Martin Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground: Radical Enlightenment, 1680-1720 (University of Virginia Press, 2015; source: publisher) has at last been translated into English. For readers of German, Mulsow’s Moderne aus dem Untergrund. Radikale Frühaufklärung in Deutschland 1680–1720 (2002) has become a standard in early Enlightenment studies. Mulsow’s study of the radical Enlightenment has established one of the ruling understandings of the movement. Now, English readers can benefit from this work.
Mulsow’s methodology is not typical of a historical study of the radical Enlightenment. Rather than a linear presentation, Mulsow chooses to delve into several microhistorical chapters.
There is good reason for this use of case studies. As Mulsow states, “My working hypothesis is that a complex interplay of nascent Enlightenment ideas, provocative ruptures with the prevailing orthodoxy, and the unintended consequences stemming from theories intended as orthodox prompted full-fledged radical treatises” (Enlightenment Underground, 1). Mulsow focuses on the writing and aftermath of these clandestine treatises.
However, in studying these treatises, Mulsow argues,
It remains doubtful, however, whether we can speak of a comprehensive environment of radical enlighteners. Perhaps we should speak instead of a fragmented movement, with separate networks of individuals, men who certainly appreciated and were encouraged by the radical works of others but who were unable to take up personal contact with one another because of the opaque conditions imposed by anonymous publishing.” Enlightenment Underground, 2
Hence, a non-linear approach allows Mulsow to present a multifaceted study of a fractured movement. Mulsow does not give an appearance of a singular coherent movement, which never existed.
Mulsow corrects a misunderstanding of the Enlightenment. He demonstrates that there is not a progression from the moderate Enlightenment to a more radical Enlightenment later in the eighteenth century. Rather, Mulsow reveals a pattern of radical clandestine works in the early Enlightenment, and their continual effect into the eighteenth century.
Mulsow draws ten conclusions from his study. First, there is not a singular reason for authors to become radical in their writings. There is no one person that can be identified as the source of these radical writings, nor is there one particular theological issue at the heart of radical writings. Second, “iron, ridicule, and ambivalent speech” played a major part in the writings of the radical Enlightenment. Mulsow’s study shows how the intentions of many of these works did not coincide with how they were received by the general public. Third, due to the harsh consequence of being found out as a radical writer, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the treatises. One cannot always take matters at face value, but at times require a bit of investigation to reveal the true purpose or meaning of a treatise.
Fourth, these radical treatises brought new standards of evaluating society. The methods could reinforce but also challenge moderate ideas. Fifth, the themes of idolatry, anti-Trinitarianism, and anti-Platonism were commonly discussed. Idolatry impacted anticlericalism, anti-Trinitarianism welcomed the philosophy of Spinoza and Jewish clandestine works, and anti-Platonism challenged Christian Platonism. Sixth, traditional philosophical concepts were used in new ways and combined with concepts previously thought unrelated. Seventh, one must recognize the significance of Socinianism and Arianism in the early Enlightenment.
Eighth, the radical Enlightenment was a “weak network,” which over time was developed by people who valued it, such as book sellers, but also who continued to discuss it, such as those who disagreed with it. Ninth, the study of the radical Enlightenment reveals the boundaries of society in the early Enlightenment. It shows how far the moderates were willing to accept these radical ideas and how much the Orthodox were willing to defend traditional boundaries. Tenth, though the overall picture has not been drastically changed with the study of the radical Enlightenment, such a study allows for readers to begin making connections to other radical components of modern society.
Martin Mulsow’s Enlightenment Underground is a pivotal work in Enlightenment studies. It uncovers another layer to the complicated relationship between Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment. The radical Enlightenment may not have been on friendly terms with Orthodoxy; however, it is important to understand how the two impacted each other.