On the Enlightenment

There’s a wonderful democratic republican pamphlet by Camille Desmoulins which was published at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 where he discusses this very point. He says the real issue, if you’re talking about revolution and turning everything upside down, what really counts in the 18th century, is not atheism as such, but the rejection of divine providence and religious authority. That’s what we’re really talking about. If there is no divine providence guiding the course of history, if there is no divine direction in the way things happen, this means that the existing social order – for instance the fact that most of the properties are owned by the aristocracy – can’t be part of the divine plan, or can’t be sanctioned by religious authority. Religious authority doesn’t have that kind of connection with divine providence that it claims to have, and therefore it doesn’t have the legitimacy that many people imagine that it does. This is deeply subversive, and is the connection between being revolutionary in religious matters and being revolutionary in social and political matters. That is one of the most important things to grasp about the Enlightenment...

I think Sorkin is absolutely right to say that we haven’t gone far enough in demonstrating that the religious Enlightenment was not just Protestant but also Catholic and Jewish. Going back to my theme of Five Books that cover all the major dimensions of the Enlightenment, this is really the first one to look at the transformation in religious thought and practice and of thinking about religion’s role in politics, philosophy and society. In that respect it’s a very interesting and important book and a very useful survey. No one else before Sorkin makes this claim, but I think he’s right. He shows that all the religions produce a very strong Enlightened tendency. At the same time he also demonstrates that there was a great deal of resistance to these changes within the churches, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.

"Jonathan Israel on the Enlightenment" - http://fivebooks.com/interviews/jonathan-israel-on-enlightenment