As AaroWatch winds down, and we look back on the last ten years or so, we might reflect that the Decents were pretty poor at intellectual cheer-leading or talent-spotting. They insisted on treating Paul Berman as an authority on contemporary Islam when it was pretty clear that he didn’t know much about the subject at all. They repeatedly wrote as if Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?
was a significant contribution to political debate, when it was an incoherent mishmash, built around a stupendously vague notion of what in fact was ‘left’ (such that John Major and Douglas Hurd’s foreign policy could somehow be placed squarely in the book’s firing line). The nadir came with Alan Johnson’s softsoap Democratiya
interview with Alan Bostom – "And how about the denial of intellectuals in the West?"-- a man even Little Green Footballs
regarded as "a bit too much of an Islamophobe headbanger".
But here’s a curiosity. Throughout the Decent decade, there was one prominent scholar, at the height of his powers, enormously productive, brilliantly clever, hugely multilingual, with a fluent writing style, very well connected in both Britain and the United States, with particular interests in the idea of Enlightenment values, the history of European Jews, the crisis of Dutch multiculturalism, and contemporary European antisemitism. These were all the standard topics of Decent obsession, concerning which he argued positions entirely congruent with the wider worldview of the "anti-totalitarian left" -- and yet one hardly ever saw his name in the oceans of bloggish and not-so-bloggish commentary on Decent affairs. In what was for the most part the intellectual desert of the Decent Left, he and his writing could have served as the most extraordinarily fertile oasis -- yet for some reason, which I don’t begin to understand, the caravans of columnists and the camel-trains of bloggers repeatedly passed him by. And, for a Decent scholar, he even had an ideal name.
Jonathan Israel is Professor in the School for Historical Studies
at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. This is about as cushy a job in contemporary academic life as there is: it comes with few obligations beyond the opportunity to get on with one’s research, fantastic library facilities, and considerable patronage. The faculty of the Institute is stellar, and, over the years, has included Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Clifford Geertz, Albert O. Hirschman, and the man who coined the term "decent left" himself, Michael Walzer, who has now been associated with the Institute for thirty years, for most of this time as its UPS Foundation Professor. Israel’s research has changed its focus over the years. He started out as an historian of colonial Mexico in the 1970s, and spent the 1980s and 1990s writing about Spain, Holland and the Jews from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. More recently, he has reinvented himself as an intellectual historian in order to write his colossal series on the European Enlightenment. There have been two huge instalments in this sequence -- Radical Enlightenment
(2001) and Enlightenment Contested
(2006) -- and one smaller helping -- A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy
(2009) -- a book which summarises Israel's main argument to date and prepares the way for the yet-unpublished third volume in the sequence, on the era of the American and French Revolutions.
The dominant trends over the last few decades among historians have been to disaggregate "the Enlightenment", to deny that this label can pick out one, trans-European intellectual phenomenon, and instead to focus on particular contexts, the Scottish Enlightenment, the Neapolitan Enlightenment, or (in one of J. G. A. Pocock's recent books) an "Arminian Enlightenment". Israel has returned to an older tradition, associated with Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, in order to defend the existence of an international Enlightenment, or, perhaps better, to defend the existence of two. First, there is a Moderate Enlightenment, associated with, inter alia
, Newton, Locke, Leibniz, Smith, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau (after 1755) and the bulk of the American Revolutionaries. Second, there is the Radical Enlightenment, deriving its inspiration from the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, and including Bayle, Diderot, D’Holbach and Helvétius, Rousseau (before 1755) and many of the French Revolutionaries, including Sieyès, Condorcet and Mirabeau. And Israel emphatically takes sides -- the Moderate Enlightenment he repeatedly finds to be conservative and inegalitarian, little better than a defence of the ancien régime status quo
; against it he champions the Radical Enlightenment, with its core commitments to liberty, equality, the denial of religious authority and the defence of the secular state.
It's obvious why the Decent Left ought to like Jonathan Israel's vision of Enlightenment, which gives determinate content to the idea of "Enlightenment values" and uncomplicatedly presents the Enlightenment as an unfinished project with immediate political relevance to the present. This comes out especially clearly in Israel’s powerful 2004 Pierre Bayle Lecture
[doc] delivered in Rotterdam, which begins with reflections on the recent murder of Theo van Gogh and proceeds from there by way of a discussion of the Dutch Golden Age and the arguments of Pierre Bayle (one of Israel’s heroes, and, as it happens, also one of mine) to an indictment of the contemporary model of Dutch multiculturalism -- and to criticism of the European press for its coverage of the Jenin "massacre", with its "obvious bias rooted in ancient theological stereotypes and prejudice".
Israel has other affinities with the Decent Left, too. He doesn't like postmodern currents in recent scholarship, for one thing, but there's also something of the "with us or against us" psychology of Decency, too, in his historical writing, as he slots people into either his Radical or his Moderate Enlightenments, seeing black and white where many other observers just see varying shades of grey. Thus: Bayle is one of the good guys, so he isn’t just an atheist (itself a controversial judgement, but one which is probably correct), he’s a specifically Spinozist
atheist (which seems to me to be to be a real stretch, in light of Bayle’s characteristically sharply sceptical turn of mind). But -- as is not the case with the Bermans and the Cohens -- there really is a "there" there, there really is something worth engaging with, and arguing against, and the engagements and the arguments are in full swing: here, for example, is the distinguished French historian Antoine Lilti, writing in Annales
[pdf, French]; or, in a less academic vein, here’s Samuel Moyn in the pages of The Nation
, here’s a robust response on the World Socialist Website
, and here’s one version of the subsequent exchange between Israel
(the other version is in the correspondence columns of The Nation
, and not available, as far as I can tell, to non-subscribers online). All good clean fun, and highly educational.
But, as I say, it's all a bit of a puzzle. If I were a Decent blogger, I'd have been drawing loud attention to his various publications over the last few years, and praising them to the skies. But they’ve all chosen not to, for whatever reasons of their own. And so, as AaroWatch prepares to disappear forever beneath the cyber-waves, let this tiny bit of Jonathan Israel-related consciousness-raising be its gift to the wider wonderful world of Decency, on which this website's been so very parasitic for quite so long.