probably several difficulties that disturbed the Jewish community.  Spinoza’s freethinking about god and his critical work on the Bible were very negatively received; the Jewish community was at peace with the Dutch establishment and was afraid of persecution.  But finally, Spinoza himself had begun to separate from his community of origin.  According to some scholars, he had not wanted to create embarrassment or scandal by leaving the synagogue but was not crushed by the excommunication.  Be that as it may, there is no question that he was a giant among thinkers as well as a sincere and honest man. 

Spinoza conflated the body and mind into one (monism,) and reduced god and nature to the same thing, while stating that nature, or god, is bound by its own laws.  He excluded belief in miracles and in spirits transcendent from their bodies.  He denigrated tradition, privileging reason as the sole life guide.  As we have mentioned, Spinoza opened the way for sophisticated biblical criticism as well.  The argument continues as to whether or not he was an atheist or pantheist, but his statements that the mainstream religions and churches were betraying true Christianity is important.  He did, it is true, continue to believe in the moral teachings of Jesus as some of the highest ethics, but he never considered Jesus a divinity.  He lambasted the churches for their dogma and schisms in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of 1670. Note that date- 1670. He believed that Jesus’ moral teaching could be boiled down to principles of justice based on human equality and charity.  He denied that such principles were taught or embraced by either the Apostles or the church fathers. He boldly stated that theologians and churches had added a “great heap” of superstition to Jesus’s rather simple ideas.  Of course, many secular people today question if Jesus was a historical person or a created myth, but the important point is Spinoza’s very early democratic and anti-clerical thinking.  His thought system was revolutionary.

I am going to relate the history of Voltaire’s extreme attacks on Spinozan thought and on philosophers who followed Spinoza’s philosophical lead, even though Voltaire belonged to the 18th Century rather than Spinoza’s era.  Since we are at the beginning of this lecture, understanding Voltaire’s positions will illuminate both the question of why he is considered a moderate philosopher rather than a radical one; and it will also demonstrate the often clear demarcation between the moderates and radicals.  It will also show how the influence of Spinoza hovered over the beliefs and principles of the 18th Century Enlightenment.

Voltaire was one of the best known philosophers and important literary figures of the 18th Century.  Few of us who have read it, or seen it performed, can forget his play, Candide, published around 1759, a caustic mockery of the philosopher, Leibniz, and his belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. But Voltaire detested the principles and work of the Baron d’Holbach, whom many scholars believe greatly influenced by Spinoza. In fact, some experts in the field maintain that Holbach’s atheistic thought system, put forth in his published works, was watered-down Spinoza.

We shall be speaking at length concerning d’Holbach this evening, the writer of the first, or one of the first, openly atheist volumes in the West, The System of Nature, 1770.  It is quite important to keep in mind, when Voltaire assails Holbach, he is also attacking Spinoza, who was as important to Holbach’s thinking as Holbach’s is to ours.  As a matter of fact, in the last ten years of his life, Voltaire reacted to Holbach’s System of Nature by shifting his attack away from Christianity and instead pilloried Spinozism and materialism.

His positions were mixed.  For most of his final years, he fiercely assailed not only Holbach’s System of Nature, but also attacked Diderot’s ideas.  He considered Holbach and Diderot wrong; he believed, and stated, that they were both undermining the entire Enlightenment project with the errors in their thinking. However, Voltaire was beginning to go more deeply into his philosophical stances and issues, and by 1769, he was admitting there were serious problems with the Argument from Design. (See What is Atheism- Arguments for and against the Existence of god.) He had picked up such an erroneous concept from Isaac Newton, whose theory of gravity was seminal to emerging cosmology in the modern world.  Design was at the heart of Newton’s philosophy, and since the 1730’s, Voltaire had given enthusiastic assent to it.  Now, however, he admitted that divine power must be located in nature itself, that man, as part of nature, is subject to the iron laws of nature. But he went so far, as they say, and no farther.

Voltaire insisted on creation by a deity, that species were unchanging, and retained his belief in most of Newton’s concepts. That included Newton’s belief that the regulation and organization of the planets demonstrated that all such laws, by interacting so well together, were proof that a single intelligence had crafted them.  With such theories and his belief in them, Voltaire commenced an attack against Spinoza by way of Diderot and Holbach.  He detested Holbach’s rejection of final causes and teleology in the natural world.  It is important to keep in mind that all three men, Voltaire, Holbach, and Diderot, were 18th Century philosophers, while Spinoza was from the earlier 17th Century.  But behind the Radical philosophers stands Spinoza, a giant of philosophy and the most innovative thinker of the 17th Century.  In fact, according to Israel, “Spinoza was the first major philosopher in the history of philosophy to proclaim democracy the best form of government.”  Anyone who undertakes to read Spinoza’s political ideas will find them astonishingly modern.  Voltaire and other moderate Enlightenment philosophers were anti-egalitarian. But for Voltaire, the most unacceptable facet of Spinozism was the one substance doctrine- the belief that all nature was one substance, and so it followed that body and mind were one, that god and nature were the same, that there were no miracles and reason was the guide for human life. I am repeating these concepts that I spoke of a little earlier because they are all key to the deep split between Enlightenment philosophers.  Not only Voltaire, but Hume, Montesquieu, Ferguson, Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, and Benjamin Franklin, all members of the Moderate Enlightenment, advocated a precarious balance between reason and tradition, giving broad assent to the status quo.  Some philosophers following d’Holbach and Diderot were Mirabeau, Tom Paine, Condorcet, Lessing, and Herder, and all were vociferous opponents of establishment rule and traditional thinking.

Voltaire believed that when the Radical thinkers took up Spinoza’s ideas, they committed a fundamental error.  He was astute enough to recognize, as too many historians in the present day either attempt to ignore or do not understand, that it was Spinoza who provided the basic framework for the newly developing atheistic materialism.  In fact, Voltaire believed that Spinoza had been the most incisive, systematic and seductive teacher of the atheistic philosophy. Voltaire continued to insist that the Radical philosophers were wrong.  He found the error in Spinoza’s thought: if nature possesses intelligence, i.e. the power to think, then it can have the power to create design, and if it has design, it must have a will, and if there is a will, it can create grand causes.  In this flawed way, Voltaire claimed Spinoza was wrong in his rejection of a divine providence. 

Such dogmatic thinking was Voltaire’s final position and he sent letters to d’Alembert (a co-editor of the Dictionary,) Frederick the Great and others, as well as writing works formed by his idée fixe.   Diderot and Holbach countered that if a divine providence was responsible for the entire world’s order, then it was also responsible for all the chaos, disorder and faults in the world. (Please see my earlier reference to  Voltaire lost the argument, but continued to rail against Holbach.  In 1770, Voltaire blamed Holbach for throwing all European thinking into chaos, making the philosophers hated, and rendering philosophy itself ridiculous.  It is interesting that Voltaire seemed to believe that many philosophers had sided with Holbach and Diderot, and that they had ignored Voltaire’s response to the two. The leading astronomer of Paris, Josephe-Jerome LaLande, was known to have spoken in favor of the System of Nature. Such acceptance of Holbach was gall to Voltaire.  Frederick the Great, a moderate thinker, and a ruler, was uninterested in upsetting the status quo. He referred to Diderot, sarcastically, as “le Spinosiste de Langres.”

Jonathan Israel states that Voltaire’s fight to discredit the church by no means made him a believer in the kind of freedom advocated by the Radical philosophers.  He wanted a strong European alliance of the nobility and courts of Europe.  It was only theological power he wanted to break, not the secular great powers.  Although against religion, he wanted the common people’s faith to remain intact.  Scholars have discovered that the roots of the Radical Enlightenment began with Spinoza in the 17th Century. He was far ahead of his time in his monism, his democratic and egalitarian ideals, and his anti-monarchism.  I have mentioned the difficulty of ascertaining whether or not he was an atheist or a pantheist. 

It was dangerous in Spinoza’s era to declare one’s self an atheist.  His theories concerning Jesus and nature meant that he was able to be joined by his Christian Socinian Collegiant friends who made common cause with him.  Dutch Christians of one belief or another helped him enormously.  Pieter Balling translated much of Spinoza’s early work and the Amsterdam publisher, Jan Rieuwertz published the philosopher’s work clandestinely, despite all of Spinoza’s work being banned by the Dutch government in 1678.  We are very fortunate that in the last twenty years or so, studies of Spinoza have advanced and shed light on his influence.

I would like to mention an interesting forgery, or part forgery, which  was very influential in helping to add some sparks to the Republican fervor that led up to the French Revolution. According to historian Silvia Berti, the book was originally published as La Vie et L’Esprit de Spinosa (The Life and Spirit of Spinoza),containing both a biography of Benedict Spinoza, most of which was fairly accurate, and  an anti-religious essay, later republished under the title The Treatise of the Three Imposters, 1719.  The document purported to be Spinoza’s views about the three major figures of mainstream religion: MuhammadJesus, and Moses and how they had in fact misrepresented their experiences. There are theories about the authorship, but who the writer really was is unclear.  What is clear how much he detested Mohammed, Jesus and Moses.  The book rails against Christianity, religion, superstition and other topics. Berti actually found a printing of it in the 1940’s in a library in California.  It is not Spinoza’s style, and he never railed against Jesus or the others in that fashion.  Berti finds it interesting that a book that was a forgery contributed some influence to revolution.  One can see how influential Spinoza’s name was during the Enlightenment.

And yet, I continue to ponder the question that I shall bring up several more times this evening.  Why has it taken so long, despite the plethora of scholarly volumes published on the Enlightenment, to recognize the unequal emphasis placed on the Moderate Enlightenment?  It was the Radical Enlightenment which contributed the most to social change during the 18th Century, and very likely, to the French Revolution of 1789.  It is to the Radical Enlightenment that we owe the bulk of our secular and cultural concepts. Such passing over of facts that are in front of one is not true scholarship. Nor is the lumping together of vastly disparate philosophers into one great “Peaceable Kingdom” of the Enlightenment.  Does the correction beginning to take place owe anything to the increasing secularization of society?

Was the neglect of the Radical philosophers because the Moderate Enlightenment generally prevailed in the English speaking countries of England, Scotland and America?  It seems that such hegemony of the Moderate philosophers and their work, supplemented by the pious Common Sense Enlightenment in Scotland, contributed to the general neglect of more aggressive concepts.  We shall discuss this Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment in a little while.  Locke and Newton were much admired in the English speaking countries and these status quo thinkers have taken the historical stage rather than the rightful philosophers who were the progenitors of modern thought.

I would now like to turn to Pierre Bayle (1647-1706,) another philosopher we hear about too rarely in the present day.  He has been surpassed in history by Spinoza, whose ideas he helped propagate. It would be a grievous error to leave him on the sidelines as we peruse the many threads that eventually converged in Radical Enlightenment history.

Pierre Bayle was a very important figure of the Radical Enlightenment because of the fact that he was propagating Spinoza.  There is a misapprehension about him because he approached religion as a Christian.  He did not embrace the atheism of many Radical Enlightenment philosophers. Ruth Whelan states that this French Protestant’s influence on unbelief and its development was enormous.  And yet it is unclear if he ever embraced unbelief within himself.  He was an espouser of skepticism, and after a period of wandering back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism he settled on Protestantism.  He eventually moved to Rotterdam on a small pension granted him by his publishers.  This money allowed him to devote his life to writing and scholarship.  In 1697, he came up against the Dutch Protestant Church in Rotterdam for so-called scandalous writing in his 4 volume Historical and Critical Dictionary.

The range of what we now call “hot button topics” in his work is incredible – atheism, the Bible, the problem of evil, skepticism, and so on.  The topics were very modern and it is rather wonderful that they were undertaken in 1697. Remember, it was still the 17th Century, although it was very near the true beginnings of the Enlightenment.  Bayle was sympathetic to atheists in his work, especially to Spinoza.  Spinoza’s is the longest biographical entry in Bayle’s Dictionary. If you recall from earlier lectures I have given, people believed atheists were immoral and their ideas would lead to social disorder because they had no fear of god or divine punishment in the afterlife. Both beliefs were considered necessary to preserve the social fabric.  But Bayle paradoxically stated that atheists could live together both morally and peaceably in a society, while religious people were often immoral and the quarrels between sects and among themselves threatened civil society. He believed people could love virtue for its own sake.

Bayle also believed, and I quote Whelan here, “that all conduct, whether that of atheists or believers, is to be judged in the light of the ethical principles available to Reason.” Nevertheless, the church was scandalized with the way Bayle undertook Biblical criticism.  He criticized many of the main Biblical characters of the Old Testament, such as Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and David for immoral behavior, pointing a finger at their lies, sexual aberrations, and their cruelty. He was also disgusted by the chicanery of the rulers, including David.  To make matters worse, the anti-clerical and anti-religion Biblical article that Bayle wrote for his own philosophical Dictionary was picked up by Voltaire later for his. Bayle’s statements, now taken out of context, seemed an ironic and sardonic attack on religious belief.

And yet Bayle was much nuanced.  Scholars believe that Bayle had an important purpose by subjecting the Bible to an ethical critique and insisting that any interpretation that involved committing a crime was false.  It is believed that Bayle was attempting to undermine the ideas of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, (354-430) and one of the most important church theologians.  We have discussed Augustine in earlier lectures.  Augustine often interpreted scripture in a way to justify the harassing of those whom the church deemed heretics.  He also believed that those heretics who would not yield to religious argument should eventually be put to death.  Bayle’s position was considered a scandal.

We have already dealt with the problem of evil and Voltaire’s opinion vis-à-vis Diderot and Holbach, but Bayle dealt with the question so elegantly in his Dictionary that his statements are worth quoting.  This is a long quotation, with some of my own words in between, to carry the sense of Bayle’s thinking along. Here is his statement on the problem of evil. “The manner of introducing evil under the empire of a sovereign being, infinitely good, infinitely holy, and infinitely powerful is not only inexplicable but also incomprehensible.”   He pretended to use the words of an old abbey philosopher to say: “It is evident that evil ought to be prevented, if it be possible, and that it is a sinful thing to permit it when it can be prevented.  Nevertheless, our Theology shews us that this is false.  It teaches us that god does nothing but what becomes his perfection, when he permits all the disorders that are in the world, and which might easily have been prevented.”  He was positive that no theodicy, the philosophical effort to justify god’s goodness vis-a-vis the existence of evil in the world, could explain away the existence of systemic evil in the world that was supposedly created and watched over by an all powerful, all benevolent god.

This was Bayle’s very radical critique of theodicy.  He found, on the point of evil in the world, irreconcilable breaches between reason and faith. His skepticism, which he claimed to be an attempt to clear away dogma and lead people to faith, actually undermined religion.  He was doubtful concerning the trinity, transubstantiation, and immortality.  A keen thinker with an elegant style, he exposed many dogmas and received wisdom to scrutiny, and they were unable to withstand his logic.

Israel states that in the voluminous 18th Century literature attacking the radical philosophers, Pierre Bayle is given a prominent place.  The Counter-Enlightenment of the latter 18th Century considered him an inspirer, a father figure and proponent of radical ideas.  He was often described as the most insidious figure of radical thought.  We owe him an intellectual debt.

Spinoza and Bayle were the forerunners of the Radical philosophers. I will now turn my focus to two important, and very radical philosophers of the 18th Century Enlightenment, d’Holbach and Diderot, because it seems to me their thinking exemplifies the Radical Enlightenment and carries its project and ideas forward very successfully. I am trying tonight to draw a picture of the progress of the Radical Enlightenment and its triumph over moderate thinking, through some of its most exemplary philosophers and writers. In this manner, I hope to make some ideas and goals clear by focusing on a few important thinkers, as the range of writers and philosophers of the 18th Century is too broad and diffuse to capture during our limited time.

The first truly modern philosopher of the Radical Enlightenment in France we shall discuss this evening is the Baron d’Holbach. He is also the most frequently neglected, considering the importance of his System of Nature, his salon and the dispersion of his thinking not only in France but in Europe.  That neglect and omission from histories of the Enlightenment is now slowly being remedied.  D’Holbach inherited a large fortune and purchased a home in Paris around 1749.  He began to give dinner parties every Thursday and Sunday that made his home the center of France’s literary circles- philosophical, social and literary. The guest lists read like a listing of Enlightenment philosophy- both Moderate and Radical. Diderot was on the permanent list.  Other sometime guests included Helvetius, Gibbon, Hume, Rousseau, Priestley, Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith.  The clergy also regularly attended the dinners.  Many scholars assume from this fact that the dinners were a place in which to freely exchange ideas.  Holbach’s salon was considered the finest in Paris.  He was an outspoken atheist, one of the first to declare himself.

Holbach began to translate books on mineralogy and chemistry, then to write books himself- he composed about 400 articles for Diderot’s Grand Encyclopedia, contributing to it financially as well.  According to Timothy Binga, Holbach made use of all three ways writers used to retain anonymity and avoid prosecution at that time.  One could earn an indefinite stay in the Bastille if the government was displeased with one’s publications. So Holbach wrote under the name of Richard Boulanger, an author who had died earlier.  For System of Nature, he used Mirabaud’s name.  He also obtained the Amsterdam publisher, Marc-Michel Rey, and the books publication information claimed they had been printed in England. 

Holbach was a cautious man, but his System of Nature in 1770 created a large scandal.  It has been compared to the furor that Darwin’s Origin of Species created when it was published almost a century later. Before discussing the importance of Holbach’s volume, I would like to follow Jonathan Israel’s thinking in his massive trilogy on the Radical Enlightenment.  Israel makes the point that until the 1730’s, both John Locke and Isaac Newton had a very lukewarm, slow and hesitant reception in Europe. Then, in the France of 1730’s and 1740’s, anglomania crept up and became prominent. In Enlightenment Contested, Israel explains that by 1745 the French establishment was a Newton-Lockean culture.    Israel’s point is that to claim English ideas as the source of the Enlightenment is to severely distort the historical record; English ideas were very late to arrive and to take root.  We must look to 17th Century Holland, instead, where Spinoza’s and Bayle’s works originated, to find an important source for the Radical Enlightment.  Ironically, it was the Catholic Jansenist backlash, with the return to ideas of predestination and other fundamental religious concepts, which declared war on philosophical reason in the France of 1748. The ensuing conflict caused the moderate camp, the Moderate Enlightenment, to crumble in France.  The intellectual wars of 1748-1752 left the Radicals with possession of the ground the moderates had been driven from.

Even with the ascendancy of the ideas of Holbach, materialism and atheism were unpalatable to many thinkers.  We have seen how Voltaire railed against such concepts.  Many scholars are of the opinion that, as we mentioned earlier, System of Nature is basically watered-down Spinoza. If that is so, and it seems most plausible that it is, Holbach’s accessible volume was an advantage for the Radical Enlightenment, because Spinoza is notoriously difficult to read. System of Nature, however, is a more usable book for the general reader and has gone through more than eighty editions since the 1770’s when it was published. 

Holbach’s so-called Bible of Materialism has a main thesis, says Timothy Binga, and that is “that science, experience and reason can explain all things in the universe.  All things must conform to the laws of physics and there are no supernatural causes for any phenomenon, including the existence of god.  Human beings can exist morally, using reason and experience, not belief in god as their sole guide.” Holbach’s writings were an outrage, despite the ascendancy of the Radical Enlightenment as the 18th Century progressed. D’Holbach observed that the principal split dividing thinkers in his day was between a majority believing body and soul to be fundamentally distinct and the laws governing the mind and moral action as separate from the laws ruling bodies, and those minority philosophers who maintained that body and mind were one.  This latter group would include the Spinozan thinkers and the Unitaritans who were with Priestley.  Joseph Priestley, the man who discovered oxygen, was not an atheist, but he was a monist.  Holbach goes on to say that the morality of reason has no connection with, and is hampered by, belief in beings of which humans have no conception of and the unnatural duties arising from the imagined obligations to these beings.

D’Holbach’s political beliefs are frequently paid less attention than his pronouncements concerning religion; in fact, they are often ignored.  His attacks on belief in god and religion’s irrelevance have been of more interest to secular thinkers.  But his political theories are based on Spinoza’s and were an important influence during the Enlightenment.  Not only Voltaire, but that singular thinker who turned against reason, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the author of the Social Contract, 1762, spoke against materialism.  Rousseau was anti-democratic and believed man had degenerated in society.  Rousseau, even though highly influential in helping generate the French Revolution, was the antithesis of the Radical Enlightenment.  D’Holbach’s writings, by contrast, are exemplary of it. He identified two powers: organized religion and government.  He maintained that individuals have combined religion and government in order to preclude people’s enjoyment of benefits that society should extend to all men.  He thought the established powers had distorted happiness for most people and as a result, thinkers as Rousseau were able to point the finger at society being depraved.  Not so, countered Holbach, representative democracy, freedom of the press, and universal education will make society more just and people happier. 

Most thinkers of the Moderate Enlightenment did not endorse such principals; indeed many were against them.  D’Holbach was a man who influenced the thought of our modern world.  His ideas can now be found in the philosophic stances of secular humanism, atheism, rationalism and materialism.  He is an early spokesman and inspiration for the secular community in the present day as he was in his own time for the Radical Enlightenment. Many scholars believe that Holbach was an inspiration for the French Revolution, although he did not live to see it.  His thinking certainly was a large contribution to the concept of separation of church and state.

And now we come to Denis Diderot, 1713-1784, the ne plus ultra atheist philosopher of the Radical Enlightenment and the principal editor, with D’Alembert, of the Grand Encyclopedia, 1751-1780.  Although some scholars such as Fred Whitehead contest the idea of Diderot being an atheist at all times in his life, others would disagree.  Diderot, too, as Holbach, is exemplary of the Radical Enlightenment. He was enrolled in the Jansenist College in 1729.  But between 1735 and 1745, just as the English Moderate Enlightenment was at its height, Diderot’s self-imposed studies in mathematics, science and languages took him in the direction of free thought. His thinking is not only grounded in monist materialism, but also in the idea of being just. “True morality,” he stated, “is essentially reverence for, and obedience to, just laws and good institutions, so that societies have good or bad customs and morals depending on whether they have good or bad laws.”

For Diderot, and the Radical Enlightenment thinkers as a whole, morality is a universal, purely secular system based on the conception of justice wholly separate from, indeed best cultivated without, the influence of any particular religion. I quote from Jonathan Israel once again here.  “Ministers of religion disagree, “says Diderot, “because through their systems they became masters of regulating all men’s actions and of disposing all that men owned and wanted.” “In the name of Heaven, he continues, “they endorsed arbitrary government on earth.” Diderot answered charges against him around the time of Holbach’s System of Nature. There were many charges, coming from all sides, but he did not waver.  In his commentary on a Dutch philosopher, he definitively reiterates his monism and asks just what societal chaos has been created by his beliefs.  He cites his embrace of individual liberty, belief in materialism, freedom of the press and provocatively repeats his question concerning what moral ills have come about as a result of his writing.  Diderot’s political views are equally radical; scholars cite numerous passages in his work that offer the decided view that, led by responsible leaders, a massive armed effort against tyrannical leaders is justified.  Statements such as these brought attacks not only from Voltaire, but Immanuel Kant and Frederick the Great.  Diderot insisted, along with most of the Radical Enlightenment thinkers, that if material interests and prejudices of the strongest and wealthiest are organized in such a way to prevent morality and a just society, it is useless to strive for moral improvement of men and of that society.  He was not only anti-clerical, but in line with his political position, he was anti-colonial as well.

It is important at this point to focus on the highly influential Encyclopedia he wrote and co-edited along with d’Alembert from 1751-1780.  David Adams explains that despite its radical reputation, and that reputation was well deserved, there are two important points about the project to keep in mind. First, the huge enterprise had dozens of contributors, all of whom had diverse ideas about religion and other topics.  It is useless to seek consistency of outlook in all the articles.  The general tone of the Encyclopedia is skeptical, but there are by no means across the board criticisms of religion as many of the authors were pious. Deism of one sort or another was shared by many contributors, rather than atheism.

Secondly, the Encyclopedia was cleverly cross-referenced by its editors to cause a reader who began from one innocuous passage or article to be led to other articles critical of the establishment, particularly the religious and political establishment. There were many branches a reader could take in pursuing a particular type of interest.  Not all readers might arrive at the same articles, even if interested in one particular topic.  Diderot, and for a time, d’Alembert, concealed their radical agenda and likely their attempt to throw careless scrutinizers off the scent was successful.  However, having studied the cross-referencing and the choice of authors of all types of articles in the volumes, most scholars agree that the Encyclopedia exhibited skepticism and hostility to all religion, but especially Catholicism.  The religious sections of the volumes as well as many of the other sections, are united in several aspects: skepticism as exemplified in a rational outlook, an excellent and wide knowledge of history, and a strong aversion to totalitarian authority.

It is also important to keep in mind that Diderot had been in the Bastille for awhile, jailed because of alleged pornography in one of his novels.  Voltaire and other important thinkers clamored for his release.  When he was free, he set about his publishers’ new task: an encyclopedia of all learning.  Although the authorities eventually removed their official approval, the Encyclopedia resumed publication after a while, supposedly clandestinely, and the government chose to look the other way.

It was a historic turning point in publishing. There is an article on enjoyment that discusses sexual pleasure.  The footnotes to the article on the soul make it fairly clear that the soul does not exist. Here is Diderot on the project: “All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.  We must overturn the barriers that reason never erected, give back to the arts and sciences the liberty that is so precious to them.” Robert Darnton, in the Business of Enlightenment, is of the opinion that about twenty-five thousand copies of the Encyclopedia came into circulation at that period.  There was no turning back from the judging and debunking of the sacred cows of kings, clergy and dogma that had reached the court of public opinion.  The judgment, in the form of the French Revolution, would turn out to be severe. Diderot was the perfect person to undertake such a huge task- self-made, self-educated and brave enough to risk imprisonment for writing what he believed in.

My next, and final, sketch of a philosopher and his relation to the Radical Enlightenment will be of great interest to American atheists and secular thinkers- Thomas Paine, 1737-1809.   Let me say at the outset that the stories of his poverty at the end of his life and myths concerning a religious conversion are not true: he had about $12,000 in the bank when he passed away and there is no record that he ever recanted any of his secular views.  He was never more than a moderate drinker, not the alcoholic his enemies portrayed.  Paine was an author, freethinker, revolutionary and reformer.  According to Jonathan Israel, he was also one of the principal propagators of the radical ideas which had resurgence in the 1780’s and 1790’s after the French Revolution. The renaissance of very progressive concepts was a partial triumph of the Radical Enlightenment.  He was a very successful publicist, probably one of the most successful of his time.  Paine propagated the radical cause with what some thinkers believe was an unprecedented impact in Britain. That he did so was a remarkable achievement, given that as I have mentioned, Britain was firmly in the Newton-Lockean moderate camp.

Paine’s ideas also had acceptance in America, France, and Ireland.  Foner calls his writing “a striking departure from the convention of English political writing.”  Paine broke with all the clichés of British Radical Whiggism. He spoke concerning universal human rights, not merely the freedom of Englishmen, and he grounded those rights in the state of nature to be carried over into the state of society. Of course, he was citing Spinoza and the French Radical Enlightenment philosophers, but no one knows his exact sources as he rarely cited influences or other authors. However, his style and rhetoric of natural rights rang stunningly for those who read or heard them. Here are his own words: “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he did before, but to have those rights better secured.” My personal view is that his stance is much more salient than Rousseau’s belief that society had made humans depraved.

I hope my attempt to pull together some of the strands of the Radical Enlightenment’s key thinkers, writers and spokespersons has made the Radical Enlightenment more comprehensible during our short time span this evening.  As I have said, for a short time, the radical intellectuals triumphed.

There were many more factors that fed into the Radical Enlightenment.  We have seen in our last month’s lecture on the Enlightenment, the various clubs and associations that sprang up during the latter portion of the 18th Century.  These groups demonstrated the splits in philosophical positions that were so striking in that era. In fact, I was delighted to discover Richard  Van Dulman’s statement in his Society of the Enlightenment written around 1999. He makes some interesting observations about clubs and societies formed during the Enlightenment.  Here is what he says: “Two groups achieved permanence- the secret society of the Freemasons and the so-called patriotic and public spirited societies.  They represented the two main strands of the Enlightenment. Behind a cloak of secrecy Freemasonry aimed to create a “private moral world, independent of the State and the Church, in which to further the development of men, who in accordance with the laws of enlightened reason, chose to comport themselves in a moral and responsible manner. The patriotic societies, on the other hand, aimed to function ‘openly’ on behalf of the State and society in the interests of the common good, that is, to strengthen patriotic consciousness and achieve the goals of the Enlightenment by means of a practical purpose and reformist endeavors.” Van Dulman is one of the few scholars who, even in a limited fashion, deal and discuss the two strands of the Enlightenment.  But the Freemasons, about whom I spoke in our first lecture on the 18th Century, were less radical than the order of the Illuminati founded by the Bavarian professor, Adam Weishaupt in 1776.  This secret organization had a peak membership of about 2000 all over Central Europe, including the key cities of Prague and Budapest.  The members included Herder, Goethe and friends of Schiller, but they did not seem to have understood or been informed of how radical the group’s core principles were. The goal of the Illuminati was to carry out a general world reformation based, say scholars, on philosophical reason, freedom and equality.  There was also another group that was more tightly put together and more radical than the Illuminati.

The group was called the Deutsche Union, which and I quote David Sorkin,”represented the radical rationalist turn and politization of the late Enlightenment in Germany.” Sorkin is another historian, this one an expert on the Religious Enlightenment, who mentions the hegemony of the radical thinkers during the late Enlightenment.  Why I point out such historians is because all too few scholars of the Enlightenment take sufficient note of the split in the thinking between the important philosophers whose thought and actions helped form the Radical Enlightenment and the moderates.

The Illuminati and the Deutsche Union did use Masonic organizational tactics, but they looked down on the Freemasons’ spiritual mysteries and intellectualism. It is of interest that their core goals were kept from the “lower” grades of their members.  Such goals were only available to the highest grade of the membership.  Shortly before the French Revolution, the fact emerged that both core groups’ principles were materialism and egalitarianism.  The ultra conservative German court official, von Grolman, published a collection of the German Illuminati’s secret documents in 1793.  He rather hysterically claimed that there was a clandestine organization at the highest levels of the group that intended to propagate atheism and materialism.  He found that Spinoza was at the center of the group’s beliefs- that everything that exists is matter, that god and the universe are the same, and that all organized religion is a political deception devised by ambitious men.  Von Grolman was hostile to such societies for what he stated were seditious ideas. He attacked Holbach’s System of Nature and other works by materialist authors at the same time.

Let us not forget that it was the Moderate Enlightenment which prevailed in England, Ireland and America. The Radical Enlightenment’s course was over a century in the making, but it clearly began partly in France, with a very small contribution from England.  Holland was a clear place of origin, with the philosophies of Spinoza and Bayle and the publishing environment in that country, which we discussed in our first lecture on the Enlightenment. Most of the major works of the Radical Enlightenment were published in Holland. The Dutch republic was pivotal during all the 18th Century and the century before.

Scholars explain that the radical tradition finally developed very vigorously in late 18th Century Germany and Britain. But in the final portion of the 18th Century and the following 19th Century, there developed a hegemony of mainstream thought in America, Britain, and Ireland.  As a result, the tradition of Locke and Newton prevailed in those nations, along with hostility to radical thought.  Indeed, England went further, its traditionalism finally culminating in the ideas of Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, whose thinking was a very intolerant social and political conservatism, intent according to many historians, on defending all the old political, ecclesiastical and legal traditions and forms.  But such traditionalism, while stronger, was nothing new.  Such anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic ideas and resistance to full toleration were embedded in the Moderate Enlightenment concepts of Hume, Ferguson, Adam Smith, Ben Franklin from America, and other thinkers, such as Voltaire.  It was not an original manifestation. 

This is a good place, while we are discussing the ascendancy of conservatism, to glance at the Scottish so-called “Common Sense”Enlightenment.  One of its chief exponents was Thomas Reid, a Scottish thinker who wrote two well received volumes, The Inquiry into the Human Mind, 1764, and the Essay on the Intellectual Power of Man, 1785. Reid stated that human rationality and all which makes men who are rational different from the insane and animals is the guidance provided by common sense, a prior truth, one before sense awareness.  His position was far more conservative than Locke’s or Hume’s, who had both posited sense awareness.  Reid states that humans have a prior store of knowledge and ideas.  And of course, the best example of this common sense awareness is our knowledge of the being and attributes of god!  We know, he said, such things about god with certainty, including our future life in the hereafter; and of course we also know our moral duty to our fellows, country and the aforementioned god. Furthermore, he stated that none of these three things, god, immortality and moral duty, can be demonstrated by reason or sense experience.  Jonathan Israel elegantly says that Reid’s beliefs were rooted in a theological and socially deferential stance. 

Interestingly enough, the new Princeton University President in 1766 America was John Witherspoon, a Scottish clergyman who brought Scottish Enlightenment thinking to America.  His writings were considered much sounder philosophy than moderate thinkers, such as Hume or Locke.  The best that may be said of the Scottish “Common Sense” Enlightenment, in my opinion, is that it was correctly suspicious of Calvinism.  For most atheists and secular people, such embrace of a conventional and illogical philosophy by our countrymen, and rejection of Thomas Paine’s beliefs, is an egregious historical fact.  It was a loss to our country’s philosophical scholarship. Adopting such thinking may also have helped hinder full implementation of civil rights, which we still have not completely achieved.  It might have contributed to delaying the end of slavery for so long a time in this country.

It is not within the scope of this lecture on the Radical Enlightenment to go deeply into the French Revolution of 1789, and its partial failure in certain aspects.  But historians continue to argue over the role of Enlightenment philosophy in bringing on the Revolution.  Because of the lack of understanding concerning the Radical Enlightenment’s role and other factors, it will likely be some time before definitive conclusions can be reached, if ever. There is also the quarrel among historians as to whether the Enlightenment’s publications created a so-called Book Revolution, or if the Revolution’s genesis was completely political. Certainly the enormous amount of publications during the 18th Century recognizing the rights of man, while at the same time, accusing the establishments of royalty, aristocracy, clergy, and law of malfeasance, was a spur to change.  Conditions in France, economic, cultural and social, were extremely strained, which created resentment and anger.  People were living in misery under the yoke of the aforementioned tyrannies, along with lack of education and with too much superstition having a hold on their minds and lives.  The example of the American Revolution which began in 1776, was a consideration as well. 

I am inclined, while I am assuredly not an expert in Enlightenment history, to believe that all the above factors played a significant role, acting as catalysts to the Revolution.  Despite its failures, laicite, or secularism, became fairly well established and prevails in France today.  Secularism was a signal accomplishment and should not be forgotten in critiques of the French Revolution.

The so-called Reign of Terror, which occurred roughly between August 10, 1792, and July 27, 1794, was a tragic and probably unnecessary turn to the Revolution.  It is hardly likely that the Radical Enlightenment can be held responsible for its lethal outcome.  It is more to the point that Robespierre and his Jacobin Party were influenced greatly by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher of anti-reason and critic of the Enlightenment philosophers.  Although the earlier portion of the Revolution saw the predominance of the Radical philosophers, they were quickly shoved aside, ignored or criticized.  But the worst was yet to come.  The Jacobins associated with Robespierre began to condemn all the Enlightenment philosophers publicly, with a few exceptions, such as Rousseau, and to denigrate the entire Enlightenment project. Then they began to systematically harass the philosophers.  As early as 1792, the Jacobins ordered the busts of Mirabeau and Helvetius destroyed.  Helvetius was a radical philosopher and a known opponent of Rousseau.  In 1793, Robespierre denounced all the philosophers for being servile to the throne and the clergy.  In 1793, the Jacobin National Convention ordered Condorcet arrested.  He died shortly after.  Right after 1792, full freedom of speech, thought and the press, implemented by the early stages of the Revolution, was widely suppressed and censorship took the place of freedom.  By May 1793, most of the philosophers were in hiding (Tom Paine barely escaped with his life,) arrested, or guillotined, like Cloots. 

At the same period, Robespierre gave a keynote speech to the government assembly, condemning the philosophers, Diderot and Holbach, especially, for arid materialism and for waging war on the Republic. Both Diderot and d’Holbach were deceased by this time, but others were not. Sentiment, common opinion and the simple beliefs of the people were now said to be the important factors in society rather than reason. Robespierre claimed the philosophers were opposed to those values.  Ironically, such was also the common cry of the Counter-Enlightenment.  Fortunately Robespierre had a political fall and was executed in July, 1794. The Reign of Terror had finally run its course.

Reason reigned supreme again, although briefly, until the Napoleonic Era.  The Counter-Enlightenment, which began around 1770, but gained resonance and power after 1789, rejected both the Moderate and the Radical Enlightenment.  This conservative movement occurred in most of the European countries which had earlier embraced the ideas of the philosophers. During the backlash, politicians, theologians and thinkers insisted on faith and tradition as guides rather than Reason.  J.M. Robertson, in A History of Freethought in the 19th Century, states: “The reasoning mood which had grown up in the 18th Century was replaced by a fervor and a fanaticism which took faith for granted and met criticism not with argument but with anger.”

Our brief glance at the history of the Radical Enlightenment raises some questions for us that will likely remain unanswered for some time.  As I mentioned earlier, there has not even been a definite answer concerning why the French Revolution occurred. Why did people suddenly decide to put aside all the traditional ideas of the past, to do so consciously and systematically, and replace them with the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, the rallying cry of the Revolution?  Shocking and surprising to me, as I read the literature, was the huge lacuna within the research concerning the intellectual background to the French Revolution.  There is a lot of information about the political and economic conditions that helped bring the Revolution about, but the intellectual tradition, particularly the Radical one, remains sadly understudied.

Here is Keith Michael Baker in Inventing the French Revolution: “…there has been relatively little explicit or systematic attention in recent years to the question of the ideological origins of the French Revolution.”  There was a massive outpouring of Radical anti-religious, egalitarian and democratic literature and journalism before 1789.  Most historians are fully aware that Holbach’s System of Nature and other works penetrated the public more in the 1770’s and 1780’s than any political works of Rousseau. There is a record of copies sold.

Yet beginning from the later days of post Revolution history to the present, much of the Radical Enlightenment literature and philosophy has been downplayed and passed over. Daniel Brewer, in The Enlightenment Past, has this to say:”In the literary manuals produced during the July Monarchy in 1830, Diderot was largely ignored.  Indeed, as one might imagine, the entire 18th Century was viewed as far less favorable than the conservative and Christian 17th Century.”

What of the present day?  It has been noted by some historians that in Francois Furet’s admired Revolutionary France, 1770-1880, a 600 page, 1988 synthesis, Diderot and d’Holbach are not mentioned, not even in the index.  No reference is made concerning Tom Paine or the development of thought in Condorcet; there are many omissions of the Radical philosophers. Keith Michael Baker, in Inventing the French Revolution, 1990, also hardly mentions d’Holbach; Diderot is allowed one good quote.  Radicals such as Volney, Priestley, and Cloots are all missing from the index.  There is one brief reference to Abbe Raynal’s work, the Histoire Philosophique, 1776, hotly debated through the 1770’s and 1780’s, with fifty editions in France and more all over Germany, Holland and Denmark.  Such is the situation across the board.

But the Radical philosophers with whom we are concerned this evening did not fail, not in the long run.  They experienced, as we have said, a resurgence with the end of the Terror.  The intellectual tradition they began and defended, sometimes with their lives, kept the Radical agenda’s flame burning.  This great tradition, extolling man’s reason and calling for a just, free, and equitable society, survived the centuries up to the 19th, 20th and 21st.  As Israel states: “In the end, their principles emerged as the official values of a major part of the world after 1945.” In 1948, those principles were perpetuated by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  They are an important portion of our atheist past and present agenda.  Spinoza deserves our respect and gratitude as the man who helped start it all.

Video of Lecture: The Enlightenment, Part 2: The Radical Enlightenment

Lecture: The Enlightenment, Part 2: The Radical Enlightenment

Video of Discussion: The Enlightenment, Part 2: The Radical Enlightenment

Discussion: The Enlightenment, Part 2: The Radical Enlightenment


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