Collage of select Enlightenment thinkers: Franklin, Hume, Diderot, Burke, Goethe, Kant, Jefferson, Voltaire

Collage showing portraits of certain Enlightenment thinkers

By Jonathan Israel

The Enlightenment began as a secularizing, rationalizing intellectual movement among thinkers, scientists and writers in the late seventeenth century, but it rapidly developed into an international reform movement.

At first, Enlightenment thinkers concentrated on reforming theology, religious practice, academic teaching, and the law, with a view to making all of these more tolerant and open-minded, less tied to tradition, and better adjusted to the most up-to-date science.

But eventually, the Enlightenment also developed powerful political overtones, with a focus on turning royal absolutism into a form of government that was less concerned with dynastic glory and religious uniformity and more concerned with promoting the general well-being of society as a whole.

Portrait of Voltaire

Portrait of Voltaire, 1724. Artist: Nicolas de Largillière.

Since such reforms could only proceed to a limited degree while also conserving the hierarchical, strongly aristocratic stratification of society in early modern Europe — and to a lesser extent in the Americas — this tendency also brought into play a more radical tendency: the Radical Enlightenment.

Previously an irreligious, freethinking underground, from the 1770s onwards, the Radical Enlightenment produced a sweeping and often explicitly democratic republican challenge to the existing order.

As a result, democratic republicanism first entered the modern world stage as a minority point of view, expressed at first mainly in France, America and Britain, but pervasive throughout the Western world by the early nineteenth century.

The mainstream moderate Enlightenment, as expressed in the writings of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hume, Kant and Adam Smith, generally took very little interest in the Jewish people either as a religious or a social group, and often expressed an unmistakable hostility, or prejudice, toward them.

Voltaire, for instance, tended to see the Jews as a repository of blind religious obedience and unthinking observance that could be deemed the source of the “scripturalism” and “priestcraft,” and even the intolerance, that he and other enlighteners sought to repudiate in Christianity.

Cover page for Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland, 1714.

Cover page from the 1714 book.

By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment, starting with John Toland’s Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland (1714), tended to view the then-extremely-narrow occupation structure of the Jews, and their focus on petty trade and money-lending, as entirely the fault of the surrounding society, which had long imposed stifling and intolerant restrictions and disabilities on the Jews.

For Radical Enlighteners, the narrow, cramped, disfigured character of eighteenth-century Jewish society in Europe was ultimately the responsibility of Christianity and the Christian clergy.

Admittedly, the radicals showed no more sympathy for rabbis, Talmud, traditional Judaism and Jewish community governance than did moderate enlighteners. But their rejection of Christian religious authority, and the existing monarchical-aristocratic form of society, led them to take a much greater interest than moderate enlighteners in emancipating the Jewish people legally, socially and politically, and dismantling all the devices that separated them from the rest of society. This stance attracted more than a few “enlightened” Jews to their ranks.

Consequently, starting with the French Revolution, there arose the phenomenon of the modern revolutionary Jew adopting the principles of this Radical Enlightenment. Figures such as Zalkind Hourwitz, Abrham Furtado, Jacob Pereyre, Junius Frey and Hartog de Hartog Lemon, and later Moses Hess and Heinrich Heine, became notable activists in revolutionary movements that viewed the task of emancipating the Jews and integrating them into democratic republican society, on the basis of full equality, as one of their chief objectives.

*Jonathan Israel recently offered a webinar on his most recent book, “Revolutionary Jews from Spinoza to Marx.” View the webinar here.*

Jonathan IsraelJonathan Israel is an emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. His work is concerned with European and European colonial history from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century. His recent work focuses on the impact of radical thought (especially Spinoza, Bayle, Diderot, and the eighteenth-century French materialists) on the Enlightenment and on the emergence of modern ideas of democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of the press, and individual freedom. His books include European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550–1750 (1985); The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477–1806 (1995); Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (2001); Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752 (2006); and A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (2009).

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