by Mason Tattersall*
Dr. Jonathan Israel’s April 26 talk at Oregon State, “Radical Enlightenment and the French Revolution,” presented the key figures in the early (1789-93) stage of the Revolution as proponents of what Israel terms the Radical Enlightenment. Contrary to some accounts Israel characterizes the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror not as a radicalization of the Revolution and the Enlightenment project that underlay it, but as a counter-revolutionary populist reaction against the Radical Enlightenment ideas and policies of the early leaders of the revolution (orators, philosophers, newspaper editors). Israel’s talk centered around a banquet held by The British Club, a group of Anglo-American intellectuals in Paris, on the 17th of November 1792.
Israel argues that these intellectuals, a small, elite group who believed in the values of the Radical Enlightenment (reason, science, republican democracy, equality of the sexes, freedom of speech, the press, and the theatre, religious freedoms, etc.), took the opportunity provided by the Revolution and led the way in its early years, often pursuing policies that the broader public at large did not agree with. This is one of Israel’s key pieces of evidence for the importance of Intellectual History for explaining the Revolution: if we focus, as social historians often do, on the opinions of the public at large as the decisive driving force, we are left without an explanation of how policies contrary to this abstracted, gestalt public will came about. Israel argues that we need to also look at the ideas, beliefs and actions of the small number of individuals who directed the course of the Revolution in the years 1789-93.
*Mason Tattersall is pursuing a Ph.D. in History of Science at Oregon State University.