Thoughts on reading Jonathan Israel: On the origins of the French Revolution

Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Jonathan Israel comes out swinging in his recent work, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the ‘Rights of Man’ to Robespierre (Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).  As stated in the Introduction and restated frequently throughout, Israel’s goal is to prove that, contrary to the work of virtually every historian of the French Revolution, no one has yet understood its origins.  This situation leaves us in terrible straits, he claims, “with an uncommonly urgent need for some very sweeping and drastic revision” (p. 29).  The Revolution was not caused by social, economic, political, or cultural forces but rather by intellectual trends:  dangerous ideas foisted on the French by the most radical and anti-establishmentarian of the eighteenth-century philosophes. As he states: “Neither classical republicanism . . . nor Rousseau’s deism underpinned the democratic thrust behind the most comprehensively radical and revolutionary writings of the late eighteenth century.  The true underpinning was the confident secularism pronouncing philosophical reason the engine of universal human emancipation deriving from the encyclopédistes and, earlier still from the radical thinkers of the late seventeenth-century Enlightenment.” To prove this point, Israel enlists a massive array of evidence but it all winds down to a list of ten books, of “the major textual sources that shaped this democratic republican political culture after 1750” (707).

Among the Top Ten are: 1. Diderot’s political articles and exposition of the volonté générale in the Encyclopédie; 2) Rousseau’s Discourses and Social Contract; 3) the Histoire philosophique (1770); 4) D’Holbach’s La Politique naturelle (1773); 5) D’Holbach’s Système social (1773); 6) Helvétius’s De L’homme (1773), and 7-8) Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) and Age of Reason (1793) along with 9) Condorcet’s political writings, and 10) Volney’s Les Ruines (1791) (707).

Although there is much to admire in Revolutionary Ideas, this central argument grates.  I wondered at first if it was only me.  But since reviewing the book a couple months ago, I have had the interesting experience of finding yet more scholars whose claims on the “origins of the French Revolution” Israel should have consulted before throwing his opinions into the world.

In my review, I point out that despite the vehemence of his argumentation, Israel’s  claims on the readability and powerful impact of philosophical texts such as Rousseau’s Social Contract are erroneous.*  There is a well-documented, deeply  thoughtful body of scholarship on the whole “history of audience reactions to The Social Contract” issue; one need only think of the findings that great historian-critics such as Robert Darnton and Daniel Mornet showed us years ago, on the reading tastes of eighteenth-century Frenchmen.  It all discounts Israel’s claims.

And just last week I found more evidence that runs counter to Israel’s claims, in the fascinating work on economics in the eighteenth century.  It would have been good if Israel had thought to read Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008), as well.  Ferguson claims that, instead of Rousseau or D’Holbach, it was the early eighteenth-century financier and one-time Controller General of France, John Law, who caused the French Revolution.   As he writes, “John Law was not only responsible for the first true boom and bust in asset prices, he also may be said to have caused, indirectly, the French Revolution by comprehensively blowing the best chance that the ancien régime monarchy had to reform its finances” (126).

Hmmm…   what to think?

* Review of Politics, forthcoming, Spring 2015 Volume 77 Issue 2

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