On 12 May this year, the Nation magazine published an article entitled “Mind the Enlightenment.” It is an intellectually unprincipled and vindictive attack on Professor Jonathan Israel’s multi-volume history of the development of the Enlightenment and its relationship to social and political radicalism in the century leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution.
Israel, a resident scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, is an internationally respected expert on early modern European history. Now in his early sixties, his published work testifies to the exceptional range of his historical interests, not to mention his quite extraordinary proficiency in many languages, including Latin, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and Polish. His scholarly publications include European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 1550-1750 (1985), The Dutch Republic (1998), Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006) and, most recently, A Revolution of the Mind (2010).
Professor Israel’s outstanding contribution has been his defense of the Enlightenment from its postmodern detractors, and also his emphasis on the central role of the seventeenth century materialist philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) in the development of democratic and radical thought in the eighteenth century. Israel’s books on the Enlightenment have had an impact far beyond the world of the professional historian. The scope and sweep of Israel’s scholarship is genuinely exciting. Despite the density and complexity of his demanding volumes, Israel draws his readers into an extraordinary story of a great century-long chapter in the intellectual development of humanity.