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Philosophy Thesis: Radical Enlightenment and the French Revolution

BRLSI Tuesday 23rd June 2015
Jonathan Israel of Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Notes by William Gaskell
Henry May 1976 book “American Enlightenment” first coined the term “Radical Enlightenment” which propagated the view of a democratic republic with no black slavery.
Vermont which was the 14th US state (wasn’t recognised as a state when the original 13 colonies declared independence) was the 1st US state to abolish slavery.
Then Pennsylvania, which had a sizeable black slave population, was the first major state to abolish the practice.

Spinoza, 17th century philosopher influenced Strauss who was a moderate philosopher and encouraged deference to religious and ecclesiastical authorities.
Liberation from these authorities became possible because of Spinoza’s writings.
Strauss did not agree with Spinoza’s atheism but remained moderate.
Idiosyncrasy of religion is that it was used by political leaders to propagate their power – like King Herod I suppose!

Pre-revolution France was a society based on privilege with ancient rights, 3 estates:
1.       Aristocrats
2.       clergy
3.       judiciary
Peter De Bola wrote an interesting piece on rights in the 18th century recently which is interesting as he thinks different groups intrinsically have different inherent rights, slaves, aristocrats, gentry etc.
·         Radical Enlightenment (Voltaire) believes in 1 set of rules to govern the whole republic’s reality.
·         Moderate Enlightenment (Locke) concedes to a multitude of different schemes to explain reality:
1.       Scientific
2.       Supernatural/spiritual
3.       Etc
Rubbishing of king, clergy and aristocracy by socialists who say people are unhappy, in order to change people’s mindsets to suit their own philosophy of radical ideological values.
·         Thus rejecting 2 tier/3 class/multitudinal view system for the Republic.
Montesque’s religious tolerance from L’espirit des Lois (1748) [The spirit of laws]  was model for moderate enlightenment.
In early USA very limited suffrage was granted to population in the newly independent states – only wealthiest white males could vote.
9/10ths of French did not know what Republicanism was – in 1789
·         Newspaper editors then became Republicans
o   Can see the same thing happening today
Leading philosophers behind Radical Enlightenment:
Joseph Priestly
·         Leading “scientist” of his day
1789-92 press freedom in France was unprecedented
·         In US debate whether French Revolution was good/worth it/ideologically sound raged for a long time.
2 greatest Radical Enlighteners during 1780s and 1790s:
Nicolas de Cordorcet
·         February 1793 treatise revolutionary
·         Believed ultimately in equal rights for women and men of all races
·         One of the leaders of French revolution and also of Amis des Noirs
Thomas Jefferson
·         US Ambassador to France during French Revolution
Benjamin Franklin fell in with Thomas Paine and became a radical.
Franklin publication: La Science du Bonhomme Richard about French Revolution
LaFayette started as a Republican and became a moderate in 1792 and was forced out of prominence.
Robespierre propagates “spirit populaire” which is authority through communality and conformity by being ordinary.
All leading revolutions thinkers in France killed silenced after 1792.
·         30 leading editors killed in one go - to me reminiscent of the 30 tyrants of Athens.
Tom Paine sent to prison in France by the Terror and George Washington was happy to let him be imprisoned because of ideological differences and Paine wrote against Washington about the tough time he faced in prison in France.
Matthew Stewart’s recent book; Nature’s God, is about this dichotomy in philosophy.
The Enlightenment continues until 1815 and the Battle of Waterloo.
·         For example Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, as king of Spain abolished Spanish Inquisition etc
Napoleon allegedly attempted to respite slavery in Haiti as a French colony.


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