The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (Vintage) Paperback – 9 Aug 2005
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Support[ed] with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship. . . . Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the 18th century. San Francisco Chronicle
Exciting intellectual pugilism E Himmelfarb mounts a vigorous argument that the British [Enlightenment] was reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more egalitarian future. The New York Times Book Review
[Himmelfarb s] writing . . . has a verve and sharpness. . . . It is a pleasure to read. The New York Review of Books
Exceptionally well written and clever. The Washington Post Book World
Himmelfarb has one of the keenest intellects of our time. The Houston Chronicle"
-Support[ed] with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship. . . . Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the 18th century.- -San Francisco Chronicle
-Exciting intellectual pugilism E Himmelfarb mounts a vigorous argument that the British [Enlightenment] was reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past and present even while looking forward to a more egalitarian future.- -The New York Times Book Review
-[Himmelfarb's] writing . . . has a verve and sharpness. . . . It is a pleasure to read.- -The New York Review of Books
-Exceptionally well written and clever.--The Washington Post Book World
-Himmelfarb has one of the keenest intellects of our time.- -The Houston Chronicle
"Support[ed] with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship. . . . Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the 18th century." -San Francisco Chronicle
A keenly argued and thought-provoking history of the British, French and American Enlightenments with an introduction by Gordon Brown. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.See all Product description
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I have used the word `mainstream', which Himmelfarb does not use. She does of course recognize that there were two distinct varieties of the British Enlightenment - that associated with Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Adam Smith and which she seems to regard as `mainstream'; and that associated with Radicals like Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Tom Paine and William Godwin. These had more in common with mainstream French philosophy. In so far as evolutionary thought and practice has played a bigger role in British history than has revolution, the implication that the Shaftesbury-Smith tradition was in the British mainstream appears to be justified. Similarly, there are some Enlightenment thinkers in France - she discusses Montesquieu and Rousseau - who do not fit into the French mainstream as Himmelfarb has described it.
She challenges some ideas which, until fairly recently, were widely taught and accepted: that Adam Smith's fame rests on his work as an economist (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), whereas it had been established as a moral philosopher (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759) and that, moreover, the latter book had the same moral foundation as the former. I cannot personally agree with this argument. She does make a case for the latter also being based on moral principles (freedom, the fundamental equality of human beings, and self-interest); but I don't think they include the basic notion in the former that morality flows from innate benevolence.
Himmelfarb includes Edmund Burke among the figures of the British Enlightenment. The causes he championed in his earlier career (Ireland, the American colonies, India, the rights of John Wilkes) clearly qualify him as Enlightened; and Himmelfarb argues that his opposition to the French Revolution, which has made him appear to many, both at the time and since, as an opponent of the Enlightenment, cannot be read as such. His opposition was to the FRENCH conception of the Enlightenment (shared by the British Radicals), but it was quite consonant with the British Enlightenment ideas which descended from Shaftesbury.
The author includes even John Wesley in the mainstream of the British Enlightenment. There is a widespread view that Methodism was anti-intellectual and anti-rational, that it encouraged only the minimum of educational attainments in its schools (in order, it is argued, to make the poor more docile), and that therefore it could not be part of the Enlightenment. Himmelfarb effectively demolishes these accusations with quotations from Wesley himself and with showing what syllabuses his schools actually taught and what a broad range of educational material he published: in the best Enlightenment tradition, Wesley was as interested in the intellectual as he was in the moral edification of the people. And, being in the British mainstream, he was not hostile to the Establishment (although the Establishment was scornful of him), and the wide scope of Methodist philanthropic, humanitarian and charitable enterprises joined those of many other 18th century groups which put the notion of benevolence into practice. Most of the French philosophes, on the other hand, were suspicious of charitable works - in part because they were mostly run by the hated Church, but also because they thought that they would encourage indolence among the poor!
120 pages of praise for the British Enlightenment are followed by just under 40 pages of criticisms of the French Enlightenment before we get 35 pages on the American Enlightenment. The political institutions of America, with the pride it took in the very practical achievements of republican liberty, was of course more `enlightened' than the institutions of Britain and would be an inspiration for the early phases of French republicanism. Even more so than in the British Enlightenment, there was in the American one no antagonism towards religion. Indeed, it was thought the source of morality; and, although church and state were separated, church and society were not. Unlike in the British Enlightenment, philanthropy played a much smaller part in the American one, partly because at the time there was little poverty among white Americans. The great blot on the American Enlightenment was of course the treatment of the Indians and of the slaves. The Founders, well aware that it violated the notion that all men were created equal, had a bad conscience about it and hoped that both problems would eventually disappear.
The Epilogue is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the book. It claims that the American Enlightenment is alive and well today, while that cannot be said of either the British or the French Enlightenment. The arguments here seem to me to be very weak, and an otherwise splendid book would have been better without this Epilogue.
In every case there were exceptions, e.g. Locke and Newton had more in common with the revolutionary French whilst Montesquieu was closer to the evolutionary British. Roads to Modernity's history of the Western political tradition explains the enduring chasm between the Right and Left. From the start they embraced different philosophical assumptions and disparate notions of the human condition. It's plain to see why one yielded stability and growth while the other spawned genocidal secular salvationist movements or at best, stagnation.
The British "moral philosophers" differed from the French "philosophes'. What made them moral philosophers was their belief in a moral sense of empathy/compassion thought to be so deeply entrenched in the human soul as to have the same compelling power as innate ideas. The author views Lord Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit as the spark of the British Enlightenment. Shaftesbury credited humanity with this innate moral sense. Adam Smith's laissez-faire economics and belief in natural equality expressed in On the Wealth of Nations mirrors Shaftesbury's concept of social affection. Smith believed that sympathy and benevolence were virtues inherent to the human condition.
Although formidable figures, Locke, Hobbes and Newton had little lasting influence on the issues that defined the British Enlightenment. According to Locke things could be judged good or evil only by reference to pleasure or pain, which themselves resulted from sensation. Shaftesbury disagreed - virtue did not derive from reason, religion, sensation or self-interest. These were methods for promoting or suppressing it but the moral sense was the real source of virtue. This moral conscience is the guide to distinguishing right from wrong. Shaftesbury did not shy away from discussing the baleful passions that torment mankind. He even warned of excessive virtue, since an immoderate degree of e.g. altruism could destroy the "effect of love," whilst excessive pity rendered a man incapable of remedial action.
For Shaftesbury, the sense of compassion was rooted in nature and instinct, preceding instruction and reason that serve to determine the best way of promoting the good. Thus the innate impulse to the good was the basis of the social ethic that informed British philosophical and moral discourse throughout the eighteenth century. Subsequent philosophers that followed Shaftesbury agreed on the moral conscience as universal attribute and viewed it as a corollary of reason and interest, but independent of and existing before them.
Burke unfairly gained a Counter-Enlightenment reputation owing to his revulsion in the atrocities of the French Revolution but he was a supporter of American independence who urged the government to respect the rights and freedoms of both Americans and Englishmen during the war of independence. Himmelfarb shows that his views never deviated from the notions about moral virtue that characterized the mainstream British Enlightenment.
John Wesley believed in improving social conditions in this life. He argued that to renounce reason was to renounce religion, that religion & reason go hand in hand, and that irrational religion is harmful. A combination of the two were needed to improve society. The Methodists produced a vast corpus of educational material on medicine, literature, grammar, science, natural history and more. Himmelfarb shows that the endeavor succeeded in uplifting the common people. Christians distributed food, clothes and money to the poor, visited the sick and imprisoned, ameliorated the plight of the unemployed and contributed to the abolition of slavery.
The French Enlightenment deified reason so the French Revolution turned against religion. Most of the leaders of the French thinkers were militant atheists and materialists. Their worship of rationality betrays a snobbish elitism and contempt for common people that contributed to the excesses of the revolution and later led to the dictatorship of Napoleon. Philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire despised the ordinary people for their faith and ignorance but there were noble exceptions like Montesquieu.
The Enlightenment in the American colonies was inspired by the moral and social philosophy of Smith, Hume and Burke with its humane and realistic social ethic. Himmelfarb claims that America has inherited and guarded aspects of the British Enlightenment that the British themselves have discarded and that continental Europe never adopted. This blend of virtue and freedom produced a strange paradox: the USA is the most capitalistic and simultaneously the most moralistic of nations. American liberty owes much to a virtue that was put into practice by British Methodists and Evangelicals whose traditions were adopted by Americans.
The American Enlightenment regarded spirituality as positive, as the source of morality. Although church and state were separated, church and society were intertwined; the author claims the role of religion guaranteed to the success and endurance of American institutions. The Founding Fathers recognized the ability of religion to unite society even though two of them - Franklin and Jefferson - were Deists.
In conclusion, Himmelfarb claims that the American Enlightenment is thriving today whilst the British and French versions have petered out. There is some truth in this as in the late 20th century France became the breeding ground of irrational pseudo-philosophies like postmodernism and deconstruction but these have spread to, and to a large extent taken over, the humanities on American campuses.
Yet France also preserved the evolutionary strain in the person of moral intellectuals like Jean-François Revel, Alain Besançon, Andre Glucksmann and Chantal Delsol. Having pondered Himmelfarb's informative analysis, it might perhaps make sense to divide the Enlightenment into Anglo-Saxon and Continental traditions which represent the evolutionary versus the revolutionary strains. The text is served by copious notes and this informative book concludes with an index.
"The respected historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is the latest critic to take up this challenge. But she gives the question a plural form, asking "What are Enlightenments?" Surveying the experiences of England, France and America, she follows three different "roads to modernity.""
"..This claim should be contrasted with the anticlerical, even antireligious, tone of the more radical voices of the French Enlightenment. Abstract and undisciplined, leading French philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire, Ms. Himmelfarb argues, displayed a hatred of Christianity and a contempt for the common man, longing secretly for a despotism of reason that would bring their enlightened fantasies into being. In the awful upheavals of the French Revolution, she catches a glimpse of just how terrible such fantasies could be."
Super review article. And the book is great!
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