- The Politics of Enlightenment: From Peter Gay to Jonathan Israel
- Historical Journal
- Volume | Issue number
- 55 | 3
- Pages (from-to)
- Document type
- Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
- Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR)
According to the textbook version of history, the Enlightenment played a crucial role in the creation of the modern, liberal democracies of the West. Ever since this view - which we might describe as the modernization thesis - was first formulated by Peter Gay, it has been repeatedly criticized as misguided: a myth. Yet, as this paper shows, it continues to survive in postwar historiography, in particular in the Anglophone world. Indeed, Gay's most important and influential successors - historians such as Robert Darnton and Roy Porter - all ended up defending the idea that the Enlightenment was a major force in the creation of modern democratic values and institutions. More recently, Jonathan Israel's trilogy on the Enlightenment has revived the modernization thesis, albeit in a dramatic new form. Yet, even Israel's work, as its critical reception highlights, does not convincingly demonstrate that the Enlightenment, as an intellectual movement, contributed in any meaningful way to the creation of modern political culture. This conclusion raises a new question: if the Enlightenment did not create our modern democracies, then what did it do? In answer to that question, this paper suggests that we should take more seriously the writings of enlightened monarchists like Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger. Studying the Enlightenment might not allow us to understand why democratic political culture came into being. But, as Boulanger's work underscores, it might throw light on an equally important problem: why democracy came so late in the day.
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