Ascan of the archives suggests that the incidence of the phrase ‘Enlightenment values’ in what was once the British broadsheet press has roughly quadrupled in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The term appears most frequently in articles discussing the challenge posed to Western societies by varieties of Islamic fundamentalism. On the whole, it is the more muscular liberals who are most keen on this particular political language, with its connotations of sturdy opposition to religious fanaticism. Such writers—broadly sympathetic to the hawkish foreign policy of the ‘global war on terror’—might do well to combine their commitment to militant secularism with another, similarly authentic, ‘Enlightenment value’. This is that sharp scepticism, widely shared among the philosophes, towards ‘projectors’ and their ‘projects’, grand schemes that possess a beguiling simplicity of design but which, as the Encyclopédie remarked, had been shown by the experience of centuries to be chimerical. The kind of ‘project’ that Montesquieu was keen to criticize included Louis xiv’s aspiration towards universal monarchy; it is apt that in the pursuit of their disastrous quest to bring democracy to the Middle East by force of arms so many of the neoconservatives have organized themselves into the Project for the New American Century.

If the language of Enlightenment is increasingly being served up in contemporary politics, where it joins battle with the arguments about the nature and legacy of Enlightenment in the discourse surrounding postmodernism, that nature and that legacy are also being contested in a series of ambitious historical studies that have been published in recent years. Those who would multiply Enlightenments with reference to various national and subnational contexts include J. G. A. Pocock, now in his eighties, whose series on Edward Gibbon, Barbarism and Religion, already runs to four volumes with more to appear (as he wrote in the third instalment) in accordance with ‘the interest of the public and the longevity of the historian’. Someone who insists by contrast that the idea of Enlightenment can be validly deployed across international boundaries is John Robertson, whose Case for the Enlightenment (2005) is a comparative study of the origins and development of a secular science of human betterment—usually known as political economy—in Scotland and Naples, two ‘kingdoms governed as provinces’. The boldest of the arguments on behalf of a transnational Enlightenment, however, come from Jonathan Israel, whose 720-page Radical Enlightenment (2001) has just been supplemented by an even longer sequel, Enlightenment Contested (2006), with a promised and no doubt equally enormous third volume to take his project down to the time of the American and French Revolutions. Israel agrees with the early eighteenth-century Genoese scholar Paolo Mattia Doria, who judged that his age was dominated by a five-cornered struggle. In this contest, a conservative Aristotelian scholasticism, still propounded in universities and generally preferred by kings and clerics, wrestled, on the one hand, with three groups of moderate moderni, made up of the Lochisti (that is to say, followers of John Locke), the Cartesiani-Malebranchisti and the Leibniz-Wolffians; and on the other hand, with ‘the awesome fifth column’ (those are Israel’s words) of the ‘Epicurei-Spinosisti’ (those are Doria’s). Israel’s argument is that Spinoza and his clandestine followers, widely denounced as ‘Epicureans’, were those who were driving the most far-reaching transformation of intellectual life across Europe and beyond, laying the foundations for secular, democratic egalitarianism. This emphasis on the role of the Spinozists leads to his retrojecting the drama of Enlightenment to the half-century or so following Spinoza’s early death in 1677, so that (Israel’s words, again) ‘even before Voltaire came to be widely known, in the 1740s, the real business was already over.’

Radical Enlightenment is a formidable scholarly achievement, as well as a gripping read, but not without its critics. If the radical assault on Christianity was over by the 1740s, Robertson suggests in Case for the Enlightenment, ‘it was over because the authorities, Protestant as well as Catholic, had effectively suppressed it’. He argues that with more attention paid both to this clampdown and to the response it called forth from cautious, secular-minded intellectuals like David Hume, the traditional dating of the Enlightenment to the mid-eighteenth century and afterwards can be sustained. Other reservations include the suspicion that Israel is overstating his case, exaggerating the importance of the Dutch contribution—an understandable bias perhaps for someone who has been a Netherlands specialist for so many years—and collapsing too much into his general thesis about Spinoza and Spinozism. This emphasis on Spinoza has raised objections from those who insist on the influential legacies of other heterodox writers like Thomas Hobbes and Pierre Bayle. In Enlightenment Contested, Israel explains why he regards Hobbes as less radical than, say, Richard Tuck suggests and less influential in the republic of letters than, say, Noel Malcolm argues; and he maintains that while Bayle was indeed of crucial importance for what followed, he was himself a closet Spinozist, and so is folded into the general thesis. (It is unlikely that his explanations will satisfy his critics.) The association of radical argument everywhere with Spinoza and Spinozism also provokes scepticism. Sometimes small radical groups may have developed their arguments from other, perhaps indigenous, sources, and, in Susan James’s pointed turn of phrase (in a 2001 Times Higher Educational Supplement essay), ‘to assimilate them all to Spinozism is to render a delicate and contoured language as flat as Holland itself.’

This, then, is some of the context in which the Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought appears. It is not, however, the context to which it properly belongs, owing to its exceptionally long period of gestation; the volume was planned in the 1980s, and was once supposed to have appeared in the 1990s. Much of the material is fresh, though not all of it: some of the chapters have already been published elsewhere, or are telescoped or otherwise reworked versions of contributors’ well-known scholarship. The passage of time has also taken its toll. Richard Popkin died in 2005 with his chapter on scepticism, priestcraft and toleration only half completed, and one of the editors, Robert Wokler, died of cancer in July last year. It is good to record that he was presented with a copy of his magnum opus shortly before he died; the premature loss of his effervescent erudition to eighteenth-century studies is profound.

This is a book of Cambridge scholarship in a triple sense. The University Press has published the book, the penultimate volume to appear in its six-volume series; publication of the nineteenth-century volume, edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys, will complete the set. Second, the University has provided more of the contributors than other institutions: five of the twenty-four authors list a current affiliation with Cambridge; after that comes Sussex with three (a fair reflection of its importance to the study of modern intellectual history), while no other institution supplied more than one; and a number of the other contributors have Cambridge somewhere in their past, whether for a BA, PhD, College fellowship or University appointment. Third, the volume aims to exemplify the contextualist methods for studying the history of political thought associated with Cambridge in general and with Pocock, Quentin Skinner and John Dunn in particular. As the editors themselves put it in the very first paragraph, their goal for the volume was ‘to provide as comprehensive a treatment as possible of eighteenth-century political thought in the diverse historical contexts of the period, instead of a series of essays on our subject’s acknowledged masters.’