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  • Daniel Woolf

Kingdom of Darkness: Challenging the Master-Narrative of Modernization

Daniel Woolf on Dmitri Levitin’s The Kingdom of Darkness

Big novels tend to impress us by their very size. Think War and Peace, Les Misérables, Moby Dick, Ulysses, Infinite Jest, or, at a more popular level, Gone with the Wind. This is just as true in the non-fiction, academic world, wherein books such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) challenged one’s carry-on packing. Both those historical masterworks continue to have an impact on the field of post-1500 British history commensurate with their heft.

It’s not always the case that bigger is better, and there are a great many otherwise good books that could easily have been trimmed in half without weakening their argument. (And then there are those that are both long and very bad; we all have a list of those). Now and again—not very often—one comes along which is both very long and very important, and the weight of which is enhanced by its bulk. Dmitri Levitin’s new book The Kingdom of Darkness: Bayle, Newton, and the Emancipation of the European Mind from Philosophy is one such Bookzilla of a tome, consisting of nearly a thousand pages of text and double-columned footnotes, some of which amount to micro-essays, a little like the discursive notes in a historical colossus of 250 years ago, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The sheer length of Kingdom of Darkness will put off some readers, and its topic, seemingly arcane (at least to non-specialists) points of early modern intellectual history, is scarcely as sexy as Gibbon’s barbarians and emperors, never mind Keith Thomas’s witches, or Thompson’s weavers and farm laborers.

Such neglect would be unfortunate, because this is a remarkably erudite and important study with a highly intricate argument that requires slow and careful reading if one is fully to grasp its insights and nuances. On the surface, the books’s topic seems straightforward enough. It is nominally about the writings and thought of two late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century intellectuals: an extremely well-known Englishman, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and a near-contemporary Frenchman (exiled for much of his career to the religiously liberal Dutch Republic), Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). The latter is by no means obscure but, unlike Newton, hardly a household name. Each has been written about extensively in the past half century. Newton, who gave us calculus, gravitation, modern optical science, and the laws of motion, and who also studied theology, biblical chronology, and alchemy, scarcely needs introduction. Bayle is widely regarded, within scholarly circles, as the archetypal proto-Enlightenment figure whose writings on history, religion and many other topics helped prepare the way for Voltaire and the Enlightenment, and his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697) is seen as a prototype of the better known Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert just over half a century later.

The titular “kingdom of darkness” derives from a biblical phrase originally referencing Satan’s dominion and famously adapted by Thomas Hobbes (who features prominently in Levitin’s opening section) to denote various misleading and superstitious doctrines in religion—though not, Levitin stresses, religion itself. Both Bayle and Newton had ideas about who and what sprang from that darkness. Levitin, for his part, is on a mission to shed light on what he sees as a modernist kingdom of darkness, riddled with assumptions, teleologies, misreadings, and misunderstandings concerning the intellectual climate within which both these thinkers worked. To appreciate fully Levitin’s achievement one has to understand the conventional understanding of intellectual history that he sets himself against.

The Kingdom of Darkness: Bayle, Newton, and the Emancipation of the European Mind from Philosophy. Dmitri Levitin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. xiv, 966 pp.

In this highly linear and Eurocentric account, a benighted Middle Ages, filled with scholasticism and superstition, gave way to the glorious light of the Renaissance, a rediscovery of antiquity, and the re-centering of scholarship on man rather than God. After the unfortunate but necessary episode of the Reformation and religious wars (essential to liberate minds from the tyranny of Rome, priestcraft, the Index of Prohibited Books and so on), there ensued a transitional period of ferment between the mid-seventeenth end of religious wars and the early eighteenth century. It was during this intervening era that iconoclastic thinkers such as Leibniz and Spinoza wrote their works, the influence of Descartes (who was slightly earlier) spread, and religious toleration grew. Science and reason began their long parade to the present, via the Enlightenment, the age of Revolutions, industrialization, and liberal democracy. Hooray, us.

Levitin calls malarkey on this modernization master-narrative—some of his dissent scented with a whiff of burning straw given that a great many have preceded him in arguing the falsity of this heroic Western epic. His focus is the period from c 1650 to c 1727, the year in which Newton died, but he ranges well forward and backward from these boundaries. His focal decades have been well covered by historians of science and of philosophy, and they were also the subject of an influential work by the French scholar Paul Hazard (1878-1944), whose 1935 book La Crise de la conscience européenne (trans. 1952 as The European Mind 1680-1715) is another door-stopper of a tome, still read nearly a century later, and in many ways the antithesis of Levitin’s. Though Hazard’s work rates only a single mention, his spectral influence haunts Kingdom of Darkness from start to finish. And it is Levitin’s task to lay this ghost once and for all.

In three sections each of several hundred pages, Levitin commits serial iconoclasm on much of the received understanding of the period’s intellectual history. It will be difficult to write about figures such as Newton and Bayle, or for that matter Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz without reference to this book, even if one disagrees with some of its author’s judgments (as many will) or winces at his sometimes sharp-elbowed comments on other scholars. For starters, the very notion of a linear, progressive liberation of the human mind from religion and toward reason is, if not destroyed, certainly seriously damaged. Liberation did occur, but it was not from religion but from “philosophy” and in particular from metaphysics. Given that other branches of philosophy, notably ethics and epistemology, were not so targeted, and that “natural philosophy”, or what we call science today, flourished, it might have been more accurate to have used metaphysics rather than philosophy in Levitin’s subtitle, though that might have been less catchy.

This was also a liberation in small incremental steps, digressions, wrong turns, and occasional cul-de-sacs, not a grandiloquent, Hegelian forward march of Reason nor an operatic breaking of shackles. And it could have been derailed by any number of occurrences: worldly circumstances mattered and change in the world of ideas was contingent on external events. Consider the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 which, had it resolved differently, Levitin muses counterfactually, might have turned Oxford and Cambridge into “bastions of Salamancan neo-scholasticism.” He also gives the importance of print, and especially the practical influence of textbooks, its due; the absence of systematizing works in the mid-sixteenth century retarded the spread of some of the developments of which he writes for a hundred years.

Above all, Levitin insists that his thinkers—a far larger cast of characters than the nominal focus on Bayle and Newton suggests—were neither heralds of the Enlightenment nor even transitional figures between Renaissance humanism and eighteenth-century rationalism. Rather, they were denizens of a unique and distinctive period that deserves to be taken on its own merits; what they were writing, and, just as important, why they were writing, has been grossly distorted in the rush to read back modern science and secularism into their time. More than once, Levitin states his ambition to do for these decades what the Princeton historian Peter Brown did for a much earlier period, late antiquity, which is to establish it as an era in its own right. Levitin’s actors “were not ushering in a proto-Kantian ‘Age of Reason’, but had a peculiar agenda of their own.”

Here in brief are a few of the mighty historiographical commonplaces that suffer direct hits: a) contrary to popular belief, there is nothing especially civilized or genteel about the early modern republic of letters (in fairness, most of us knew that—more burning of straw?), and authors such as Bayle could be both vicious and unscrupulous in knowingly mispresenting opponents’ positions; b) science, aka natural philosophy, and religion, far from being opposed, were joined at the hip during this period—the “heroes” of Kingdom sought freedom not from faith itself but from misguided efforts to rationalize it via centuries of odium theologicum, scholastic disputes about fine points of theology and metaphysics; c) familiar terms such as fideism, rationalism and scepticism are themselves rather meaningless, totalizing, and overused descriptors that obscure far more than they clarify (and the impact of scepticism in particular, pace the late Richard Popkin’s work, has been over-rated); d) some figures previously seen as seminal to the period’s intellectual development were either anomalous and atypical (Descartes), over-rated (Francis Bacon, valiant empiricist, who barely features), or simply not relevant (Spinoza); e) the search for physical laws (for instance by Newton) represented not a flight from providence or the divine but rather a move from ontological speculation about the cosmos to the application of mathematics, rather than metaphysics, to the observation of phenomena, leaving ultimate causality in the realm of faith; f) certain previously novel views, such as the relative importance of Scottish conjecture or of the artisanal, non-academic origins of experimental science have themselves been overstated; and g) there was no “British school of empiricism”, nor any conflict in seventeenth-century Europe between “rationalism” and “empiricism”. There are other targets, but these are the most striking.

It’s all very well to state such ambitious goals, to knock down rickety old ideas, and to call out one’s predecessors for errors and myopia, and Levitin does this sometimes with barely concealed glee. But what do you put up in their place? Fortunately, Levitin’s own “Copernican Revolution” aspires to more than a serial demolition job. In fact, it is an extremely careful and scholarly work of intellectual-historical reconstruction built on readings of hundreds of contemporary texts, readings that are both wide and very close. These include the works by the two titular figures (Newton and Bayle) but also important supporting cast members from Descartes and Pierre Gassendi to Bayle’s fellow protestant polemicists (and eventually bitter foes) Pierre Jurieu and Jean Le Clerc, and dozens of more obscure writers from the far northwest of Europe all the way to Jesuit missionaries in China. (One road Levitin might have pursued further is comparisons with Chinese developments of roughly the same time: he would have found support for his own argument in a work such as Benjamin Elman’s From Philosophy to Philology (1984) which chronicles a somewhat analogous set of changes in early Qing dynasty China).

One can’t say that Levitin wears his learning lightly: this book is heavy going. I don’t mean that it’s badly written. Far from it, there is a refreshing directness and clarity (even amid some extremely long and complex sentences), and the author for the most part eschews jargon. It has some wonderfully memorable turns of phrase, with perhaps my favorite coming near the end of the book when he restates his mission as halting historians’ “precious, presentist truffle hunt” for the origins of rationalism, empiricism, science and any other sign of the modern (is the implication that such academic hunters are little more than scholarly swine?). There are some occasional slips—Levitin at times can’t hide his disdain for the scholasticism his subjects were fleeing, and which he associates with certain streams of Catholicism, especially in the “backward-looking parts of the Catholic world” (162) where the alliance of metaphysics and theology continued through the eighteenth century. And Levitin’s search for sixteenth-century anticipations of his seventeenth-century ideas (a bit of prolepsis of his own) misses some prominent secondary sources. He disputes the argument made in 1963 by Hugh Trevor Roper that only in the eighteenth century did history become philosophical. He’s right, but this isn’t news as the work of authors such as George Huppert, Donald Kelley and Zachary Schiffman (none of whom is cited) have shown. But this isn’t a book about the history of historical or legal thought, so this oversight can be easily excused.

A final word: it’s not unusual to end a positive review such as this with a complaint about errata, typos, or even poor binding; with the cuts to in-house editing and the relegation of proofing to international third-party production companies, it’s all too common that very good books have had their paint scratched by hosts of copyediting and proofreading errors. That’s not the case here. This book has been meticulously edited and presented. Cambridge University Press is to be commended both for allowing its author so many column-inches and for doing a thorough job in production. As for the author, Levitin’s labors have gone a long way to dispel his own “kingdom of darkness”.


Daniel Woolf’s research has focused on two areas, early modern British intellectual and cultural history, and the global history and theory of historical writing. He is the author of five books and co-editor of several others, including the two-volume A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing (2 vols 1998). His 2003 monograph, The Social Circulation of the Past, won the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies in 2004 for the best book on British history pre-1800. His most recent books include A Concise History of History (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and History from Loss: a Global Introduction to Histories Written from Defeat, Colonization, Exile, and Imprisonment (co-edited with Marnie Hughes-Warrington; Routledge, 2023). He is a contributing editor for Marginalia Review of Books, and his articles have appeared in journals such as Past and Present, The American Historical Review, History and Theory, Renaissance Quarterly, and The Journal of the History of Ideas. He is series editor of Cambridge University Press’s Elements in Historical Theory and Practice”.

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