philosophical monism with democracy and a purely secular moral philosophy based on equality

Throughout the Enlightenment’s history it is this irresolvable duality—rooted in the metaphysical dichotomy of one-substance doctrine (Spinozistic monism) and two-substance dualism, the latter as upheld by John Locke (1632–1704) and Voltaire, as well as other providential Deists and (most) Christians and Jews—that was always the principal and overriding factor shaping its course. (Pg.17)


Either history is infused by divine providence or it is not, either one endorses a society of ranks or embraces equality, one approves representative democracy or opposes it. On these questions it was the polarization, the division of opinion, that shaped developments.

Beyond a certain level there were and could be only two Enlightenments—moderate (two-substance) Enlightenment, on the one hand, postulating a balance between reason and tradition and broadly supporting the status quo, and, on the other, Radical (one-substance) Enlightenment conflating body and mind into one, reducing God and nature to the same thing, excluding all miracles and spirits separate from bodies, and invoking reason as the sole guide in human life, jettisoning tradition. There was a closely allied variant to the latter, also part of the Radical Enlightenment, in the shape of philosophical Unitarianism, a variant almost as relentless in proclaiming reason as the sole guide, rejecting tradition as a source of authority and denouncing the existing order more or less in toto. The essence of the Radical Enlightenment both in its atheist and Christian Unitarian modes was that “reason, and law founded on reason,” as the point was expressed by Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger (1722–1759) in a classic text of radical philosophical literature, “should be the only sovereigns over mortals.”24 (Pg.19)

Radical Enlightenment was further quintessentially defined by its insistence on full freedom of thought, expression, and the press, and by identifying democracy as the best form of government, features again specifically Spinozistic and in no way Hobbesian or, in the latter case, Humean. Neither did radical thought ever have anything concretely to do with Locke and still less (despite the continuing efforts of some to argue this)26 with the English Commonwealth tradition or Freemasonry. Without classifying radical thought as a Spinozistic tendency, combining one-substance doctrine or philosophical monism with democracy and a purely secular moral philosophy based on equality, the basic mechanics of eighteenth-century controversy, thought, and polemics cannot be grasped. (Pg.21)


Every Enlightenment writer had to choose either broadly to endorse the existing structure of law, authority, and privilege, whatever incidental repairs he proposed, or else denounce them more sweepingly. If he or she, as in the case of Mary Wollstonecraft or the feminist republican historian Catherine Macaulay (1731–1791), chose the latter course, circumstances inevitably pushed such would-be reformers into the arms of the out-and-out rejectionists and into the direction of democracy, equality, and revolt. For once spurned by those in authority, the only way to gain any support at all was to become a mouthpiece for social grievance and resentment. (Pg.29)


Opposition and struggle, then, were inherent in the radical conception of history. Tom Paine summed up the story of human progress as a progression in three main stages. First, mankind evolved from the “government of priestcraft” in remote times to states based on “the uncivilized principle of governments founded in conquest” in more recent eras, a system in which aristocracy is the essential element and the whole edifice rests on schemes “to govern mankind by force and fraud, as if they were all knaves and fools.” And, finally, the culmination of human progress, developing “in contradistinction” to life under rule rooted in “superstition and conquest”—that is, under the government of “reason,” statecraft based on “the common interest of society, and the common rights of man.”45

Hence the divide between Radical and Moderate Enlightenment is far more fundamental and also more enduring than distinctions within the Enlightenment that were national or confessional in character. But the dialectics of Enlightenment were also a shifting balance of intellectual forces in the course of which, from the 1760s down to the early 1790s, especially in Holland and France, the moderate mainstream were increasingly thwarted and repulsed and the radical wing increasingly preponderant. This occurred first intellectually and, then, for some years, in France and the Western European countries conquered by the French revolutionaries, especially the Netherlands and Italy, also politically. It was precisely this and the frustration and failures of the moderate mainstream after 1770 that lent formidable new vigor to both the loyalist anti-intellectualism that flourished in Britain and the general Counter-Enlightenment, the system of ideas that rejected both kinds of Enlightenment, insisting on the primacy of faith and tradition, not reason, as the chief guides in human existence. This reaction reared its head on all sides after 1770, and still more after 1789, as moderate mainstream Enlightenment, both in its Christian and Deist modes, was more and more humiliated and weakened.

The modern reader might be surprised by this outcome, as the existing historiography strongly suggests that the political cards were always stacked heavily against the radical wing (Pg.34)


The dramatic rise of the Counter-Enlightenment and the vehemence of the British public’s loyalism and anti-intellectualism by the 1780s and 1790s are probably symptoms that the moderate mainstream, in the tradition of Montesquieu, Hume, and Voltaire, was losing the fight to block radical intellectual arguments. (Pg.36)

“A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy” by Jonathan Israel