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The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments (Vintage) Paperback – 1 Sep 2005

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (1 Sept. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400077222
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400077229
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,700,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"Supported with great passion and wide-ranging scholarship... Himmelfarb has written a keenly argued and thought-provoking intellectual history of the eighteenth century" (San Francisco Chronicle)

"Exceptionally well written and clever" (Washington Post)

"She writes with a real grace and her effortless prose brings the history of ideas to life" (Sunday Times)

"This stimulating essay makes a convincing case for the unique character and significance of the British Enlightenment" (Guardian)

"An intelligent history... the prose is elegant and the arguments engaging and she weaves her way gracefully and effortlessly across centuries, disciplines and nations" (Observer) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Book Description

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.

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By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER on 16 Jun. 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This superb, lucid and perhaps somewhat partisan book is primarily concerned with the British Enlightenment and with the differences between it and the Enlightenment in France and in America. The author points out that the mainstream of the British Enlightenment did not give absolute priority to Reason, which can easily lead people astray, but to innate moral sentiments and feelings of compassion and benevolence, which Reason and self-interest may support but can also pervert. Where the mainstream French Enlightenment aimed to regenerate mankind, the British wanted to improve it. Where the French were revolutionary, the British were evolutionary. Where the French were militantly anti-clerical, the British, even if they were Theists or Deists, had no intention to attack the Church as such - indeed men like Thomas Woolston, Conyers Middleton and Matthew Tindal were actually in Holy Orders. And the French philosophes generally had little sentiment to spare for the despised canaille, to whom they allowed `neither a moral sense nor a common sense that might approximate reason'. Education, important as it was in the writings of Helvétius and Holbach, would simply be wasted on them. They wanted enlightened reform, of course; but for the most part they pinned their hopes for this on the very unBritish notion of Enlightened Despotism, unreliable as their experience of actual Enlightened Despots turned out to be.

I have used the word `mainstream', which Himmelfarb does not use.
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Format: Hardcover
There is an excellent review of this book by Darrin McMahon (who wrote 'Enemies of the Enlightenment') on the Opinion journal website...
[...]
"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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By Peter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 6 Feb. 2010
Format: Paperback
In this well-argued work Himmelfarb compares the British (Scottish-English), French and American Enlightenments. The bulk of the book deals with the British Enlightenment with reference to amongst others, Adam Smith, Godwin, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Newton and Lord Shaftesbury plus, unusually, John Wesley and Edmund Burke. She assigns a significant role to the social movement of Methodism. Thomas Paine and the Founding Fathers represent the American, whilst Diderot and Voltaire are considered the main characters in the French Enlightenment.

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.
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Format: Paperback
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Keith Livesey

It would seem that the introduction by the current British prime minister would tend to make this book more a political treatise than a history book. Brown states it is important "to reclaim the enlightenment from those who deny or disparage it as an intellectual movement". While agreeing with this I have a feeling that Brown is defending the enlightenment from a nationalistic standpoint. While defending the enlightenment it seems to the detriment of European thinkers.

If there was nothing more than "bringing the British enlightenment onto the stage of history" it would be alright but when Brown counterpoises" French reason" to that of British "social virtues then this is straight out of New Labours right wing mantra. He seeks to downplay the revolutionary impact of the main players of the British enlightenment. Brown opposes the concept that they wanted "revolutionary change "The British enlightenment in contrast did not seek the overthrow of anything

From David North "The greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, however, were, in the general direction of their thought and uncompromising honesty, revolutionists. Ruthless in their criticism of the world as it was, they sought to reveal the means by which the inalienable rights of man could be secured and the moral level of society elevated".
"There has been endless debate on the ideological influences that shaped the political and philosophical outlooks of those who led the revolutionary movement for independence. Generally, those who have sought to downplay the radical character of the independence movement have placed the main emphasis on the English influence, interpreting the Declaration of Independence as essentially a restatement of Locke's theory of natural rights".
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